God’s purposes are never limited by the expectations of others.
Every April in Massachusetts, the third Monday is marked off as a special day on the calendar. Schools are closed, and many businesses as well, in celebration of Patriots’ Day—a New England tradition commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord, where “the shot heard round the world” was fired.
Last year on Patriots’ Day, there was another shot heard round the world. Footage of an explosion at the Boston Marathon overtook television and computer screens after Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated two pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line. They killed three people and injured more than 250 others.
As I watched the developing story on TV, my phone buzzed. It was a text from my then-fiancée Laurin: “Are you watching this? Juli’s there . . . somewhere.” Juli Windsor is a friend of ours, but she’s no ordinary marathon runner. She stands just three feet nine inches tall and was poised to become the first little person in history to complete the Boston Marathon. But now, with the dust and debris reaching to the sky and the race shut down to make room for ambulances and police cruisers, Juli would not be able to finish. Not that it mattered now—we just wanted to hear our friend was out of harm’s way. The minutes seemed like hours as we waited for a word, but finally, at just past four in the afternoon, we received a message from her sister-in-law: Juli is safe.
While the world was watching the scene unfold in smoke and tragedy at the finish line, Juli was at the 25.7-mile mark, her legs and back pulsating with pain from the stress of the race on her small frame. When she had just half a mile to go, all runners were stopped and told the race had been canceled— with no further explanation. “Everyone around me started asking ‘Why?’” Juli recalls. “I remember seeing helicopters overhead, and that’s when I knew something serious had happened.”
A Dream Interrupted
Juli began running in the eighth grade, joining the track team to be with friends and not at all because she loved the sport. “I never expected to win,” Juli says. “I always expected to come in last just because I’m small.” Running is particularly difficult on people with dwarfism, since the condition often comes with spinal problems. Dwarfs are especially susceptible to tremendous joint pain after long-distance running.
“I remember the first time I beat someone. My competitive side kicked in, and I was hooked.” Soon after, long-distance running became Juli’s discipline of choice. “I found that with short distances, I couldn’t keep up with the speed, but with longer races, I could combine speed with endurance and compete.”
While she was growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, the race in New England seemed far away, but Juli has wanted to run the Boston since she first discovered her love for running. “Once you enter the runner’s world, you start caring about the Boston Marathon. It’s a dream and a goal for every runner.”
A couple of years ago, Juli found a list of life goals she’d written during her sophomore year of high school. At the top of the list was “Run the Boston Marathon.” On April 15, 2013, she set out to make her dream a reality, but a ferocious act of terrorism prevented her from crossing the finish line and crossing that goal off her list.
The Perfect Spot
Shortly after Juli and thousands of other runners were stopped, they were evacuated from the marathon route and sent to the Boston Commons—about a mile away—without water to rehydrate or answers to their questions. People offered their mobile phones to runners, but the cellular networks were overloaded. Juli couldn’t reach her husband Blake or anyone else. And when she finally heard the news that there were explosions at the finish line, Juli’s first thoughts were of Blake, who was waiting there with her mother and her mother-in-law.
A few weeks prior to race day, Juli got an overwhelming feeling that something could go terribly wrong at the marathon. She couldn’t shake the thought and began to wonder if perhaps God was speaking to her. “I didn’t want to tell anyone because I didn’t want to freak them out,” Juli says. “The morning of the marathon, I still had this feeling. I thought, If this is the time God has chosen to take me home, that’s okay—I’m ready.” With news of the bombing, she realized her dread had come to life. As she made another unsuccessful attempt to reach her husband, she feared the worst—not for herself, but for Blake.
That morning, amid her preparations for the marathon, Juli talked with Blake on the phone. He had found the perfect spot to watch his bride finish the biggest race of her life—to the left of the finish line. But Juli always runs on the right side of the road, so after some protest, Blake agreed to cross the street. Thankfully, he did. His original location was precisely where the bombs exploded later that day and where two people lost their lives.
Eventually, Juli was able to get in touch with Blake. He was safe, but in the commotion following the bombing, Juli’s mother was pushed to the ground. She was taken to a nearby hospital after suffering a broken shoulder and a black eye. But they were thankful; it could have been far worse.
Discovering God’s Purposes
“The emotions came in waves. There was confusion in the beginning, then panic, and then sorrow and grief for all the people affected,” Juli remembers. “It wasn’t until later that I was able to deal with my personal frustration. I worked so hard to get to that point—16 weeks of training in the snow.” Preparing for a marathon is difficult at any size, but for Juli it’s an amazing feat. She takes one and a half strides for every one taken by a person of average height. Over the course of four months’ training for a 26.2 mile-long racecourse, that’s a lot of extra steps.
But Juli is no stranger to extra steps. She’s taken many over the course of her life. “When I was about five or six years old, I really struggled with being different.” As she tells me this, her voice softens and her words seem more deliberate. “I remember being angry and upset that God made me different.” It’s hard to imagine Juli this way; her smile is the first thing people notice when they meet her. “I remember my sister telling me, ‘If you’re so angry, why don’t you just talk to God about it?’” So Juli did just that.
“My first prayers were not pretty ones, but God answered them,” Juli says. “I felt an overwhelming sense of peace, and I sensed Him speaking to my heart: I love you, and I have a purpose for this.” With these words, the inhibition leaves her voice, and she continues: “God spoke into my life at a very early age. I felt loved, and I knew He had a purpose for my condition. He has a purpose for the way He’s created each of us.”
Juli’s purpose extends far beyond race day. Though she was told her size would render her incapable of working with some patients, Juli proved her critics wrong. She now works as a physician assistant at East Boston Neighborhood Health Center, where she treats boys and girls and leverages her story to tap into their lives. When it comes to young children, Juli has an advantage. “Kids warm up to me easily. I’m not intimidating, so they tell me things they normally wouldn’t tell other people. I wonder if it’s the assumption I’ve had my own challenges and struggles—so they feel more comfortable.” And with older patients, she has an advantage of a different kind: “A lot of adolescents are dealing with issues of self-esteem. They struggle with depression and eating disorders. When they see me being confident in who I am, it helps them to be confident in themselves.”
Juli Windsor does not give up easily. This past winter, she took up training once again, facing the cruel elements of an especially cold season, often racing around snowdrifts that rose above her head—all in preparation for the Boston Marathon. The race was run on April 21, 2014. As it began, the air was somber with the remembrance of those who lost their lives and those who lost limbs. But this year’s marathon was also a celebration of life continuing on—of goodness triumphing over evil. And Juli became the first little person in history to complete the Boston Marathon, finishing with a time of four hours, 43 minutes, and 26 seconds, her accomplishment a testament to God’s goodness.
“When people tell you that you can’t do things, you start to believe them,” Juli admits. “But Christ speaks back into our lives and tells us we can, because He is with us.”
by John Greco
Photography by Webb Chappell