Security tight, spirits strong in Hopkinton

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HOPKINTON, Mass. -- The “No Stopping” signs are there every April to discourage motorists from parking near the course of the Boston Marathon. The advisory simply seemed more poignant for the 118th running on Monday.

Under the rallying cry of taking back the region's race, a total of 35,755 registered runners streamed through the sun-kissed center of Hopkinton, the swarm pouring from the Athletes Village at the town's middle school down Grove St. seemingly having no end.

At the starting line, race organizers suggested that nearly 70 percent of this year’s field would be made up of first-time runners. Each of them seemed to have their own story about why they were running, but they all shared a single goal: to finish the race.

One doctor running for Mass General Hospital and the patients he treated approached the starting line with a hand-scrawled message on the back of his race shirt that read simply, “Taking back the finish line.”

And that same message was echoed by Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray, who addressed the runners before the start of the men’s elite race.

"We're taking back our race," said McGillivray. "We're taking back the finish line.”

Before the mobility-impaired racers opened the day with the first of eight starts, there was a moment of silence held in memory of those lost or injured during last year’s marathon bombings.

But cheers soon erupted to break the somber mood. Booths on the common sold shirts that read, “Boston Stronger” in the familiar blue and yellow colors that dominated Monday’s crowd and there was a pride among runners who endured a tough year (and bitterly cold winter) in preparation for this moment.

Security was tight along the course and organizers apologized to runners and spectators as they queued up. A change in policy prohibited most bags, but few seemed to mind. As temperatures soared to 57 degrees in Hopkinton before the men’s elite race, runners gleefully shed their layers before heading out (those clothes were scooped up by volunteers with the clothing set to be donated via the Big Brothers Big Sisters charity).

Hugs and high-5 were available throughout the starting area. Neighborhood children hung signs in their windows (One cleverly wrote, “Run like you stole something!”) Other locals handed out bananas, water, and first aid supplies; another lighter-hearted house had a sign up for “Beer Donuts [and] Cigarettes.”).

Runners overflowed with energy approaching the starting line and craned towards the TV cameras stationed overhead as they set out on their 26.2-mile voyage.

All with the goal of finishing what got interrupted last year.

"I can't imagine the number of emotions that are going to be there," said Katie O'Donnell, who was stopped less than a mile from the end last year. "I think I'm going to start crying at the starting line, and I'm not sure I'll stop until I cross the finish line."

The two pressure-cooker bombs that went off near the finish line killed three people and wounded more than 260.

Police were deployed in force along the course, with helicopters circling above and bomb-sniffing dogs checking through trash cans. Officers were posted on roofs.

Buses bearing the message "Boston Strong" dropped off runners at the starting line in the town of Hopkinton. A banner on one building read: "You are Boston Strong. You Earned This."

The most obvious change for the 118th running of the world's oldest annual marathon was the heavy security. Nevertheless, many found the atmosphere to be calm and friendly.

"I think everybody is being very pleasant," said Jean Bertschman, a Hopkinton resident who comes to watch the start of the marathon most years and had never seen anything close to this level of security.

Spectators went through tight security checkpoints before being allowed near Hopkinton Common.

Runners had to use clear plastic bags for their belongings, and fans hoping to watch near the finish line were encouraged to leave strollers and backpacks behind.

More than 100 cameras were installed along the route in Boston, and race organizers said 50 or so observation points would be set up around the finish line to monitor the crowd.

Runner Scott Weisberg, 44, from Birmingham, Ala., said he had trouble sleeping the night before.

"With everything that happened last year, I can't stop worrying about it happening again. I know the chances are slim to none, but I can't help having a nervous pit in my stomach," Weisberg said.

Race organizers expanded the field from its recent cap of 27,000 to make room for more than 5,000 runners who were still on the course last year at the time of the explosions, for friends and relatives of the victims, and for those who made the case that they were "profoundly impacted" by the attack.

Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia and Kenya's Rita Jeptoo, who crossed the finish line on Boylston Street about three hours before the explosions, returned to defend their championships. Desisa came to Boston last fall to donate his first-place medal to the city as a gesture of support.

Jeptoo, who also won the race in 2006, said she is hoping for a third victory -- and one she can enjoy.

"It was very difficult to be happy. People were injured and children died," she said of last year's marathon. "If I'm going to win again, I hope I can be happier and to show people, like I was supposed to last year."

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 20, is awaiting trial in the April 15, 2013, attack and could get the death penalty. Prosecutors said he and his older brother -- ethnic Chechens who came to the U.S. from Russia more than a decade ago -- carried out the attack in retaliation for U.S. wars in Muslim lands.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, died in a shootout with police days after the bombings.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.