23 Days: BU community recalls Lu Lingzi

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 23 days until the race.

BOSTON -- Dan Mercurio is a Boston University kid, through and through. The type who’s been coming to BU hockey games since he was in diapers. Who knows Comm. Ave., Kenmore Square and the streets around it like the back of his hand.

He’s also become a marathoner, completing his first Boston in 2012 as a charity runner for the Pine Street Inn. Now the director of marketing and strategic planning for BU athletics, Mercurio ran Boston again last year, finishing just minutes before the bombs went off on Boylston Street.

After a few feverish minutes, Mercurio was able to gather his belongings and return to his Beacon Street apartment, where to his relief he found his family and friends unharmed.

Though the Cohasset, Mass., native was lucky, the close call shook him mentally. In the days that followed, Mercurio thought he was done with running marathons. They take too much time, and the way the 2013 race ended was too painful.

But then he learned that one of the three people killed was a BU graduate student named Lu Lingzi, and that shared connection would ultimately lead to him running again.

“I was like, ‘Oh...’ Your heart sinks, you know?” he said of his reaction to the news. “Your heart sinks anyway, for anybody to lose their life to something so senseless. But to know that it was a member of the BU community ...”

That really brought the reality of the situation, already overwhelming at times, crashing down.

“It made the whole experience tougher,” he said. “The Boston Marathon is the Boston Marathon, but for so many years I knew somebody running it that was associated with BU. And I always used to stand on the BU side of the marathon, the Beacon Street end of it, with my friends. Especially in four years of college it was a big event for us.

“It was definitely something I felt I had a close connection to.”

Ryan Shea felt much the same way. A four-year letter-winner as a midfielder on the BU men’s soccer team, the Hanover, Mass., native always had enjoyed the marathon and admired the runners’ resolve. His cousin Sarah McKitterick ran her first Boston Marathon in 2013 and was stopped short of the finish line.

At work the next day, Shea couldn’t focus. He spent all day scouring the Internet for news on the attacks. He listened to talk radio, watched TV news.

After he punched out, he needed to do something, anything, to feel like he was supporting those directly affected. So he headed to his gym, jumped on the treadmill, fired up his camera phone and hit record.

Twenty-six-and-a-half miles later, he’d run his first marathon.

“I wanted to do it for my cousin,” he said, “for everyone who couldn’t finish.”

Because of the tragedy, the Boston Athletic Association donated 15 spots in the 2014 race, exempt from qualification and fundraising criteria, to the Lu family to raise money for the Lu Lingzi scholarship fund BU established in the wake of Lingzi’s death. The Lu family, in turn, donated seven of those spots to BU, which held a contest to select runners from the school community.

When Mercurio and Shea heard about the opportunity to honor Lu’s memory and run for her and for BU, they didn’t need much prodding to throw their hats into the ring. More than 200 people sent in letters or videos, asking for one of the seven spots, and the two friends were among those chosen.

Though their schedules often are incompatible, the two train together as much as possible and fundraise together.

And while they didn’t know her, they’re proud to be able to run for Lu Lingzi.

“I think it’s going to be extremely emotional,” Shea said of the 2014 race. “It’s going to be a little tough when you remember what you’re running for. ... I think at the end of the day it’s going to be really inspirational, to know that you’re doing it for somebody that you feel connected to, who’s from Boston or from BU.”

Though he’s done it twice before, this race will be on a different level emotionally for Mercurio.

“I’m already nervous. There’s definitely added pressure,” he said. “Certainly on the seven of us and anybody else running for the victims of the marathon [bombings] last year. Before I was running for an organization. Now I’m running for a community.”

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.