The final few miles of the Boston Marathon slice through a sea of spectators. Thousands of them line Commonwealth Avenue and Kenmore Square, leading to the finish line on Boylston Street, exactly 26.2 miles from where the race begins. The atmosphere is so loud and electric that one runner, Richard Briles of Kalispell, says it’s difficult to even hear your own footsteps.
Last year, Briles turned left on Boylston, ran past the grandstands and the row of international flags and crossed the finish line with a time of 3 hours and 19 minutes, his best mark in the Boston Marathon in four consecutive visits. Another 23,000 runners were following the same route that day during the 117th edition of the event. It was April 15, 2013.
After lingering near the finish line for a while, Briles gathered his belongings and walked back to his hotel room, three or four blocks away from Boylston Street.
Back in the room, Briles checked his phone and read a few congratulatory text messages from friends and family who had been following his progress online. He then showered, washing away the sweat and grime from a long run.
A few minutes later, as he dried off, he walked back into the room and saw another text message on his phone, this time with a more ominous message.
“Did you hear the bombs?”
Moments after Briles had returned to his hotel, at about 2:49 p.m., a pair of pressure cooker bombs exploded 12 seconds apart near the finish line. Another runner from Kalispell, Jill Hinrichs, 47, was just two blocks away and could see the smoke rising from the scene.
“I thought the first one was an accident, like a generator blowing up or something, but when the second one went off I knew it was intentional,” she said.
The bombs, which killed three people and injured more than 250 others, were allegedly constructed and planted by two Chechen brothers living in Boston named Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. According to federal prosecutors, after planting the explosives, the brothers slipped back into the crowd and disappeared for three days before police tracked them down in a sprawling manhunt on the morning of April 19. Tamerlan, 26, died during an early morning shootout with police, while Dzhokhar, 19, fled the scene, resulting in a daylong search that shut down the entire city of Boston. Dzhokhar was captured later that night, bloodied and wounded, and a year later is still awaiting trial.
After receiving the text message, Briles sat on his bed in shock and watched news coverage of the bombings. A few minutes later he left his hotel room and walked toward Boylston in hopes of using his experience as an emergency room doctor at Kalispell Regional Medical Center to assist with the wounded, but he was turned away.
Meanwhile, Hinrichs, who had finished her third Boston Marathon at 3 hours and 38 minutes, was searching for two friends she had accompanied to the race, Jill Allardyce and Burk Foster. She knew Allardyce had already crossed the finish line, but didn’t know where Foster was. In the chaotic moments following the explosions, Hinrichs stood on a street corner for a few minutes looking for her friends. She then returned to her hotel room, where everyone had agreed to meet after the race.
“People were either freaking out or holding it together, none of us really knew what was going on,” she said. “As I was walking back to the hotel it was amazing to see the firefighters who had just finished the marathon getting their gear and running right back to the finish line to help people.”
As it turned out, both of Hinrichs’ friends were safe and Foster, slowed by an injury, was stopped on the course after the explosions. He didn’t get to finish the race.
A year later, Boston Marathon organizers are preparing for the 118th race on April 21. Increased security measures will include 3,500 police officers scattered along the route, which takes runners from the suburbs to the heart of downtown Boston. Runners will only be allowed to wear a small fanny pack and any container capable of carrying more than 1 liter of liquid is prohibited. Restrictions also extend to the 1 million expected spectators. Any large bag or cooler will be subject to search and people are being encouraged to carry personal items in clear plastic bags.
This year, there are more than 70 runners from Montana registered for the race, including at least seven from the Flathead Valley. Briles is one of them.
Prior to moving to Kalispell in 2005, Briles lived in California. He picked up running in his late 40s and fell in love with the sport. He ran his first marathon in 2008.
“It was sort of a midlife crisis thing. I wanted to get back into shape, and then it turned into a Forest Gump thing and I just kept running,” he said. “It got to be an addiction.”
At the Rock n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in 2009 he unknowingly qualified for the Boston Marathon and went the following April. The marathon is always held on the third Monday in April, known as Patriot’s Day, an official holiday in Massachusetts that commemorates the anniversary of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The first Boston Marathon was organized in 1897.
In Briles’ four attempts at Boston he’s had mixed results. In 2010, he ran 3 hours and 50 minutes, struggling on a section of the course named Heartbreak Hill. Hinrichs has had her troubles at Boston, too, specifically in 2012 when unseasonably warm April weather brought temperatures to the 80s in New England. That year, more than 2,000 runners sought medical attention and 120 were taken to area hospitals.
Hinrichs and Briles performed better at last year’s race, and both considered ending their Boston careers on a high note. Both changed their minds. Briles decided last year that he would return. Hinrichs plans to return in either 2015 or 2016. While last year’s race featured 23,000 runners, the Boston Athletic Association is expecting more than 36,000 participants this year.
“I wasn’t going to go back this year because I had a really good run last year, but I figured 2014 would be really special and five is a nice round number,” Briles said.
Two other Kalispell runners making their first attempt at the historic race are Ted Burnham, 44, and Russell Skelton, 41. Burnham, a teacher at Glacier High School, has completed 10 marathons.
“I think anyone who has finished a marathon and realized they could do it has wanted to do Boston,” Burnham said. “I’ve done some big events before, but none of them have the history like Boston does.”
While last year’s bombing is still fresh in everyone’s mind, many of the runners from the Flathead said the attack hasn’t discouraged them from wanting to go back.
“People will be out in full force this year, I bet it’s going to be amazing,” Hinrichs said. “Terrorism is so cowardly.”
Briles, in his final training stages before departing for Boston, said it is sure to be an emotional return. While he wants to do well, more importantly, he wants to enjoy the event. The same goes for Burnham.
“You’re participating in a truly international event. That’s what’s so cool about it, I mean you’re running right behind some of the best runners in the world,” he said. “It’s silly to put a lot of pressure on myself (to make a personal record), I just want to soak it all up and enjoy every step.”
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