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Over the long run, her spirit has triumphed

Toughness aided marathoner after accident

Deborah Atwood knows there is more than one kind of marathon.

There is the easy kind, the road races she used to run in just over three hours. And there is the harder one -- the race that began 21 years ago, when she was hit by a car and nearly killed while on a training run for the Boston Marathon.

The accident left her in a coma for three weeks and hospitalized for nearly seven months. Irreparable damage to her sciatic nerve means she will need crutches for the rest of her life. But her spirit continues to sprint forward, even though her body cannot.

"I love it when people tell me that they still see me as a runner. I think it's something in the attitude -- being upbeat and determined. Runners are people who think that way," said Atwood, a lifelong Newton resident. "Sometimes I slip up and tell people that I went out for a run, when I just went out for a walk."

It was unseasonably warm on Dec. 2, 1982, when Atwood headed out for an afternoon training run along the Charles River for what would be her fourth Boston Marathon. At the time, she was a 31-year-old Harvard Medical School residence manager who ran dozens of miles a week, and taught the Jane Fonda workout.

Atwood was crossing an intersection along Commonwealth Avenue, at the BU Bridge, when a driver ran a red light and slammed into her head-on. She was knocked unconscious and suffered severe head injuries and 16 fractured bones.

Atwood believes two things saved her life -- the quick thinking of witnesses who flagged down a passing ambulance and the physical and mental stamina she credits to her training as a serious runner.

The months of recovery were arduous, and she did not return home until the following June. Supported by her husband and parents, she slowly began to piece her life back together.

For the first several years after the accident, Marathon Monday meant tears, Atwood recalled. Watching the fleet of marathoners pass just a few blocks away from her Newton home was just too painful.

With time, Atwood said, came healing. She gave birth to two sons -- now 16 and 18 -- and helped launch "Think First, Think Safe," a head-injury prevention educational campaign aimed at teenagers.

Tomorrow will probably find Atwood at Heartbreak Hill, alongside her dog, Peanut, cheering on the runners.

"The Boston Marathon and being part of it is one of the spectacular memories of my life," she said. "Today it is a happy time."

Erica Noonan can be reached at

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