Belinda Stoll crossed the finish line and accepted her medal from a race volunteer. Stoll pulled a silver Mylar blanket around her shoulders and turned away from the wind. Then she looked back down Franklin Street and the memory came rushing back.
“It just overcame me,” Stoll said after running the half-marathon Sunday morning in the streets of Buffalo. “I was standing there by myself, crying. My husband came up and thought I was hurt.”
Stoll realized she had been in that exact position on April 15, seconds after finishing the Boston Marathon in 3:54. Happy and exhausted, wrapped in a Mylar blanket, she was looking down Boylston Street when the unthinkable happened.
“I could almost picture it,” Stoll said. “Boom … then boom.”
Six weeks after Boston, the memory was still there. For some, it was more visceral than others. But everyone who came to the Buffalo Marathon carried it with them, and felt the running community’s resolve to carry on despite it.
Road races will never be quite the same after Boston, when terrorist bombs killed three bystanders and injured 264 others. But one thing never changes. When runners gather to experience running’s fundamental joy, it is always a communal celebration.
The running community dedicated the Buffalo race to the Boston victims. Many wore temporary tattoos with the words “Boston Strong.” The ones who had competed in Boston shared stories along the 26.2 miles.
Family members and citizens lined the route, exhorting the runners. Some held flowers to present to loved ones after the race. Parents carried children in their arms or pushed babies in strollers.
Security was as tight as it can be at a massive outdoor urban event. The police were ubiquitous, standing guard on horses and in helicopters and on foot, doing everything in their power to ensure the horrific events of April 15 would not be repeated.
The bombers killed three innocent people that day, including an 8-year-old boy. But they could never squash the spirit of marathon runners, who share a common obsession and laugh in the face of physical danger every time they compete.
“It’s supposed to be a beautiful occasion,” said Tom Kraus of Buffalo, a physical therapist and triathlete who ran a 3:12. “The marathon day, the race, is a celebration of good training.”
Reaching the finish must be an exhilarating thing. So you can imagine what it was like to have that postrace joy shattered by bombs. Chuck Farrow, of Lowell, Mass., was reaching for his medal in Boston after finishing in just over 4 hours, when the first bomb went off.
“It was a shame trying to explain it to the kids,” said Farrow, 52, who has young daughters. “They don’t understand. They didn’t want me to run marathons anymore. They think there’s some correlation between the bombs and actually running.”
Farrow was undeterred. He came to Buffalo, accompanied by family and friends, to run his first marathon after Boston. He finished in 3:33, a personal record by five minutes. His girls were here to share the moment.
There were fears, of course, in Boston’s immediate aftermath. People wondered if marathons were a target. There was a sense of vulnerability. Joy Jackson and Dawn Meyer, friends from Hamburg, were getting ready to train for the half-marathon when they heard the news on April 15.
“I don’t think you realized the impact at first, until you went home and watched TV and read the articles,” said Meyer, an elementary teacher in the Frontier district. “Then you realized what really happened, the magnitude of it. I think my kids were more upset than I was.”
“There’s no fear now,” said Jackson, a registered dietician. “You do think about people who suffered a tragedy. But I honestly didn’t think about it during the race.”
“It makes it feel special for me,” Meyer said. “You feel like you’re running for everybody. A lot of runners run for themselves. It feels like you’re running for the running community.”
Most felt a higher sense of purpose Sunday. Jodie Rich was afraid to come at first. But how could she stay away? Her sister, Mary Lou Owczarczak, was running her first half-marathon, one year after being diagnosed with breast cancer. So “Louie” was representing two communities.
“I’m running for the survivors and all the Boston people,” Owczarczak said. “Knowing the feeling at the end of the line, I can’t imagine what they went through, having to stop and all that craziness. My legs are on fire right now. My first time ever, 13.1 miles! It felt stunning, stunning.”
“Ohhh!” she said, looking toward the barrier surrounding the finish area. “My boys brought flowers!”
Michelle Jeitler, of Marietta, Ohio, said her husband failed to qualify for Boston. When she saw reports of the bombing, she broke down crying, imagining what might have been. She went on Facebook to recruit people to “run/walk” the half-marathon in Buffalo to honor the victims in Boston.
“I wanted to give back to them and say, ‘You’re important to us,’ ” said Jeitler, who competed in a red “Boston Strong” shirt. She did the half-marathon with Sue Adrian of Williamsville and Melissa Brown of Skaneateles. Her husband ran the full marathon.
Running is an essentially solitary endeavor, but also a family affair. Mike Neff Jr., a Buffalo native who works in investment management in Portland, Maine, finished in 3:17, a personal best. He and his dad, Mike Sr., who finished over an hour later, were both running a sixth marathon.
Neff said a race is a “sacred place” where families can reunite. He grieved for the running community while training for Buffalo.
“I mean, the little boy who died,” Neff said, his voice breaking. “His name was Martin Richard. I thought a lot about him during my training. It gave me a big push. He went to see his father run that day.”
Dan Finkel said he thought about the Boston victims during the hard moments Sunday. Finkel, a Grand Island native who lives in Boston, finished in 3:47. He never reached the line on April 15. He was about 400 yards from the finish when the bombs went off.
Finkel remembers passing a police officer when the first bomb went off. The cop wore a look that said something terrible had occurred. Then the second bomb hit. Within seconds, people were running past him, shaken and crying. Then the police ordered the runners to get out of there.
“I do get to go back,” said Finkel, 37, a researcher at MIT. “They invited everybody back who didn’t finish. One of the real cool things today was, I had quite a few conversations with people about Boston. It was ever-present throughout the day.”
He’ll be back in Buffalo next year, too. Finkel said he’ll spread the word about his hometown marathon. He called it a “perfect day,” a well-run race that made him feel an even closer bond with runners.
“I’m a slow guy in the back,” he said. “Everybody’s cheering for you and it’s great. It’s terrible what happened in Boston, but it’s kind of inspired and cool how the community has reacted to it.”