Maine runners determined to return as Boston Marathon enters a new age of celebration, security

Posted April 10, 2014, at 4:34 p.m.
Last modified April 10, 2014, at 5:09 p.m.

For its first 116 years the Boston Marathon epitomized a celebration of the running spirit.

Average runners with the goal of self-fulfillment over a mind- and body-challenging 26.2-mile course could share the starting line in Hopkinton, Mass., each Patriots’ Day with Olympic-caliber competitors and conclude their runs with a similar sense of personal satisfaction, no matter the finishing time.

But the marathon’s pristine aura was shattered just before 3 p.m. last April 15 when two bombs were detonated near the finish line along Boylston Street in Boston, killing three people and wounding more than 260.

Suddenly the Boston Marathon was stripped of its innocence.

“When the first one went off, it was a horrific sound,” said Rick Lyons, a superintendent of schools from Hampden who finished the race approximately 40 minutes before the bombs exploded. “Then the second one went off, and you could see people were panic-stricken. You could see their eyes filled with terror.”

Nearly a year later, those memories linger, whether from personal experience as a runner, friend, family member or spectator at the marathon or from tracking the event via television or social media.

“It’s a very emotional thing,” said Adam Goode, a state representative from Bangor who will run the Boston Marathon for the third time when the 118th edition is held Monday, April 21. “Running is a pretty sacred thing for myself and other people who devote a lot of time and energy to it. It’s always been clearing and centering for me.

“To have that kind of event disturbed that way makes you want to be involved with that community even more.”

Goode’s sentiment is a reaction common within running circles. Instead of backing away from this year’s race in fear of the past, many participants, from race organizers and runners who experienced the bombings through sight and sound to others who simply want to support their sporting brethren, are determined to take back the Boston Marathon.

“I never forgot the feeling of the concussion from the explosions, the heavy booms, and absolutely knowing that they were destructive,” said veteran runner Gary Allen of Great Cranberry Island, who competed in Boston a year ago and will be running that marathon for the 22nd time this year.

“But no sooner had I left then there was no question I’d be coming back this year. They’re not going to stop us.”

This year’s race is poised to be larger than ever — much larger.

The field of runners has been expanded by 33 percent, from 27,000 runners to 36,000, in part to accommodate more than 5,600 runners who were invited back after not being allowed to complete last year’s race when it was shut down due to the bombings. More than 5,000 of those runners who didn’t finish a year ago are signed up for this year’s race, race officials have said.

“The day after it happened there was a big pushback from the running community saying that they weren’t going to let this ruin their race,” said Robert Gomez of Saco, the fastest Mainer in last year’s race and 32nd overall with a time of 2 hours, 22 minutes and 53 seconds. “I don’t know anyone who decided not to race because of what happened last year.”

Lori Bartlett, a Bar Harbor police and fire dispatcher, is one of those runners invited back.

She was running in the historic race for the first time last year in conjunction with the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge, which raises funds for cancer research. Bartlett was struggling with a hamstring injury as she closed in on the finish until she was stopped at Mile 24 — where police had put up yellow tape identifying the remainder of the route not as a final stage of the endurance test to be conquered, but as a crime scene.

Bartlett’s husband, Matt, and daughter Anna were waiting for her in a grandstand near the finish line and were only about 150 feet away from the first explosion. Neither was injured, but the extreme stress of the day was considered heavily before the family decided to return to Boston this year, with Bartlett again running to raise funds for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“In the beginning I had a lot of reticence about going back,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘Look at what I’ve done, I put my family at risk for something selfish.’

“But the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘We can’t let them take away something that makes people happy like this because of something like that.’ People just want to show how much this city and this race means to them — and they want to show it by running.”

Race organizers plan to make that possible for runners and the 1 million spectators expected to be on hand — a number double that of 2013 — through a series of measures designed to heighten security.

According to the Boston Athletic Association website, some 3,500 security personnel — also more than double the number from 2013 — will be on security detail for this year’s race, a number the BAA describes as “a significant presence of uniformed and plain-clothed police officers.”

“You have to look at last year as hopefully an aberration,” said Lyons, who will be running Boston for the 17th consecutive year as one of 275 Mainers registered for the race. “But they’ve gone to great lengths to make it as safe as possible.”

Another significant change will limit the use of backpacks like those that contained the bombs that detonated near the finish line.

All Boston Marathon runners recently received an email notifying them of the BAA’s new “no bags” policy. Under the policy, bags will not be allowed on buses from Boston to Hopkinton, and bags will not be transported from Hopkinton back to Boston.

Runners must now carry their belongings in clear plastic bags that they will check in at Boston Common in advance and subsequently will be made available to them again after they complete the race.

Official participants will be allowed to wear a fanny pack no larger than 5 inches by 15 inches by 5 inches to carry food, nutritional products, medicine, identification, cellphone, home/hotel key or other similar and necessary small items, with each runner limited to one fanny pack.

That emphasis on safety is at the crux of a changed mind-set that that will accompany runners from around the world to Boston come April 21, that celebration must share priority with security.

But runners are determined that their shared passion for running — and of running in Boston — should remain the prominent sentiment of the day.

“The guys that did this have changed the rules a bit, but they haven’t changed the game,” Allen said. “I do think it will be very different. I think there will be a lot more spectators, a lot more runners in a show of solidarity and support, a lot more patriotism, a lot more pomp and circumstance at the start, just a lot more energy.”

But, he added, the victims of last year’s attack also will remain vivid in the runners’ thoughts.

“The emotion of the race will be palpable in your heart,” Allen said. “Running up Heartbreak Hill will have a whole new meaning this year.”