London shows solidarity with Boston

LONDON -- The Mall was closed to traffic but open to the people Saturday morning. They walked the right way and the wrong way and every which way down the homestretch of the London Marathon in brilliant sunshine.

They pushed strollers and pulled roller suitcases. They rode bikes and scooters. They snapped photos of each other jumping and clicking their heels in the air. They massed along the gates of Buckingham Palace and atop the walls across the street to watch the Changing of the Guard. Here and there, a jogger wove through the crowd. Multiple languages melded like the disparate sections of an orchestra tuning to concert pitch, with the clanking of metal barricades being unloaded and hauled into place on the sidewalks providing the percussion.

This sweeping stretch of muted red asphalt flanked by Union Jacks could be the most heavily policed and closely watched road in the world on Sunday, with already-heavy security beefed up by 40 percent, according to local authorities. For a couple of hours before the first runners arrive, The Mall will be as empty as the streets of Boston and its suburbs were during Friday's manhunt-mandated lockdown. And then more than 35,000 runners intend to make the finish line a defiant statement against intimidation.

"I'm like most marathoners -- we're a resolute and determined bunch, and with all the training we put in, we're very reluctant to be pushed off course,'' said Chris Finill, 54, a London resident who is the most renowned member of the "Ever-Presents" who have run every London Marathon since its inception in 1981.

Finill sneaked into the inaugural race under another runner's name and has finished all 32 editions in less than three hours. Even as the marathon has swelled into one of the world's three largest alongside New York and Chicago, Finill said it has kept its populist feel thanks to London-style security, which he called efficient, discreet and "not in-your-face'' because of decades of experience with high-profile events and terrorism incidents.

"Rest assured, this is a global sport and people have been horrified by what happened in Boston and are very keen to honor the victims,'' Finill said. "The fact that it's taking place within such a short time span should provide some encouragement to runners around the world. I think it will be a very positive way of answering last week. I expect it to be buoyant and enthusiastic.''

Runners will observe 30 seconds of silence at the start. Many will wear a simple loop of black ribbon in memory of the four dead and in solidarity with the more than 170 wounded and others traumatized by the Boston Marathon bombings and their aftermath.

Patrick Rizzo, the only American in the elite men's field, said Boston will be on his mind but won't weigh down his legs.

"It didn't deter me one bit,'' Rizzo, who's based in Boulder, Colo., said of competing here. "In those sorts of situations, whether it's an act of domestic or foreign terrorism, the idea behind that is to alter your lifestyle and tap into submission. They picked the most stubborn group of people possible to try to do that to. We put ourselves in pain for pleasure.''

The London Marathon was the brainchild of the late athlete and journalist Chris Brasher, an Olympic gold medalist in the steeplechase and one of the pacemakers who helped Roger Bannister break 4 minutes in the mile. Brasher ran the New York Marathon in 1979 and was so smitten with the experience that he publicly challenged his city to do the same.

"To believe this story you must believe that the human race can be one joyous family, working together, laughing together, achieving the impossible,'' Brasher wrote in The Observer, the newspaper where he'd once been sports editor. "Last Sunday millions of us saw a vision of the human race, happy and united, willing their fellow human beings to a pointless but wonderful victory over mental doubt and bodily frailty. I wonder whether London could stage such a festival? We have the course, a magnificent course. But do we have the heart and hospitality to welcome the world?"

Thirty-four years later, Brasher never could have imagined how much runners and onlookers alike would need this gathering as salve for a blistered soul. His son Hugh, now the race director, affirmed that when he told reporters earlier this week: "We are determined to deliver an amazing event that will focus on one of the core pillars of the London Marathon, which is to have fun and provide some happiness and a sense of achievement in a troubled world.''

Marathons are a magnet for the idealistic and the compulsive, often in combination. Those qualities were on full display at the London Marathon Exhibition, the trade show customarily held before all big races, and where runners queue up to collect their bib numbers and timing tags.

Among those posing for pictures in front of the big red arch at the entrance to the expo, held in the vast ExCeL Centre in East London, was Henrik Franijeur of Copenhagen, Denmark. He wore the blue-and-gold Boston Athletic Association jacket he picked up when he raced the marathon there last week.

"I had some second thoughts, but I decided to be fearless,'' said Franijeur, who finished Boston in 3 hours, 26 minutes and did not witness any of the carnage. "Of course, I will be alert.'' Before running in Boston, Franijeur had his bib number autographed by Kathrine Switzer, who defied a ban on women competitors in 1967. He said he is inspired by her example and intends to pin the number to his shirt Sunday, along with his official one for London.

Jim Wittmer of New Hope, Pa., a partner at the multi-national accounting firm Grant Thornton who is running to raise money for the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, was more emphatic. "I wasn't going to let a couple of idiots, and whatever point they were trying to make, deter me,'' Wittmer said.

Friday afternoon, on a stage surrounded by tables where runners sat, chowing down on penne pasta with two choices of sauce -- Bolognese or meatless tomato and basil -- Martin Yelling paced with a microphone, dispensing practical advice for first-timers, and inspiration for all.

"If someone hands you a packet of gel that looks like Vaseline, don't eat it,'' said Yelling, a triathlete, running coach and commentator who is married to two-time British marathon Olympian Liz Yelling. "Instead, rub it on those bits that might chafe.''

Three-quarters of the London Marathon field run on behalf of charities. Yelling suggested that runners carry a photograph or other reminder of their cause on the course and glance at it when fatigue hits. "Believe you can do it!" he exhorted.

Yelling will be a spectator Sunday and said he will not hesitate to bring his 3-year-old daughter to the race, not to mention Liz, who is pregnant with twins.

"People will certainly have that moment of silence beforehand where they will be quiet and mindful and respectful and recognize the significance of the losses in Boston,'' he said. "But I think the marathon will be a brilliant, fantastic celebration from the [starting] gun.''

Throughout the cavernous exhibition hall, which hosted boxing and wrestling at last summer's Olympics, runners expressed confidence in London's ability to stage as safe a marathon as is possible. And directors of two of the biggest marathons in the United States said they are justified in feeling that way.

Rick Nealis, race director for the Marine Corps Marathon held in Washington, D.C., each October, oversees a course that wends through some of the most hallowed ground in the country. Almost every year, he also deals with entrants who necessitate an extra layer of security -- U.S. elected officials and their family members.

Nealis, a 20-year Marine veteran, traveled to London to observe marathon security operations from the inside in 1997. "They were light years ahead of us then,'' he said, because of the city's long experience in reacting to and guarding against terrorist attacks.

Like all race officials, Nealis didn't want to go into details about what enhanced security might mean in London. Some of it is common sense: More police, both uniformed and plainclothes, where the spectator gathering is thickest. Video surveillance. Closing waterways under bridges on the course. Strict credentialing for the VIP areas at the finish. Tight controls on the size and type of bags runners can bring with them to the start with a change of clothing and other items.

"In the '90s, people used to bring their American Touristers with them because they wanted to catch a flight right afterwards,''' Nealis said. Now clear plastic bags are increasingly becoming an industry standard.

In general terms, Nealis said, organizers of big races are advised to alter their procedures at least slightly every year. "We'll talk to the city of Boston on lessons learned when the time is right,'' he said. "We've already reached out to them.''

New York Road Runners CEO Mary Wittenberg said executives and staff of the six events that make up the World Marathon Majors -- Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York -- customarily gather at each of those races and discuss best practices regarding security, medical operations and communications. "We have met with Scotland Yard, and London has met with the NYPD,'' she said.

New York race officials made sweeping changes in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and the heightened consciousness of New Yorkers to "see something, say something'' is another asset, Wittenberg said. Yet certain as she is that her race is doing a top-shelf job, Wittenberg still considers London the leader.

"There's not much fortune in this situation,'' Wittenberg said, "but one fortunate thing is that London is after [Boston] and not before. It's been healing for those of us in the industry to be together, and I think Sunday the healing will spread from inside to outside, to the public, and go a long way toward settling nerves.''

Wittenberg was planning to run her first marathon in 19 years here Sunday, but will be back home instead, trying to make sure the New York Road Runners' 4-mile race in Central Park goes smoothly. There will be an increased police presence and bomb-sniffing dogs as an expected 8,000 runners take to the course.

By sheer coincidence, the flower beds across from the main gate of Buckingham Palace, where runners will flow around the last turn before The Mall, are planted in the yellow-and-blue color scheme of the Boston Athletic Association. Fittingly, the blue blossoms are delicate forget-me-nots.

Running will still be tough for many. Remembering will be the easy part.

Philadelphia-area native and 2011 London wheelchair-division winner Amanda McGrory is one of a number of elite wheelchair racers from around the world who competed in Boston and will race again here "with absolutely no hesitation,'' she said.

Reporters have been besieging them with questions about how they might serve as role models, comforters and motivators for those who lost limbs or were otherwise maimed in the Boston attacks. McGrory understands the queries, but she said her aim in starting is to deliver a message to everyone.

"The object of an attack like that is to inspire fear and make people stop what they're doing,'' McGrory said. "The best way to respond is to carry on.''

The answer to Chris Brasher's question is clear. London has always had the fortitude to do this. Sunday, the runners and the city will push their collective heart rate to try and demonstrate that life is not a sprint.