Boston reflects, revs up for first marathon since last year’s bombing

The city is looking forward to welcoming this year’s 36,000 Boston Marathon partipants and moving beyond the shadow of last year's deadly bombings. (Reuters)

The line stretched for blocks outside Boston’s Old South Church.

Hundreds had come, on Easter Sunday, to worship at the historic church, which sits just a few feet from the Boston Marathon finish line.

“Fear is a nearly constant companion. . . . These days here, right here at the finish line, we have cause to be terrified,” said the Rev. Nancy Taylor, Old South’s senior minister. She added later in the service, “Easter is God’s tender, sweet, intimate whisper: Don’t be afraid, human. I’ve got your back.”

Near the end of the hour-long assembly, ushers made their way down the aisles with piles of blue-and-yellow knitted scarves in their hands. As the congregation stood to sing, all those who ran in last year’s race or who will run on Monday had scarves placed around their necks.

“Yes, yes, yes!” screamed one man, wearing a blue-and-yellow marathon jacket, as he got his scarf. The triumphant screams echoed off the sanctuary’s oak fixtures and blended with the congregation’s Easter hallelujahs.

This annual blessing of the runners was one of dozens of marathon-related events that have been packed to capacity in recent days. Some had questioned whether fear of another attack would keep people away.

But Boston has been bustling. Tens of thousands will run in the 118th marathon, and race organizers estimate that more than a million people will line the course, twice as many last year. Every hotel room in the city is booked.

“Whatever the intended effects . . . whatever the Tsarnaevs [the brothers accused of carrying out the bombing] thought was supposed to happen by bringing that terror to Boston, it had the complete opposite effect,” Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said as he was driven between marathon-related events on Saturday.

“I mean, look around,” said Walsh (D). He rolled down his window and pointed to the packed sidewalks and stores on Newbury Street, Boston’s main outdoor shopping strip, just a block from Boylston Street, where the bombing occurred. “This place is booming. It has been all day today, all weekend.”

Crowds gathered at the finish line, beginning early in the week, to take pictures and lay flowers at the storefronts blown out when the bombs went off last year.

Makeshift tributes, including notes of love to those killed — restaurant manager Krystle Campbell, Boston University graduate student Lu Lingzi and 8-year-old Martin Richard — as well as those injured, dotted the sidewalks on the blocks near the finish line. On the door handle of Marathon Sports, the sporting-goods store just feet from the finish line, hung a small peace sign crafted from blue and yellow pipe cleaners.

The week preceding the marathon was one of eager anticipation of the race and solemn reflection on the horrific events of a year earlier.


See the full sequence of events in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

On Wednesday, hundreds of elementary and middle school students gathered at Roxbury Community College for a rally hosted by several of the marathon’s elite runners.

“Everyone has a common feeling of strength. We’re excited to finish the race,” said Serena Burla, a cancer survivor and a reigning national titleholder after her win at the USA Half Marathon Championships this year in Houston. Burla, from Falls Church, Va., will also run on Monday. “I think there’s just a special place in my heart for Boston.”

Hundreds gathered Friday on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to commemorate the life of Officer Sean Collier, the cadet allegedly gunned down by the bombing suspects as he sat in his patrol car days after the marathon attack.

As friends recalled his life, tears welled in the eyes of dozens of the officers gathered in the massive white tent pitched just around the corner from where Collier was killed.

“In that moment when all of the world had its eyes on us, we responded with a cry of defiance, not of fear,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said during the ceremony.

Even at the most public events in the days leading up to the marathon, there was an undercurrent of reflection and remembrance. Many in Boston said they were excited for the festivities. Others said they were ready for the emotional toll of the endless tributes to be over.

Bill Richard stood silently on the Boylston Street sidewalk Saturday afternoon during the under-13 youth relay. A year earlier, he had watched his son Martin compete in this race. Today, he would watch his elder son, Henry — the only member of the family not seriously injured in the bombing — compete in Martin’s memory.

As he waited for the race to begin, the mayor approached and put his arm around the still-grieving father. No words were exchanged between the two men, who have known each other for years. They weren’t needed.

Moments later, Henry Richard finished the race. He won.

For Bostonians, tributes near the finish line have been a near-constant for much of the past year. But for those runners from out of town, this week marked their first return to Boylston Street.

Last year, 60-year-old Rob Rogers stood on the sideline cheering on his friend Greg Norling, 63, who finished running not long before the bombs went off.

“To see the way the city has honored the athletes has been emotional, and special,” Rogers said.

This year, he and Norling traveled to Boston from their homes in Seattle. This year, both men will run.

“The energy in this city is unbelievable,” Norling said as he stood outside the service at Old South on Sunday morning, fighting back tears as he clutched the blue-and-yellow scarf now around his neck. “People asked me if I was scared of coming back because of the attacks last year. It just made me want to be here even more.”

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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