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Upper Valley Marathon Runners Defiant, Determined in Return to Boston

‘There’s No Way I’m Not Going to Be Back for 2014’

  • Jim Burnett, of Canaan, N.H., will be competing in his 51st marathon when he runs in the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014. Burnett also ran in last year's event -- he had finished about 10 minutes before the bombs exploded near the finish line. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)

    Jim Burnett, of Canaan, N.H., will be competing in his 51st marathon when he runs in the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014. Burnett also ran in last year's event -- he had finished about 10 minutes before the bombs exploded near the finish line. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Natalie Ruppertsberger and her husband, Noah Lynd, run along River Road in Plainfield, N.H., on April 19, 2014. The couple live in Meriden, N.H. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

    Natalie Ruppertsberger and her husband, Noah Lynd, run along River Road in Plainfield, N.H., on April 19, 2014. The couple live in Meriden, N.H. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jim Burnett, of Canaan, N.H., will be competing in his 51st marathon when he runs in the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014. Burnett also ran in last year's event -- he had finished about 10 minutes before the bombs exploded near the finish line. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen)
  • Natalie Ruppertsberger and her husband, Noah Lynd, run along River Road in Plainfield, N.H., on April 19, 2014. The couple live in Meriden, N.H. Valley News — Jennifer Hauck

Rain or shine, cold or heat, wind or calm, Tim Downes expects to spend a little more time than usual on Monday morning looking around the Hopkinton, Mass., green at tens of thousands of fellow runners, maybe greeting more of them than he normally would.

And after “a bear” of a winter forging mind and body for his 15th Boston Marathon, the 50-year-old painting contractor from Norwich will join this river of under-dressed pilgrims flowing 26.2 miles toward the sea — and try at least to dilute the memories he’s been carrying since two bombs went off at the finish line in Copley Square last April, killing three spectators and wounding scores more.

First, the explosions he heard from a few blocks away, heading for a friend’s apartment in the Back Bay the better part of an hour after he’d finished the race in three hours, 40 minutes.

“It rumbled in my chest,” he recalled last week. “You could feel your chest shake. I started back-pedaling toward the (Charles) River.”

Next, the spectators and runners streaming away from the finish area, digging out cell phones and dialing with desperation.

“You want to call your loved ones,” Downes said, “see how they are, let them know you’re all right.”

And finally, more than the endless loops of television news footage of smoke and blood and rampant fear in the square, Downes will try to wash away the vision of the parade he watched from his friend’s apartment after the sun set on that day: a river of former runners streaming toward a destination unclear.

“Hordes of people with their little tin-foil capes wrapped around them,” the greater-Boston-bred Downes said. “They’re just walking up the street in the dark. They must have been the people who were one, two, three miles out when it happened, and never got to the finish.

“They all looked like ghosts coming up that street.”

While Upper Valley runners who participated in last year’s marathon generally managed to avoid that spectral procession, many remain haunted by their own near misses, by minutes of confusion, anxiety and severed communications that felt like hours, by fears that the race can never be the same again.

So why are so many of them returning, to join a field of more than 40 current Valley residents, several expatriates and more than 36,000 in all?

“I told a friend on Facebook, ‘There’s no way I’m not going to be back for 2014,’ ” said Caleb Masland, a Thetford Academy graduate who coaches distance runners — 10 of them are running Boston on Monday — from his current home base in North Carolina. “I’m not surprised that people want to come back. By definition, runners are a very resilient group. It’s going to be a real mix of emotions. Some anxiety, for sure, and some sadness.”

And maybe a little defiance.

“Actually, I was not going to run it because after so much training and in such a long race, I invariably make the event about me,” Lebanon resident Alden Hall said. “But I decided to run it for a friend of mine who was diagnosed with brain cancer late last spring. After the bombings, he said, ‘I’m going to run it next year.’ (He) was out on a training run, had a seizure, and was diagnosed with cancer. I will be wearing a shirt of his as I run it in his place.”

And, most of all, Upper Valley runners are heading to the starting line with determination.

“Last year I raced the marathon,” Plainfield resident and Lebanon High School graduate Natalie Ruppertsberger, who finished her first Boston in 3:26, said in an email. “I ran really hard. This year will be different. I want to show my support for Boston, families of those who lost their lives, and those who were injured at the finish line. I am going to take the race a lot slower, and really try to reflect on what it means to me to be able to run, and how wonderful it is to have such a large community join together for such a great event.”

Coming off a personal-best marathon clocking of 2:44:33 a year ago, Joe Burnett this time will be cheering on three Japanese runners from the club with which he used to train while working in Shanghai, China.

“During the four years I ran with them, I was always talking (Boston) up, and even after I came back to the States,” said Burnett, a graduate of Cardigan Mountain School now living in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I always had in mind to bring a group of them here.

“I wanted to share that experience with them.”

Experience, he hopes, only of the roar of spectators buoying them over Heartbreak Hill and down the homestretch on Boylston Street. Not the anxious minutes he spent waiting for his father and fellow marathoner, Jim Burnett, of Canaan, who had finished and left the square, at their appointed meeting place, as messages of concern from friends and family flooded his phone.

“It was a perfect day,” the younger Burnett said, “until it wasn’t.”

So Laura Hagley of Lebanon discovered after leading all Upper Valley women to the finish in a personal-best 2:55 — early enough to be heading with husband Greg Hagley for dinner in Boston’s North End before they heard about the bombings.

While Boston didn’t fit into her training and racing schedule this year, the 29-year-old manager of rehabilitation services at Claremont’s Valley Regional Hospital doubts whether she’d have been ready for the 10,000 additional runners — many of whom authorities diverted off the course short of Copley Square last year — and the expected spike in checkpoints and surveillance facing runners and spectators alike.

“It’s just … bigger,” she said. “I’m more of a quiet runner. In a way I’m relieved that I don’t have to face all the security — and the fear that it might happen again.”

The idea of navigating that heightened atmosphere also is dissuading Hagley from going to the marathon route as a civilian. Instead, she’ll cheer fellow members of the Upper Valley running club, as well as fellow Lebanon resident Andrea Walkonen, one of the 50 elite woman runners in the field, while watching the race on television.

“I’ll probably see her on TV easier than I would if I was down there,” Hagley concluded.

Walkonen, an All-America distance runner during her years at Boston University, can’t imagine not running this of all Bostons — security and all.

“The feeling of being a competitor in this year’s race is indescribable,” Walkonen, a New Hampshire native who qualified for Boston with a clocking of 2:43 in Houston in 2013, said in a Facebook message. “I was just as angered and upset as every other person that day, and this race is going to be such an important part of history.” While everything she and the members of her training team do is focused on her preparations for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, “it’s important not to get caught up in an event that’s so far away and to stay focused on the here and now,” she said. “It’s important to enjoy and cherish every moment.”

Important enough for 63-year-old Tom Ozahowski of Thetford to return for his fifth consecutive Boston run, fourth in a row with son Matt in the field and second straight with son David running — in spite of a too-close-for-comfort call in 2013.

“If I had run the same time I did the year before, when it was really hot and I took my time, I would have been there right around that time period when it happened,” the eldest Ozahowski said.

Thanks in part to a relatively cool day with a breeze, Tom Ozahowski crossed the finish line in a little less than 3:38, and, not seeing his wife waiting around the finish area, picked up his finisher’s medal, some food, and one of those shiny capes on his way to the hotel where Matt and David, coming off sub-3-hour times (in David’s case a personal best), were recovering and waiting for their parents as planned.

Tom and Judy Ozahowski did rendezvous at the hotel, and were recounting their respective experiences in a lounge down the hall from the boys’ rooms when one of the boys “came out and said, ‘The building shook,’ ” Tom Ozahowski recalled.

From the 28th floor, with a view partly obscured by a corner of the Boston Public Library, the reunited Ozahowskis saw one and then two clouds of smoke drifting from the sidewalk across Boylston Street from the library.

“We knew something was wrong,” David Ozahowski remembered. “We could see people running away.”

Once they learned on CNN what was happening, Tom Ozahowski, a registered nurse by trade, wanted to run to the scene and offer his help, but authorities had locked down all the hotels in the area. “They had guys out there with machine guns,” he said. “It was like the Third World.”

At any rate, a world changed forever. Just not enough, a year later, for Judy Ozahowski to forbid her husband and her sons from returning to the scene of the crime.

“She’s the strong one,” Tom Ozahowski said. “She told us, ‘I’m going to the finish line, staying right there and rooting you on all the way.’ We have to live in the moment.

“The moment is being Boston Strong. Really rejoicing.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dacorriveau@gmail.com or 603-727-3304.

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