Of all the targets the bombers could have picked, the Boston Marathon, in many ways, was a curious choice. For 116 years, this event had tested willpower, and for 116 years, runners proved tougher than even the most daunting section of the 26.2 miles, Heartbreak Hill.
They proved they were tougher because they finished.
Then came last year’s race, when two bombs killed three and injured more than 260. Officially, 17,580 runners crossed the finish line before panic and horror seized the day, forcing another 5,633 off the course prematurely.
On Monday, marathoners plan to get final say. Delray Beach lawyer Stacey Mullins Garbowit will be on the starting line for the Boston Marathon, intending to do what President Barack Obama promised runners would do when it came their turn to make a statement: finish the race. The desire to do that is such that organizers raised the field limit to 36,000 — or 13,000 more than last year — although nobody knows how many more unregistered runners will show up for what almost certainly is the most in-demand running event in history.
There’s Boston Strong and then there’s Boston Marathon Strong.
For Mullins Garbowit, this year’s Boston Marathon represents a chance to finally soak up what she calls “the Boston Marathon experience.” She thought she was doing that last year while a volunteer was placing a finisher’s medal around her neck, but then …
“You crossed that final [timing] mat and you just sort of want to take it all in and experience it and enjoy it,” said Mullins Garbowit, 47. “And all of a sudden that became so irrelevant when the bombs went off. What we had just accomplished, and what we had spent months and months preparing for, was just irrelevant.
“So it was a very odd mental experience, where you felt like, ‘I can’t celebrate. I can’t enjoy the moment, because that would just be wrong.’ So my friends and I all made the decision that we would be back again.”
West Palm Beach’s Kacie Herrick is back. There were times she wasn’t sure she wanted to return. Then she realized she had to.
“We all just have this closeness, this general resilience and ability to adapt and come back when things are just awful,” Herrick, 29, said of marathoners. “I believe that’s the heart of the marathon. Because every runner, no matter how good you are, is going to have that point in the marathon where you feel completely defeated and you have to figure out what you’re going to use to get over that.”
The moment last year’s race was halted, the opportunity to stare down the 26.2-mile challenge disappeared. How were marathoners supposed to act?
“By going back and doing this race,” Herrick said. “Even though it’s going to be difficult for everybody in their own way.”
‘Complete the task’
The journey will conjure up memories for Boca Raton’s RJ Simms and wife, Susie. He estimates they were 11 car lengths from the finish when the first bomb exploded and they were forced to stop running in a mass of confusion. He’s thankful they ran together, sparing them from what he calls “husband hell, wife hell, hoping each was fine.” He’s buoyed that everyone in his group, including Mullins Garbowit, is back.
“This has made us determined to do it again, to complete the task,” said Simms, 63.
Dave McGillivray, a former part-time Jupiter resident and original race director of the Palm Beaches Marathon, is the Boston Marathon race director. His longtime assistant is Greenacres’ Ron Kramer, 74, who the day after last year’s race had the somber task of passing out medals to tearful runners who weren’t allowed to finish.
Kramer says he now is trying to prevent emotions from interfering with his role as lead vehicle coordinator.
“It’s hard,” he said. “In some regard, it compares to [the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks] — in a small way, obviously, because there were thousands killed on9/11. It’s really the second time that domestically the country has faced terrorism. I think that hits home to not only Americans, but to good people around the world. And in this case, the good people are fellow runners. They want to show strength, that we’re not going to allow terrorism on any level, whether it be as sophisticated as on 9/11 or here with those two brothers.”
One of the Chechen-born brothers accused of the bombings was Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26. He died days after the marathon in a police shootout. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, now 20, is scheduled to stand trial in November in federal court, where prosecutors will seek to put him on death row.
Memories of that 117th Boston Marathon remain stark. Panic in the finish area, where bombs detonated 12 seconds apart. Speculation that more bombs were planted. No cellphone reception. FBI agents stopping those who ran the race as they left town at Logan International Airport, asking to see photos they snapped on their phones in hopes of finding clues.
Herrick’s memories revolve around timing. She finished about 40 minutes before the first explosion, only to hear, “Your knee is disgusting” from a friend working the finish line as a volunteer. Her friend put her in a wheelchair and took her to the closest medical tent, but it was out of ice, so they went a few blocks to another medical area — avoiding the onrush about to take place.
Having seen their daughter finish, Herrick’s parents left their spectating position, which they know from examining photos was precisely where the first bomb went off. Herrick’s finishing time, 3 hours 33 minutes 22 seconds, enabled her to qualify for this year’s marathon by one second. She waited until the last second to enter Monday’s race, deciding “it would be selfish not to run” because that would mean not supporting those directly affected.
“Ultimately, there’s a huge part of me that just decided that anything could happen at any minute,” said Herrick, who works for an insurance agency. “I learned you just have to live life. And if I’m not living life with passion and doing what I love, then it’s just not worth it.
“… So the idea of not being part of, in my mind, the biggest running event that you could think of, just because I choose not to — I just think I’d be crazy. Just downright crazy.”
If anything, Kramer is conservative when he says that 60,000 would run if the event’s infrastructure allowed organizers to open the starting line to all interested runners. “It could be unprecedented,” he said of the demand.
Skipping Boston wasn’t much of an option to West Palm Beach real estate lawyer Gary Walk, 62, back for the 10th consecutive year. As he approached his hotel after finishing last year, he heard sirens and wondered what the fuss was about.
“It was such an upbeat, positive day,” he said.
“Boston Strong is the response,” he said.
The Boston history of Mullins Garbowit goes back only two years. The 2012 event came on a steamy day, so she returned last year “to experience Boston the way you should experience Boston.”
“And the day was just perfect,” she said. “Everything was perfect. … I ran 26.2 miles with just a smile on my face and I knew that it just couldn’t get any better than that — and that everything, as I said — was perfect.
“Until it wasn’t perfect.”
Rob Anderson, 44, son of West Palm Beach marathon trainer Bob Anderson, is making his eighth appearance as a lead bicyclist, guiding the fastest runners. He was at the finish line when the bombs exploded and described what ensued as “a war scene.” Rob is especially looking forward to seeing his friend, McGillivray, revive his tradition of running the entire route after the bulk of the pack has finished and his official duties wind down.
“I’ve been there at 7, 8, 9 at night waiting for him to finish,” Anderson said. “Sometimes I’m one of 10 people, sometimes 20. Last year, it didn’t happen. That for me is ceremonial. It’s a little party at the end, and to me, it’s unfinished business.”
On Monday, McGillivray and 36,000-plus have a chance to finish business. Some will finish in a few hours, some in a few hours plus a full year. Roughly three-fourths of those pulled off the course in 2013 accepted automatic entry into this year’s race. For them — for many — tears are guaranteed.
“Every Boston is special. It really is,” Walk said. “But this one is going to be extra special.”