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Racing up to Boston

Boston Marathon: Spectators, runners turned out in droves for the emotional event; nearly 36,000 racers crossed the finish line, including 120 from New Hampshire

The 1 million spectators who lined the course from Hopkinton to Boston on Monday were treated to a performance for the ages, as Meb Keflezighi of Mammoth Lakes, Calif.,became the first American to win the prestigious race in 31 years. Keflezighi’s victory was one fueled by American pride, but the real winners of the day were the citizens of Boston. Spectators from all walks of life came out in droves for the event, and cheered louder than ever to show they indeed embody the phrase that has been synonymous with the city since two pressure-cooker bombs were set off last April: Boston Strong.

Keflezighi was one of nearly 36,000 to cross the finish line on Monday, the vast majority of whom are not professional athletes. More than 120 people from New Hampshire registered to run.

There was no shortage of reasons to run following last year’s explosions on Boylston street; every runner had extra motivation to toe the line and give it their all. Fifty states and 95 different countries were represented, each individual keenly aware of how special being a part of this year’s event was.

The weather was beautiful, the spectators were respectful, and the Boston Marathon was back in the highest of fashion.

Andrea Walkonen, 27, ran with the elite women, finishing with a time of 2 hours, 37 minutes and 6 seconds, placing her 10th among American women.

Walkonen, who grew up in Jaffrey and graduated from Conant High School in 2004, went on to have a very successful track and cross-country career at Boston University, where she trained on many of the streets she raced on Monday.

Now living in Lebanon and coached by Nike co-founder Jeff Johnson, Walkonen was very pleased with her race, only the second marathon she has ever run.

“[The marathon] was incredible, I have never experienced anything like that before,” Walkonen said in an interview by phone Tuesday. “I’ve been to a lot of big road races, but nothing like this,” she said.

Because of the staggered start — the elite men start a half-hour after the elite women — Walkonen had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of witnessing first-hand Keflezighi cross the finish line. Keflezighi finished in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds, putting Walkonen right behind him as they turned onto Boyleston Street.

“To be able to finish right behind Meb was really exciting. When [Meb] ran by me, I got chills. I knew what that meant for the city, and it was really cool to see. I have been a Meb fan for so long,” she said. As far as security, Walkonen had no concerns on race day. “I felt like I was in the safest place in the world on Monday,” she said. “The day before the race, I went to Marathon Sports on Boylston Street and got a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, I was standing right where the first bomb had gone off.”

Like many runners in the Northeast, Walkonen had visited the course as a spectator growing up.

“I grew up watching the race from the sidelines, and I noticed that the cops were more strict [this year] than in year’s past, not allowing spectators to get too close to the runners,” she noted.

Walkonen plans to take much of the summer to rest and recover, and does not plan on racing again until July.

“I’m the type of person that likes to try a lot of different things before I repeat one, but running Boston again is something that I would like to do. I like the challenge of bettering myself on the tough course,” she said.

The view from the sidelines

Peterborough resident Tim Steele has traveled to Boston to watch the marathon 23 times times since the early 70s. Steele, like everyone else, knew this year was different.

“I saw runners and spectators thanking the uniformed police all day long, it was a warmer feeling than I have ever seen,” he said in an interview Tuesday.

“As a spectator I was worried traveling back to Boston after last year, but all of the police made me feel more secure, for sure.”

Steele was in Boston to watch his brother in law, Andrew,Fletcher of Concord, Mass. run for the Boston Museum of Science. Being a seasoned veteran when it comes to the Boston Marathon, Steele was impressed with this year’s organization.

“There were helicopters everywhere, and security from start to finish. This was the best organization I have ever seen at Boston. It was a truly inspiring event, I don’t know how you couldn’t walk away from it without having a warm and inspired feeling.”

Finishing, at last

Rindge resident Tom Frost was admittedly choked up as he reached the finish line. “I was going slow anyway, I took the time to take it all in,” he said. Last April, Frost was one of thousands who were stopped short of the finish line after the bombs went off. Frost and other non-finishers from last year’s race returned to the streets of Boston and were cheered on by the most spectators in the event’s storied history.

On Monday, Frost finished in a time of 4 hours, 17 minutes 58 seconds.”The crowd was much more vocal this year. There were people every inch of the way, usually there are portions of the course that are not packed with people, this year that was not the case,” said Frost.

Runners visit the athlete expo at the John B. Hynes Convention Center during the days leading up to the race to pick up their bibs. It was at the expo that Frost noticed the tight security for the first time.

“Security was very present from the expo on. I was never worried about security this year, though it is impossible to secure 26.2 miles. I will be interested to see what security looks like in the years to come,” he said.

Frost described his experience as “amazing.”

“Leading up to the race, family, friends and strangers were high-fiving and congratulating me. The support was unbelievable,” he said.

Jaffrey resident Ross Ramey was another runner who was unable to finish last April’s race. Ramey had only planned on running Boston once. “I volunteered for five years before choosing to run it with the Melanoma Foundation of New England team last year,” he said Wednesday.

Last April, Ramey was 25.5 miles into the race before he was stopped.

“In the back of your mind, you want to finish. It was very frustrating not be able to do so last year,” reflected Ramey.

This year, Ramey had no insecurities. “I felt very safe, and as a runner, the security did not feel overly cumbersome,” he said. Ramey crossed the finish line with a time of 4 hours, 45 minutes and 58 seconds.

“I spent a lot of time cheering and high-fiving people in the crowd along the way,” said Ramey. “It was a tremendous weekend, great energy and emotion throughout.”

Now that he has finished the race, Ramey plans to return as a volunteer next year.

First-timers

Peterborough residents Stephen Buzzell and his wife, Elizabeth Cooley, were first-time Boston runners on Monday. To say that they walked away impressed and taken aback would be an understatement.

“I couldn’t believe how organized getting to the starting line was with all of those buses,” said Cooley.

Participants are brought to the starting line and athlete village on buses, to ensure that they are the only ones in the starting area. This is the only way for the participants to guarantee that they are able to get into Hopkinton on the morning of the race, otherwise they are subject to security checkpoints and other distractions, and might miss the race.

“All of the volunteers were wonderful. Everyone really paid attention and helped out all of us normal people,” laughed Cooley. “It was nice.”

Having never run in a race of this size before, Buzzell and Cooley did not know what to expect.

“There were a ton of cops and military police, but they were all professional, focused on the crowd and not on the race,” said Buzzell.

“It was like running down a 26.2-mile finish line, the fans were great,” said Cooley.

The famous 26.2 mile course runs through nine towns as it makes its way from Hopkinton to Boston.

“Each town and neighborhood had its own personality,” said Buzzell. “Everyone was so kind.”

Buzzell finished with a time of 3 hours, 34 minutes and 8 seconds, while Cooley finished in 4 hours, 7 minutes and 8 seconds. Both runners were pleased with their times. Although the hills and heat of the day gave the couple problems, they walked away from the finish sore, but inspired.

“Strangers were congratulating us on the street after we finished, like we had won the race,” recalled Cooley. “The race was well worth the pain and agony, I am really glad we were able to run it. It is a very inspiring race full of inspiring people,” added Buzzell.

Stories like these will be with the participants of the 118th running of the Boston Marathon for as long as they live. Every year the race is special, but never has it meant more for its host city, bringing out unparalleled emotion from all of those involved. Keflezighi — who wrote the names of the four people that lost their lives during last years bombings on his bib — dedicated his win to the city, knowing the race was not about him, acknowledging that it was much bigger than one man’s efforts. The sun was bright, the cheering was loud, and the city of Boston stood up and took Patriots’ Day back.

Dylan Fisher can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 235, or dfisher@ledgertranscript.com.

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