David Willey, about to board the Boston Marathon women's press truck in Hopkinton, Mass.
Right about now, all over America, a couple hundred thousand runners are beginning to train for fall-marathon season. To them, the most important marathon is the one that's ahead, whether it's in Chicago or New York or Philly or Pensacola. But the most meaningful 26.2-miler of the year -- perhaps of the century -- was run on April 21. On Patriots' Day in Boston, I rode in the press truck covering the women's lead pack, tweeting 100-something times about Shalane Flanagan, who graced our front cover in May and led the race from the gun. She ran a three-minute PR (2:22:02) and an American record for the course but finished seventh. We so badly wanted an American to win this Boston Marathon. But because Flanagan made good on her vow to run to win, she simply couldn't stick with repeat champ Rita Jeptoo or other women she had carried through a torrid first 20 miles, until they poetically surged away on Heartbreak Hill. It was a great, gutsy performance that was awe-inspiring to watch from the front row. After jumping off the truck at the finish, I looked at the big screen and saw... Meb? I ran to the media center and almost crashed into Merhawi Keflezighi, Meb's brother and agent. We traded saucer-eyed, slack-jawed expressions, and he ran out to watch the finish in person while I ran inside to watch the live TV feed. When Meb crossed the line, becoming the first American man to win in 31 years, the room -- normally a staid collection of impartial journalists -- erupted.
My favorite moment, however, may have been when Juli Windsor, who at 3'9" had started the race first in the mobility impaired division and led for 15 kilometers, was overtaken by Flanagan and the lead pack. Juli (whom we profiled in our April issue) looked to her left with her own astonished expression as the women flew by. A few of them smiled and nodded their encouragement, and Juli responded by spreading her arms like wings. She later battled cramps and surged through the Mass Ave tunnel, where she'd been stopped with 4,000 others last year, and then finished in 4:43:29, finally becoming the first little person to complete the Boston Marathon -- with a PR, no less. "My mind is still replaying the day," she says, "and it's taken me weeks to come off the runner's high."
Below are race recaps from many of the other runners we profiled leading up to Boston. As I watched the coverage of the tribute ceremony on April 15, the anniversary of the bombings, I feared the race couldn't possibly live up to all the hopes and expectations that were being hoisted upon it. But it did. Here, a remarkable day is remembered in their words.
Dave Fortier ("Take It Back," May; finished in 3:59:17): "I feel like Boston had two starts for me. One was on the 15th for the tribute events and the other was the actual start on the 21st. The 15th was emotionally draining but inspirational, and the 21st drained me both physically and emotionally, but I enjoyed every second of it. I felt as if I was running for everyone who couldn't run that day, and that feeling carried me all the way to Boylston Street with a huge smile on my face."
Lee Ann Yanni (Human Race, May; finished in 5:47:05): "This race was about the journey and the finish. It was hot and turned out nothing like I planned or hoped, but I was able to high-five friends, truly taking in the experience. Giving a nod to where my life changed and then crossing the finish line was truly magical."
Ellen Hunter Gans ("One Year Stronger," May; finished in 4:19:02): "I underhydrated and battled leg cramps for the last 14 miles, but I was pulled forward by the electric energy of a million people giving a proverbial middle finger to fear and violence. I had wondered if spectators would shy away from the finish line, but it was packed 10 to 15 deep. They were brave. And they were roaring. I choked up as I passed the point where I'd been stopped last year. That made it hard to breathe. I spent that last half-mile limping, gasping, and shuffling, grinning, crying, and generally looking like the basket case that I was. And then it was over. Not because some horrible people took out their anger on one of America's greatest traditions, but because I had crossed the finish line."
Jody Mattie ("One Year Stronger," May; finished in 3:25:50): "After finishing the race and having my celebratory cheeseburger and beer with friends, I spent two hours walking through the finishing chute, thanking and hugging every volunteer I saw. Sometimes we did group hugs. I spent extra time with 'the white coats' in the medical tent, sharing my heartfelt gratitude for the love they gave to me and many others last year. Seeing them smile, and cry, and then smile again was so uplifting. It was almost like being in a dream. It felt so good that I forgot how sore my legs were. I'll never forget that experience."
Alison Hatfield ("One Year Stronger," May; finished in 3:39:14): "From the minute I arrived at Boston Common to board the bus, I felt the excitement. The runners bonded immediately. We were all running for a purpose-for Boston, for the victims, and for ourselves. My race was difficult but so much fun. When I hit the Newton hills, I thought, Wow, this hurts, but knew I would not give up. As I ran down Boylston Street, I blew kisses at each bomb site. When I crossed the finish again, I felt a rush of emotions and promised myself I would run Boston every single year my legs would get me there."
Alison Hatfield enjoys a Boston Marathon she'll never forget. She took this selfie in Wellesley, near mile 13.
Robert Wheeler ("One Year Stronger," May; finished in 3:33:18): "I beat my goal by almost 15 minutes. I used regrets and memories of last year as fuel-all the should-haves, could-haves, and could-I-have-done-betters. Once I passed Heartbreak Hill, I started screaming as loud as I could, partly for others, but just as much for me: 'Fearless to the finish!' and 'Standing tall, head held high on Boylston!' The crowd would go wild."
Dr. Natalie Stavas ("One Year Stronger," May; finished in 4:09:06): "I sat next to my dad on the bus to Hopkinton. Silent, staring out the window. It felt like I was going to my first cross-country race, stomach full of anxiety and excitement. At the athletes' village we were scanned and patted down, as if boarding a 26.2-mile flight. I didn't run my fastest time, but it was the fastest marathon I have ever run. When I turned onto Boylston, I was not ready for the race to end. As the crowd roared, I wanted to feel that joy, that elation, that moment forever. The year leading up to Boston had been full of highs and lows. I had guilt over not being able to save one of the bombing victims, and PTSD symptoms that prevented me from sleeping. I am not a very spiritual person. But that day I felt something I had never felt before. A feeling that there was indeed a God who cared about us, who gave us the courage, energy, and stamina to finish the race. A God who probably really likes to run."
Dr. David King ("One Year Stronger," May; finished in 3:04:58): "This year was different than any previous Boston. It was a rebirth. For the first time, it seemed that everyone I talked to was interested in the Boston Marathon, supported running, had questions about the race, or just wanted to express support for athletes. I traveled to Naples, Houston, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta in the months leading up to the race, and everywhere I went, people asked about my Boston Marathon hat, or shirt, or other race gear I may have been wearing."
Dr. David King takes a moment to kiss his daughter while running down Boylston Street.
Beverly Fergus ("One Year Stronger," May; finished in 4:22:02): "I knew I was undertrained, so I went into the day with the objective of enjoying the experience. With 180 little metal charms in my hand, I handed out "love" to spectators, volunteers, and police officers, as I said thank you to them for being there to support us. It was a beautiful day in every way. The weather was gorgeous, and the fans were out of this world. If there was ever an event that reinforced that runners are the strongest group around, this was it. I was proud to be part of that day, and I was incredibly moved to witness all the triumphs of the survivors and heroes. It humbled me."
Beverly Fergus' hand-delivered charms helped spread the love on race day.
Caroline Spencer ("One Year Stronger," May; finished in 4:38:52): "This was my 11th Boston. I have never seen anything like it. I wanted to make a point of high-fiving as many kids as possible. I wore my name above my race number and must've heard it sounded thousands of times along with the song "Sweet Caroline." It seemed as if every single spectator was wearing some kind of Boston Strong T-Shirt. Although the heat got to me and I didn't feel great toward the end, I was able to pause at the spot I heard the explosions, where I was held at the Mass Ave tunnel. On Boylston, the crowds seemed especially huge at both explosion spots. I looked up into the bleachers and then heard my name as I crossed the finish line. I felt like a chapter was closed in a yearlong open book."
John Young ("Big," April; stopped after 10 miles): "The day started out great and I was racing well until mile nine when I started to feel ill. I made it to mile 10, when I became sick and had to withdraw. I soon realized I had caught the flu from my son. Wanting to finish what I had started, I returned to Natick 19 days later and finished the final 16.2 miles on my own on a warm and rainy Saturday morning."
Leo Fonseca ("Boston's New Start," May; 4:42:44): "It was the single greatest day of my life. I was extremely stressed in the morning but then got this message from Jake, my coach: 'Stay YOUR pace. Stay comfortable. Wave a lot, say thank you. Stay grateful. A grateful heart can run forever.' So I did. I slapped five the whole route. I screamed at the crowd the whole way in from Kenmore: 'I just ran the f-king Boston Marathon!' Seeing lots of my 4:15 Strong teammates along the route gave me huge motivation. Honestly, the last three miles were just so fun that they weren't hard. My legs were fried but I was floating. I ran with my brother, Greg, the whole way, and crossing the line with him was an amazing experience. I've never had so much adrenaline in my life."
Race Director Dave McGillivray ("One Year Stronger," May; ran his annual postrace marathon with friends, starting around 7 p.m. and finishing four hours later. It was his 42nd straight Boston finish): "So, Meb was the first American and I was the last one, and about 33,000 others finished in between. We finally got our race and finish line back!"
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David Willey is the editor-in-chief of Runner's World. Follow him on Twitter @dwilleyRW.