'Boston celebrates the human spirit'

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An estimated 36,000 runners will take part in Monday's Boston Marathon.

New York Road Runners president and CEO Mary Wittenberg will be one of the runners in Monday's Boston Marathon. Wittenberg, who hadn't run a marathon in 20 years before deciding to try to qualify for the race, wanted to show solidarity with the Boston Athletic Association, which hosts the elite event each year.

Wittenberg spoke with espnW.com on Friday from the John Hancock Sports & Fitness Expo, where runners pick up their numbers in the days leading up to the race. It was clear from the conversation that this event will be as much of an emotional test as a physical one.

NYRR has nine runners and 35 people working with BAA this year. "It means a lot to us to recognize how strong they've been," Wittenberg said.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Question from Jane McManus:
What prompted you to run?

Answer from Wittenberg: This is one not to miss, you know? After last year [and the bombings], we wanted to be here in full support and be part of the honoring those who were lost and hurt, and really honoring Boston and be part of the way forward.

Q: When did you decide to try to qualify for Boston?

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Mary Wittenberg on participating in this year's Boston Marathon: "You want to remember, you want to honor by running forward."

A: A year ago, I was actually supposed to run London. I had foot surgery in July and I wanted to do another marathon. I hadn't done one in 19 years and I wanted to do another one before my foot surgery, because you never know.

To be honest, I had never planned to run Boston in my life. It's hilly, it's tough and it can be tough weather. It can be hot after winter training, so I never set my sights high enough for Boston.

If I ever did another one, I thought it would be Berlin or London or Chicago -- flat, fast and easier. But I started thinking that Sunday, "I should run Boston." I didn't know if I could because of my foot, but I thought that's really what I want to do.

I had foot surgery in July, and all that mattered to me was if I could do it and be healthy. I really just wanted to be here and be part of it all. So I ran Prague last spring to qualify. I was in Prague for meetings and I wanted to qualify, I didn't want to just run it. I wanted to come in the time-honored way of running Boston; so it won't be my first marathon in 20 years, it'll be my second.

Q: Have any of the professional runners expressed concern about safety issues this year in Boston?

A: Not at all from the professional running community. I've got to say, it's impressive because it's the same reaction [as it was] after 9/11. I remember looking up and being so proud because we had all these athletes on our starting line.

When you look back and remember, six weeks [post-9/11] was a really scary time in the United States. And Boston is the same way. We spend an awful lot of time talking to our recreational runners about safety and security, but I have not heard one professional athlete question it. Certainly, they were all traumatized here last year, but they are close to the logistics because they are always working with the organizers personally. They tend to know how much is surrounding these events.

Q: How has the larger running community processed the experience?

A: There's a loss of innocence that is forever gone. 9/11 was an attack on the city. Boston was an attack on the city, but also in our sport. It's still hard to think about it, and being here you really feel it, but those were spectators, family and friends. Not only were the recreational runners [finishing] during that time period, but it's also the heart of what's unique in our event, which is people coming to cheer strangers on. That innocence is gone. The good thing is you want to remember, you want to honor by running forward.

Q: How much of this is going to be an emotional experience?

A: You're making me realize it's going to be hard to talk through this without getting emotional. I'm not running a marathon just to run a marathon. I was done with that 20 years ago. They have to have meaning now. I want to run one more when one of my boys [Wittenberg has two sons] wants to run in 10 or 15 years. This one is not just about running a marathon at all; it's about running this in Boston. It's not going to make a difference to anyone else whether I'm in the race or not, but to me, it's where I want to show my support to all who were injured or lost, and to the city of Boston.

Q: What is the bigger message this race sends?

A: The important thing is -- terror, and people doing bad things - it can undercut and stop [us] for a day, but it can't stop moving forward the celebration of the human spirit that these marathons are, and it's time to get back to that. It's like we're now celebrating a fuller human spirit. That finish line is going to mean more to me, individual runners and the city of Boston, more than ever.

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