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Marathoners returning to Boston to honor bombing victims

Thousands will run Monday in Boston, refusing to be intimidated by terrorists and their bombs. Here are five of their stories.

Meghan Bruce (right) and her aunt, Diane Tilley, from the 2012 Boston Marathon.
Meghan Bruce (right) and her aunt, Diane Tilley, from the 2012 Boston Marathon.Read more

IT MADE FOR A strange tableau. Andrew Keller was sitting by a window in a packed hotel restaurant in downtown Boston with his parents over a year ago, still drained from running in his first Boston Marathon. Amid raised beer mugs, patrons gulping wings and people showing off their marathon medals, a woman passed by screaming into her phone, "Are you OK? Are you OK?" Seconds later, it seemed, the text messages and IMs began flooding his cellphone.

No one could fully fathom what was going on, the chaos unfolding just a block-and-a-half from where they were. All anyone saw were the two smoky plumes repeatedly shown on the wide-screen TVs throughout the place. Nothing was heard over the stirring din, when the enormity of what happened pierced the mood: The hotel intercom blurted out an ominous order that everyone should remain in the hotel.

That's when Keller's disbelief became reality. That terrorism could strike an event such as the Boston Marathon.

All day, everywhere they looked, someone had been reaching out and giving. A soothing ice pop. A piece of fruit. An encouraging high-five to rouse them forward.

That goodwill seemed as shattered as the shards of glass from the Boston bombings.

Keller and hundreds of other runners from the Delaware Valley are proof that it wasn't. It's why they're returning to run in the 118th Boston Marathon on Monday.

It's why thousands will descend on Main Street, in Hopkinton, Mass., and why thousands more will line the 26.2-mile course, some looking for closure, some plagued by survivor guilt. They will be there to demonstrate that their lives - and the race itself - won't be stopped by an act of terrorism that resulted in the deaths of three innocent people, and maimed and injured an estimated 264 more.

"It's been a whole year, and I know how I felt back then," said Keller, 25, an Episcopal Academy graduate who lives in Wayne. "For me, the most important thing is to be a part of this race. It's basically the first opportunity for closure. I want to be a part of that experience. But I'll be honest, the thought is in the back of your mind something could happen again.

"My philosophy is to enjoy this, if you can enjoy a marathon. Running in the Boston Marathon is unlike running in any other event I ever competed in, because you have different people, with different abilities. You want to be a part of that, and it's something I want to experience again. No terrorist is going to tell me I can't run."

It's the same for Jim Farrell, Bill Ling, Diane Tilley and Meghan Bruce. All made sure to circle the third Monday in April 2014 for a return trip to Boston.

It's like stepping into the running bubble of the world. Everyone is like you, and it doesn't matter whether you're world-class or a novice. All feel the same pain, the same stinging chest burn. They're running separately, yet they're running as one.

It's that communal bond that the Boston bombings couldn't break. And it's what is bringing them together again.

Stick it to 'em

This will be the fourth Boston Marathon for Farrell, associate athletic director and longtime geometry teacher at Episcopal. He will return to Hopkinton, which is like a great staging area littered with tents for the thousands who run.

The morning of last year's marathon was a brisk 42 degrees, runner's weather, with the sun creasing a high, blue sky.

It's there that a short, stocky 20-something with a crew cut, someone who seemed oddly out of place, caught Farrell's attention. He didn't have any sweats, as the other runners did, jogging to stay warm before a marathon official directed him to heat up in a tent.

In the wake of the bombing a week later, Farrell was watching a TV report about all of the heroic acts that occurred. He saw the crew-cut guy again. He had used his shirt as a tourniquet in attending to one of the bombing victims. He ran with someone else's number and said, "I hope that Boston doesn't hold it against me." He wasn't even supposed to run.

"I saw that and right then, I decided I was going back and running again, and there was nothing that was going to stop me," said Farrell, who drove back home that night to be on time for a track meet at Episcopal the next day. "The thought of going back there stirs those emotions from last year.

"There's a certain amount of guilt you feel for those people who were injured or killed. People are there supporting you the whole way, and they don't even have family or friends in the race. It's why there are so many more people that are going back this year. It's a way to stick it to those people who want to take our freedoms away."

'Survivor's guilt'

Ling is an avid runner. To the 26-year-old Drexel graduate from Clementon, N.J., it's a lifestyle. He works for the Bryn Mawr Running Co. and was in a Quincy, Mass., hotel when he heard the news last year.

Ling was running for a time last year (2 hours, 59 minutes). Not so this year.

"We had about 20 people up there, from runners to reps, and made sure we got in touch with everyone," Ling said. "You feel for the victims, and there were no doubts that I was going back this year. In the running community in general, it's a huge privilege to run in the Boston Marathon. I like the fact the BAA [Boston Athletic Association, which oversees the Boston Marathon] made sure that those that didn't finish last year got a chance to come back this year to finish. I was lucky to be in that circle that was able to finish.

"But it was a scary time - and I don't want to go back and think about that. It is almost like survivor's guilt, and you want to move on from it. I want to have more fun this year. Marathon running is as much mental as it is physical. People have told me it is in the back of their minds that something else could happen this year. You still have that terrorist fear in you, but if you're afraid to do things, they won. I'm going to treat this like any other day and enjoy myself."

'A lot of panic'

Tilley and Bruce, her niece, experienced a harrowing 90 minutes last year. When Bruce missed her aunt at the finish line, she decided to retrieve their bags at the hotel. She was grateful she did. She originally was across Boylston Street from where the bombs exploded. In fact, Bruce was a few blocks away when she heard the first explosion, saw the billowing smoke and felt the rumble under her feet.

"The thought did cross my mind that it was like 9/11 stuff; it was really scary because you thought there was maybe more to come," recalled Bruce, who ran for Cherry Hill West High and The College of New Jersey. "There was a lot of panic, and no one knew what was going on. But I also thought the whole experience brought out the best in people."

Bruce sought shelter in a Starbucks, where she explained her plight to a woman she never met before. Her cellphone was dead, so the woman lent her phone to call her aunt. They finally connected, and what was only an hour seemed like days.

"It was definitely the scariest hour I've ever been through in my life," Bruce said. "I had already decided that I was going to run this year. What happened last year made that more emphatic. It's going to be 26.2 miles of emotions, and it's going to be great. Running is one of the best ways to express freedom. It gives you a chance to forget about everything else; I feel the most free when I run."

This will be Tilley's seventh Boston Marathon. Her first was in 1996, the 100th running of the prestigious event. She heard the second bomb go off. Yet, there was no denying she was going to return. Her greatest satisfaction last year wasn't finishing, but finding out her niece was unharmed. Still, weeks after, Bruce had a tough time dealing with anxiety in crowds. In time, that quelled.

"I know I'm going to go through a great amount pain on Monday, but there is a special bond there you can't break between the runners and everyone involved with the race, to Boston," Tilley said. "You know how hard it is to get there to that finish line, that all the sacrifice in training went toward something. For 26.2 miles, that town embraces you. You know you've won, because we didn't let someone so evil interfere with our circle of joy. That's what this is about."