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Marathoners finish what terrorists took away last year

Local runners return defiantly to Boston Marathon after bombing thwarted last year's race.

Will Mullin (center), of Malvern, is flanked by two friends from California, Joe Stapleton (left) and Dan Bistany, whom he had met last year at the Boston Marathon.
Will Mullin (center), of Malvern, is flanked by two friends from California, Joe Stapleton (left) and Dan Bistany, whom he had met last year at the Boston Marathon.Read morePhoto courtesy of Will Mullin

DEE PERKOWITZ is a 49-year-old ironworker from Local 399 with a plate in her neck and some reconstructive work done on her lower back, as well, just last May.

They wanted to put in more iron in there, she said, but that would have prevented her from ever running a marathon again. And if Dee Perkowitz knew nothing else in the chaotic hours after she was stopped a half-mile from the finish line to the Boston Marathon last April, it was that she was going to run at least one more.

"Because you can't let crazy people control your life," the Westville, N.J., woman said before yesterday's race. "I have to complete it in spite of them. You just have to prove that evil in the world does not conquer good. It just can't happen. I have to go back. There's nothing in the world that can stop me. It's the most important thing for me to do . . . But I don't even know how I'm going to get through it."

In the end yesterday, it wasn't the end that mattered to some local runners who never got to finish last year. It was the start of the Boston Marathon, with its swelled number of entrants and its swelled crowds and a swelled police and military presence that included snipers along the route. And it was the sunny, grueling run through the neighborhoods that mark the middle miles, where the awful bombings of a year ago that killed three and wounded hundreds didn't deter crowds - it doubled their usual number, and replaced their casual curiosity with more vocal solidarity.

In the end, too, it was that spot near the turnoff to Boylston Street, so close to the finish, the spot where Perkowitz, Tony Walter, Will Mullin and Rick Reinhart were stopped moments after the two bombs went off, triggering a few hours of chaos and a calendar year of resolve, triggering a full spectrum of emotions - fear, gratitude, bitterness, anger - since.

"That day, I was determined that I would run it again," said Reinhart, 65, of Philadelphia. "I am not someone who is willing to stand down."

"I don't feel any defiance," said Walter, 56. "I feel excited and honored to be part of it. When I read and see the stories of the people hurt, I do get emotional about that. But not any more than anybody else does, I'll bet.

"And I'm also angered at those idiots. But really, it's just an honor to be part of it. I'm a ham-and-egger. This is the most important thing I've ever done as an athlete."

A retired engineer from Philadelphia who was also an Army reservist for 28 years, Reinhart ran alone yesterday, finishing in 4 hours, 12 minutes, 42 seconds on an unseasonably warm day. Walter, a South Jersey track coach, finished in 3:55:31. Mullin, 45, a financial adviser from Malvern, had a time of 4:18:05. Each had hoped to run faster, but an incessant beatdown from the sun and an uncontrollable surge of emotions hindered that. Truth is, Mullin said, the closer he came to the finish line, the less that mattered.

"I didn't high-five anyone in the crowd at the end," he said. "But I high-fived every cop I saw. And I just kept saying, 'Thank you.' "

Mullin had much to be thankful for. They all did. He had run 25 triathlons before running Boston last year, and each time his wife and three children had met him at the finish line. But the logistics got too overbearing last year, so Mullin went alone.

He also competes alone, or did until he ran into a couple of fun-loving Californians named Joe and Dan before the race last year. Although they ran slower than the pace he had trained for, Mullin decided to start out with them, then enjoyed their hand-slapping approach so much, he slowed to their pace.

"My goal time would have put me right at the finish when the bombs went off," he said. Instead, he was with his newest, bestest friends.

They reunited this year for lunch, for the first 5 miles, and in a tear-filled, emotional hug after all finished.

"We didn't even run together this year," Mullin said. "But I'll remember them forever. They were with me for two of the most memorable experiences of my life."

Last year, Walter had also targeted a time that would have put him at the finish inside the time frame when the bombs went off. But when he spotted his college-aged daughter and her feel-no-pain friends near Mile 20, he stopped and joined the party for a while.

"When we were stopped, I was right in front of the line," he said. "If I didn't stop to hang with my daughter . . . who knows?"

Mullin left his family at home this year, as well - a nod, he acknowledged, to the lingering fear last year's horror created. Whether it was snipers atop rooftops or military personnel throughout the course eyeing not the runners but the crowd, Boston could not escape that feel this year, even amid the supportive crowds and their endless signs of defiance and solidarity.

It's why Perkowitz donned sunglasses from start to finish, to hide what she estimates was a dozen breakdowns along the race as she thought about the victims.

"Anytime I saw someone in a wheelchair," she said. "So nobody saw my eyes. I didn't want to be a downer for anyone else."

Yesterday, Perkowitz also dealt with her own near-miss tale of a year ago. She was supposed to run with her friend Jean Lizzio in last year's race, but a torn meniscus prevented that. Lizzio came along for support anyway, and planned to situate herself 300 yards from the finish, on the left, so Perkowitz would see her cheering as she came down the final stretch.

When the bomb went off, both women were traumatized. With the finish line a crime scene and no cellphone or cell service, Dee feared her friend was injured or worse. A volunteer consoled her, took her to her apartment, and started making phone calls - even though Perkowitz was so distraught she could not at first remember what hotel she was staying at, what her friend's last name was, even.

Eventually the women reunited back on the course.

"When I saw her, I couldn't stop crying," Perkowitz said. "She thought I was dead; I thought she was dead, because she was supposed to be right there. But because it was so crowded, she couldn't get to that part of the bleachers."

Lizzio was there again yesterday, in the crowd near where Perkowitz and so many others were stopped short last year. There were again tears, and Dee stopped running for a few minutes to hug her friend and gather herself for the final stretch.

"A lot of thoughts went through my head out there today," she said yesterday. "To be honest with you, I'm done, as far as running Boston."

More than 32,000 runners lined up to run yesterday morning, 5,000 more than an average year. Of them, 5,633 were runners such as Tony, Will, Rick and Dee, who were stopped short of completing their goal in 2013. There were at least 3,500 public safety officials from the federal, state and local levels to oversee the race, twice the normal amount.

In the days following last year's bombing, the police and military presence was widely anticipated. Not anticipated was the near-record number of entries, which included many running under exemptions to raise money for charities. Or the crowds, sometimes 10 deep, Mullin said, which assured this day would be as celebratory as last year's was sad.

"Now I kind of wish my family had come," he said. "Just to see how the city was, the electricity. There's just no way you could feel this without being a part of it. It was like the parade when the Phillies won in 2008. But then I was on the curb cheering them. Today was my world championship."

On Twitter: @samdonnellon