Finding strength in numbers, training

Dave Fortier and Lee Ann Yanni have been instrumental in building the 4.15 STRONG team. Adam Golfer/Runner's World

Stepping out of the Marathon Sports running shop in downtown Boston, members of 4.15 STRONG glance at the traffic-worn yellow-and-blue Boston Marathon finish line as they make their way down Boylston Street.

Some run with the confident gait of previous marathon finishers. Some walk. Others limp. But the pace and the mechanics don't matter. They are returning to the grounds of the 2013 marathon bombings, to try to put their physical and mental scars behind them in preparation for the 2014 Boston Marathon.

"A lot of us have talked about how the anxiety will be the hardest for us, so we keep practicing being near the finish line," says Lauren Vulcano, 25, a graduate student from Northborough, Mass.

As Vulcano stood near this spot with her boyfriend last April 15, waiting for his brother to finish, shrapnel from one of the bombs cut her shoulder, and the explosion broke bones in her ear. A gash in her boyfriend's leg required stitches.

Vulcano and the other members of 4.15 STRONG form a support group/training team made up of people injured in the 2013 bombings near the finish line. The 30 members share the goal of covering 26.2 miles however possible -- running, walking, or a mix of the two. An additional 20 survivors with amputations or other severe injuries may participate in the BAA 5K (held two days before the marathon) or a separate tribute run/walk event that was still in the planning stages at press time.

As they navigate the city together, team members are finding training to be a powerful way to help them heal from the trauma that first brought them together.

"We are running to prove that we're stronger now than we were last year," says Lee Ann Yanni, 32, who was watching the race along Boylston Street when debris from the first bomb ripped open her left leg.

"I looked down and saw my bone sticking out. So much blood was pouring out, it felt like a hose." With her husband's help, she staggered into Marathon Sports. She later endured three surgeries in five days.

Yanni and Dave Fortier are helping other bombing victims train for the Boston Marathon. She and fellow survivors met a few weeks after the bombing, when they started attending a support group formed by the Boston Public Health Commission. It was an opportunity for the victims -- whose injuries ranged from relatively minor (hearing damage) to severe (extensive shrapnel damage, burns, head trauma) -- to talk about the ordeal and their recoveries with others who shared the same pain and struggles. The group morphed into a training team after obtaining entry into the marathon through The One Fund, a charity created to aid bombing victims.

Although some of the survivors had prior running experience, most had none, which excited but also concerned Fortier. As a Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge charity team runner, Fortier was sprinting toward the finish of his first Boston Marathon when shrapnel pierced his right foot, and the acoustic blast damaged his hearing. He knew what it took to run a marathon, that the training can be a challenge even under perfect circumstances.

"Some people were very new to running," says Fortier, who also ran the New York City Marathon in November. "I didn't want folks to go through this alone. I wanted them to have help so that they wouldn't have a bad experience. They had that last year, and I want this year to be positive."

With that goal in mind, Fortier arranged for Jack Fultz, the 1976 Boston Marathon winner, to provide coaching to 4.15 STRONG. Fortier also reached out to running shops for support. Shane O'Hara, manager of Marathon Sports, which was near the epicenter of the first blast, volunteered to help, providing a meeting spot for group runs, as well as discounted gear.

Greater Boston Running Company, which operates several stores in the Boston area, has donated T-shirts to group members. Fortier and Yanni are also arranging a pre-race pasta dinner and a starting-area gathering place for the team in Hopkinton.

The group's supportive energy has already propelled Yanni across one big finish line. In October, she ran the Chicago Marathon on her still-healing leg, finishing in 5:44. "It's like one big family," she says. "They were so helpful to me when I was training, and now I want to give back by helping them finish Boston."

The team dynamic might be especially valuable to those covering the distance for the first time. Vulcano remembers her reaction when her boyfriend's brother visited her in the hospital after the bombings and said, "We're running next year."

"Oh, no," she remembers saying. "Four to six hours of running is a really long time. But I don't like missing the opportunity to rise to the challenge. I have two working legs. I don't want to stand there and wait at the finish line. That would be worse."

The marathon is also bringing together a group of professionals who treated 32 bombing victims at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown, Mass. The hospital's own 100-runner Race for Rehab team is made up of doctors, physical therapists, and other staff members, including president David Storto, 59, who was running the marathon when he was stopped less than a half-mile from the finish.

He walked two miles to his facility to start making arrangements to admit patients. Former Spaulding patients and their family members are also part of the fundraising team.

Stunned and wounded last year, Fortier doesn't remember crossing Boston's finish line. This year, he expects a much better outcome.

"I feel great about doing it again with this group," he says. "It's a big win for people to come back and finish something their life was altered by last year."