Tori Parks heads back to Boston Marathon to honor father

In less than a month, Tori Parks was present for an American tragedy and lost her father.

Parks, 56 and of Redding, Calif., was running her first Boston Marathon a year ago when explosions set off near the finish line, killing three. She was a quarter mile away, feeling blissful on the homestretch, when all hell broke loose nearby.

She wasn’t close enough to hear it, but soon she came upon a human wall of runners blocking her way. Her first thought was somebody collapsed or had a heart attack — reaffirmed when she heard the first siren.

But then reality hit.

“They announced something terrible has happened at the finish line,” Parks said. “We cannot let you go on. Your race is over.”

Parks and her fellow runners sat for hours on people’s lawns, and she spoke with competitors from Chile and Venezuela. Eventually, they were able to reclaim their bags, and Parks walked 4 miles back to where she was staying in Cambridge.

“I heard sirens in my brain for a long time,” she said.

Parks returned home, heartbroken for what had happened. Still, she made one person happy.

Every runner, whether or not they were able to finish, were awarded medals if they were able to pick it up the next day. And that made Parks’ father, Bob Ohlson, ecstatic.

“He was very, very excited about my trip. He was very, very emotional about what happened,” she said. “He was so proud of (the medal) that he scooted out in his wheelchair and showed everybody.”

“About four or five days later, he started declining and went on hospice and died. He said to me, ‘You need to go back and finish if you can.’”

So Parks has been training any way she can: running, biking and swimming leading up to Monday’s Boston Marathon. Every runner last year was re-approved to run without having to qualify.

She’s painted 26.2 on her toenails — referring to the mileage of a marathon — and is ready to go.

But running hasn’t always pervaded her life.

Parks was a tennis player growing up in the Bay Area, and into her late 30s.

“I decided one day that I was sick and tired of having to find a partner to play tennis, and I had played tennis since I was 10,” Parks said. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to start running.’”

At 51, Parks ran her first marathon.

“I had always had a pipe dream about running just a marathon, so I ran my first marathon, and always heard this chit-chat about qualifying for Boston,” she said. By the second time Parks ran a marathon, she qualified.

Last year’s experience is still vivid, Parks said, and her heart went out to several people at the Boston Marathon, as a fellow runner, race director and medical professional.

“It’s a mixed bag of emotions. It’s something that I’ll watch a TV show on it, and I’ll cry, especially because it was the first Boston for me,” she said. “And it’s a very special event, but I can’t wait to go back and finish.”

Above all else, she wants to honor Ohlson, who died at 94 last May.

“My medal is at the Veterans Cemetery with my dad,” she said. “I’m going to run this one for a lot of reasons, but one of them is in memory of my dad, who was just so proud of me he burst at the seams.”

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