26 Days: Spirit of volunteers defines Boston

In the 26 days leading up to the Boston Marathon on April 21, ESPNBoston.com will share inspiring stories, detail important logistics and go inside the planning for what promises to be an event like no other in the wake of last year's bombings. There are 26 days until the race.

The desire to be a part of the 2014 Boston Marathon in some way, to help in the area’s reclamation from one of its darkest chapters, has been widespread.

“Everybody is all-in. All Boston,” said Ann Everett, who has volunteered to help run the hydration station at the base of Heartbreak Hill for more than a decade. “What happened last year really, to me, was a violation of so many things. It’s that sense of security, that sense that this date belongs to us. That was sort of shaken a little bit and now the thinking is even more so, everybody’s a Bostonian on that Monday. ... People want to be involved, they want to show their solidarity.”

There are 10,000 volunteers this year, a 15 percent increase from 2013, and some 5,000 who asked to help out were politely turned away. To hear from those who have been there before, the desire to remain involved with the race has only been amplified by last year’s bombings at the finish line. Like the marathon itself, these stories run from start to the finish.

Near the starting line in Hopkinton, runners have become accustomed to the voice of Peter Mundy, the announcer at Athletes’ Village, where he provides information, updates and comic relief. He will be handling a jumpy 36,000 who not only have to wrestle with the usual pre-marathon jitters, but also the thoughts of what happened the last time this race was run.

For Mundy, the cold actions of terrorists only enhanced his desire to make this the greatest race in the world.

“I’m not going to let an a--h--- ruin what is a good thing. What happened last year, if anything, it’s driven me more to be back and make sure we don’t let that ruin our lives,” said Mundy, who re-upped with race organizers via email just hours after the bombings.

“Runners get it. It’s about them and that’s why I’m so glad to see that they’ve expanded the field. Runners get it, and they are like, 'Dammit I’m gonna run this thing.’”

The increased number of participants makes for a more difficult job for Curt Comber and his team of bike spotters, whose main job is to help wheelchairs and handcycles navigate the course as they mix with the elite female runners. Barking directions, setting screens and organizing his team as the competitors slow up hills and speed down them makes this a job that goes so far beyond a 26.2-mile bike ride.

“You finish the race some years and you go, that was absolutely crazy for three or four miles when you’re actually keeping the chairs away from the runners,” said Comber, who has performed this job for at least 11 years.

He said he has seen many of the same spectators in the same spots year after year, which lends to the marathon’s hometown feel. But this year will have some changes on that front, Comber said.

“My expectation is it’s not going to be the normal Boston Marathon that’s been an international event that happens in your backyard," he said. "I think it’s going to be much more strict and much more uptight and much more formal.”

Prep work has been more regimented and centered around security concerns, Comber said. Indeed, those same concerns will be on the minds of many, regardless of the extra steps law enforcement officials are taking this year.

If any runners are uneasy approaching the city, Everett’s smiling face is always a boost. There are 18 tables at her hydration station -- nine on each side -- and she is the point person at the first table. Everett has run several marathons herself, including Boston, but says nothing compares to her job each Patriots Day.

“People go, ‘Wouldn’t you rather run it than volunteer, isn’t volunteering less than running it?’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s not,’” Everett said. “If we don’t have the people in our lives cheering us on, being there for us, providing the comfort, providing the fuel, whatever, we’re not getting anywhere. So the years that I’m volunteering, that’s my job.

“It’s just as important as the person running the route to me.”

Everett’s crew does such a bang-up job, right down to trashing every last paper cup strewn up the hill, that marathon organizers have given them free reign to staff their station, so long as they have enough people to fill the necessary spots. It’s become their own, and she has seen every range of emotion on runners’ faces over the years.

That, together with her own experiences running 26.2, have given her a Zen-like interpretation of the race, and her role in it.

“The marathon is the picture of life," Everett said. "We start, we prepare, we have people on the way that are cheering us on. Some people are running with us, some people are at the end waiting for us. So you have this whole picture of your life.

“I’ve always felt that way, and just like in life there are days and there are miles in that race where you’re like, 'I am going to die.' At Mile 22 when you grab the ice cube from the small boy’s hand and put it in your mouth, that doesn’t happen at any other time in your life except right there. So it is such a picture for me of what living life is all about.”

Six miles and one exhilarating cross of the finish line later and racers might encounter another smiling face in that of Cheryl Parcellin, who has distributed medals to finishers for more than a decade, always working alongside her best friend, Dianne Massa. Parcellin was one of many who scattered from the finish line area in the commotion after the blasts, eventually getting lost on some side streets before finding her car, racing home to Revere and trying to take stock of what had just occurred.

For a moment, she and Dianne said that there was no way they would ever go back. What they had experienced was just too horrific. That emotion was quickly replaced by one more in line with the spirit of the marathon.

“Five minutes later we looked at each other and we said, ‘We’re going back,’” she said. “'I don’t care, we’re going.’”

Still, Parcellin couldn’t sleep for weeks and has wrestled with her emotions in the wake of the bombings. For her, volunteering again is all part of that process.

“It’s a good healing thing,” she said. “I’m not going to let them stop me, that type of thing. That type of attitude.”

Like others, Parcellin said there were many who wanted to be a part of her team, but were turned away due to a lack of space.

Everett tells the story of seeing an elite female runner who had hit a wall. She was walking into Everett’s station with a sickly look, an expression of failure on her face. Everett quickly left her post, walked with the woman up Heartbreak Hill and for several minutes talked her off the ledge, convincing the racer that one bad day, one bad race, did not define her.

That’s a mindset many will have on April 21, 2014. One bad day, one bad race, does not define us. In many ways, it is the spirit of the volunteers that does.