CHESHIRE, CONN., NOV. 8 -- The plain oak pews of Cheshire Lutheran Church were filled today with marathon runners who had gathered to say goodbye to one of their own.
Only four days earlier, more than a dozen of them had been running with Lisa B. Christensen in the Marine Corps Marathon. They had wished her good luck, had waved to her, had laughed with her along the 26.2-mile route around the monuments in Washington.
Now, a casket draped with the U.S. flag sat before them in the small, contemporary church. They were unwilling to believe what their eyes told them, but it was true: The casket contained the body of their 19-year-old classmate and friend, who had died little more than two miles from the finish line Sunday because of a congenital heart defect.
Christensen, a sophomore at Boston University, a midshipman in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps and a tireless volunteer for charities, was in the midst of her first marathon when she was stricken after 4 hours 15 minutes of running. None of the other 14 Navy ROTC runners she came to race with was with her when she collapsed.
But this morning, in a tiny town halfway between Hartford and New Haven, a place her father picked so his children could grow up in a New England village, they all were with her.
About 55 Navy ROTC members from BU, Boston College and Northeastern packed into a bus for the 2 1/4-hour ride to the funeral. Another 150 or so neighbors, relatives and townspeople came, crowding the church.
The Navy ROTC members filled much of one side of the sanctuary. In their dress blues, they sat bathed in a soft, filtered blue light, made by the sun forcing its way through the stained glass behind them.
"At a time like this," the Rev. Louis Nuechterlein said, looking down at Christensen's parents, one sister and two brothers, "what can we say, after we have said we're sorry?"
Nuechterlein continued to speak to the family.
"When Lisa started school, when she was 5 or 6 years old, you said: 'Oh, Lord, I hope she's going to be all right.' When she started high school, you said the same thing, and when she started college, you said the same thing. Now, said you, she's on her own.
"Well, I want to tell you you need wonder no more whether she's all right, because she is. We all go to heaven, but what's happened here is that Lisa has gotten there sooner."
The daughter of an international banker, born in Vienna and raised in London and the United States, Lisa Christensen combined her love of charity work and individual sports in her running. All the Navy ROTC runners had been collecting pledges for the Shriners Burn Institute in Boston for the miles they ran to prepare for the marathon, and for the marathon itself.
Someone checked Christensen's chart this week. An avid runner, she had logged 110 training miles for the charity, "not counting what she did in the marathon," said Capt. Michael Field, commanding officer of the Navy ROTC unit at BU. "We're definitely counting that and collecting her money. We want to have the money go to the charity on her behalf."
Because she was a midshipman in the Navy ROTC program, she was accorded a full military burial.
"She was very enthusiastic about the program," said her father, Hans. "Her friends were there. That was where she wanted to be."
Maj. Bob Wieners, the Marine Corps officer instructor at BU, had driven the 15 ROTC members in a van from Boston to Washington for the marathon. He watched Christensen start the race, then caught her at the nine-mile mark in Georgetown, where she was doing fine, he said.
Wieners was waiting at the finish line for his runners -- "counting heads," he said -- when he saw an ambulance go right by the finish area at the Iwo Jima memorial and head toward Wilson Boulevard. He didn't know who was in it, but he thought it was ironic.
"That person finished the race," he said to himself.
Later, when the public-address announcer asked for friends or relatives of Lisa Christensen to come to the information tent, he went. He left his runners at the van and was gone for an hour and a half. When he returned, he was accompanied by two chaplains. He had already been to Arlington Hospital to identify the body of the one runner in his group who had been missing.
"I tell you," Wieners said today, "in my mind, she made it the full 26.2 miles when that ambulance crossed the finish line."
Nearby, Nicole Whiting, a junior Navy ROTC midshipman from Stevens Point, Wis., was standing with a group of her Boston University classmates in the church hall. She was Christensen's roommate at the Alexandria Comfort Inn the night before the race and ran with her the first six miles before they became separated at a water station.
"Before we got split up, she was breathing a little heavier than I was, but I just thought it was because I've run a marathon before," Whiting said. "We both had been looking for a bathroom. I had said we could just stop in the woods, but she said no. That was kind of funny."
Whiting ended up finishing the marathon in 4:21. Christensen's pace would have put her at about 4:35.
After the funeral, a procession of 50 cars snaked a mile through Cheshire's streets to Hillside Cemetery. There, teetering, weather-beaten gravestones honor the dead from as far back as 1732.
Lisa Christensen's casket was placed on a flat spot of earth not far from the road. Her ROTC classmates formed columns on a leaf-covered hillside overlooking her grave. A Navy weapons detail from New London, Conn., fired a 21-gun salute. A bugler played "Taps." A mourner took a picture.
The flag from the casket was folded and handed to her mother, Corrine. Another flag, already folded, that had been lying inside the casket at the church, was given to her father. The family stood shivering in the 40-degree air, bracing themselves against a brisk wind.
The Christensens took a last look at the casket and turned to walk away. As they and the other mourners filed back to their cars, the sun cut a hole in the gray November clouds, and they walked in sunshine.