Why return? To 'show solidarity'

BOSTON -- The downtown streets are full of uniforms. There are six, eight, 10 police officers to a long city block, wearing neon green vests. National Guard troops patrol in camouflage. Agents for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, whose job it is to solve the puzzle of bomb construction and trace scraps of wire and metal to the sick minds who put them together, have been occasionally visible in their all-business navy blue windbreakers.

But with all due respect to the guardians of public safety, the biggest army on the sidewalks Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the terrible attack on the Boston Marathon, was dressed in bright royal blue and gold, the colors of the Boston Athletic Association. The runners could have disguised themselves in civilian gear, but they wore their participants' jackets. They wanted people to know who they were.

It was beautiful here in Back Bay, a few degrees warmer than Monday's edge-of-raw, with sun and a light wind. A strolling saxophonist played "Over The Rainbow" and "The Star-Spangled Banner." It felt like another day off, with an undertow of reflection and sadness.

Runners were everywhere. Many of them were walking along Arlington Street at the foot of the Boston Common to and from a quirky old building called The Castle. That is where the BAA was handing out finishers' medals to the 4,000-plus prevented from finishing the race by the explosions that ripped across the homestretch on Boylston Street.

Some were stopped literally yards from the line, pushed forcefully off the course by police who had gone from vigilance to war readiness in an instant. Kristen McGuinness was a block away from the first blast, and she didn't need convincing. She heard the bomb detonate and saw the smoke billow skyward. Her first thought was not about crossing the finish herself, but about her husband and two children sitting in the VIP area parallel with the explosion.

"Words can't express," McGuinness said. But Tuesday, she tried. She saw a boy the age of her own son lying mutilated in the street and felt instinctively that he was dead. She tapped frantically on her cell phone, unable to get through to her husband. "Strangers were helping strangers," she said, and a stranger saw her distress and let her use his phone. She got through and learned they were safe, but it took another hour for them to wend their way back to each other through the maze of crime-scene tape and closed streets.

"I went from an ultimate high to -- it was supposed to be the best day of my life, and it was the worst. All I did was pray and pray, and a lot of it."

But why make the trek downtown to pick up her medal? Why cherish any reminder?

Like many, McGuinness was running for someone other than herself. She raised $4,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Newton (Mass.) on Monday. She didn't get an official finishing time, but she feels as if she did what she set out to do whether or not there is digital proof. And she said she will do it again. "This won't stop me," she said. "Will I bring my husband and kids to meet me at the finish line? Probably not."

Granted, it was a decidedly unscientific survey, but none of the other dozen runners who stopped and talked said anything other than this: I will be back. No question. Next year. As long as I qualify. "Just to show solidarity," said Rodney Lobato, 47, of San Diego, who finished his third Boston Marathon before the bombs went off but was in the medical tent being treated for dehydration when the first gravely wounded victims were wheeled in. His friends Svetlana Yesaulova (a six-time Boston finisher), Mark Cullivan (two) and Matt Olson (one) all nodded in agreement.

Christian Breen, a restaurant owner from Salem, N.H., was at Mile 25 when a call beeped through the music on his smartphone. Anyone who knew him knew he was running his first marathon, so he knew it must be important; it was a family member at the finish who relayed terrible news. He saw a medical tent and stepped off the course. It was an unceremonious end to a year of training, but Breen said he feels the same sense of accomplishment. "I didn't do the finish line, but I had the experience," he said. "There's no way I wouldn't do it again. It shows that no matter what, we have a goal."

Kristina Scaviola of Dracut, Mass., said she wasn't supposed to run Monday. In fact, she alternated running and walking because of a hairline stress fracture in her femur that had kept her from training properly for the two months leading up to her first Boston Marathon. She raced with her cell phone and cab fare in her pocket just in case she couldn't finish. Her husband took a picture of her smiling and waving jubilantly from the crest of Heartbreak Hill. The hardest part was over, or so she thought. "It was a magical race until the very end," she said.

Scaviola's Garmin watch and her race stopped at 26.14 miles, .06 short of the finish and just yards from the site of the second explosion on Boylston Street. She smelled gunpowder and saw flying shrapnel and, oddly, a shredded dollar bill wafting through the air.

Then she more than made up for that last six-tenths of a mile to the finish. She walked and walked, first a circuitous route around the cordoned-off crime scene, then across the river to a subway stop in Cambridge. She was spared the sight of any gore, but the images she saw later will not fade easily.

Yet Scaviola walked out of The Castle on Tuesday with her medal around her neck and her wrinkled bib number (#14114) clutched in one hand and every intention of returning.

"I'm shocked they would pick our Boston Marathon," she said. "Why a marathon? Runners are peaceful, happy people who put themselves through all kinds of torture.

"Marathons are a triumphant experience, and there's a high point and a low point no matter how fit you are. I feel terrible for people who were doing their first marathon. I'm not upset I didn't finish. I proved to myself I could do it."

And then she and her husband walked on, putting one foot in front of the other, like all of Boston, in and out of uniform.