Veteran marathoner Randall "RJ" Simms broke with tradition when he landed in Boston on Friday.
"You're supposed to wear your oldest jacket, the race jacket from your first Boston Marathon," said Simms, of Boca Raton. "But this year, everyone is wearing their 2013 jackets. It's a way to show our solidarity with the city."
When two bombs went off at the 2013 Boston Marathon, killing three spectators and maiming hundreds more, Simms and his wife Susie had a chilling vantage point.
They were between the explosions on Boylston Street, in the final 100 yards of the race.
"That's me," Simms said earlier this month, pointing to a Canadian magazine cover that showed the moment of the second explosion.
Their plan seemed simple enough last April: Simms would run alongside Susie as she competed in Boston for the first time. For the first 26 miles, everything went perfectly. And then all hell broke loose.
"A lot of confusion," said RJ Simms.
"We knew something terrible was happening," Susie said.
Fearing another bomb might go off along the route or past the finish line, they stopped and quickly ducked down a side street.
A year later, they're going back to finish what they started.
"We have no hesitation about returning," said RJ Simms.
Neither do 10 other South Florida marathoners who train together at the Runner's Edge, a running store in Boca Raton. Usually, runners have to qualify with a certain time to run the Boston Marathon. But this year, race officials automatically extended invitations to everyone who ran in 2013.
For the Runner's Edge group, which goes by the team name Ten-10-6, running the race again is the best way to show respect to the bombing victims and defiance against terrorism.
"There's going to be a lot of mixed emotions," said Katie Duchock, of Lake Worth. "But we all knew we had to go back."
Said Debbie Goldman, of Boca Raton: "All I want to do is cross that finish line and get that medal around my neck."
Goldman was running Boston for the first time last year. After 25.6 miles, just before she was supposed to veer onto Boylston Street for the final half-mile, Goldman came to an abrupt halt. "All of a sudden, I see a whole bunch of people in my path," Goldman recalled. "Everyone had just stopped. I didn't get it."
Word quickly spread among the gridlocked runners: There had been explosions at the finish line. The race was over.
"There were all kinds of rumors," Goldman said. "Someone said a bomb had also gone off in Times Square."
Runners from the Boca Raton group were scattered, because the Boston Marathon has staggered starts according to age and ability. Duchock had finished the race 30 minutes before the explosions, and was retrieving her personal gear from a shuttle bus. Stephen Palmer, of Delray Beach, finished and had just arrived back at his hotel on the Boston Harbor. Erica Flaks, of Boca Raton, was already back at her sister's house in Bedford, Mass.
Their phones lit up with texts and calls from concerned friends and family. Goldman said she immediately worried about her boyfriend, who was supposed to meet her at the finish line. She was able to borrow a stranger's phone and eventually found out via text message that he was OK.
In the weeks after the race, Goldman said she was "angry about what happened, upset about not getting to finish and guilty about being upset, considering so many people got hurt."
RJ Simms said it worked out well that the bombing anniversary (April 15) was marked separately and somberly, and that this year's race falls nearly a week later. The Boston marathon is always run on the third Monday in April, the Patriots Day holiday in Massachusetts.
"It's going to be a celebration of spirit and resilience," Simms said. "We're going to move forward and make things right on the road."
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