From Boston to OKC, a race finished

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The woman standing in front of the congregation is 5-foot-1 and shoeless. Her Asics are sitting at the altar to be blessed; her mind is all over the place. What if I fail? Diane Sherer has been asking herself this for days. Fifty-year-olds with bum feet should not run 52 miles in two weeks. When she reached the 25th mile at the Boston Marathon two weeks ago, Sherer was so tired and wracked with pain that she was delusional. She couldn't remember her husband's phone number, even though it was right there on her bib. That marathon, her dream marathon, was supposed to be her last. And now she's here, 12 hours away from torturing herself again.

"I'm looking for Diane Sherer," the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church says in the middle of the Saturday night service, and that's why Sherer is standing. Pastor Mark McAdow tells the congregation her story, how she was a half mile away from finishing the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off and she was forced to stop.

Sherer has come to Oklahoma City, the pastor says, to finish, and the congregation cheers. A handicapped woman with a walker is so impassioned that she stands up and claps. Sherer is embarrassed and sits down as soon as she can.

"It's sweet, though," she says.

The rest of the night, strangers will stop and hug her because she's wearing a light-blue jacket with a Boston marathon patch. They'll hug her because they understand.

About a week ago, the organizers of the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon came up with an idea. They'd invite the runners who didn't finish in Boston to come to their city and run with no registration fees. A handful of runners accepted the offer.

It seemed fitting. Before Boston, before 9/11, there was Oklahoma City. On April 19, 1995, 168 people were killed and more than 680 injured in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. The day started out much like Boston's two weeks ago -- under bright blue spring skies in a city that seemed so different a few hours later.

"We clearly have walked in their shoes," says Kari Watkins, executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum. "We have run this race. We know what it's like to overcome terrorists and not let them defeat you no matter what happens, in death and life."

Sherer accepted the offer because it's Oklahoma City. She lives four hours away in Garland, Texas, and talks with an accent that would make an Oklahoman believe she is one of them. She is now.

First Church, the site of Saturday night's blessing of the shoes, is across the street from where the federal building once stood. Within 36 hours of the Oklahoma City bombing, the badly damaged church hung a banner outside. OUR GOD REIGNS AND WE WILL REMAIN. The banner, according to the church, was meant to display their "can-do" attitude to the world. And that's the spirit of the marathon, which was started 12 years ago to help the city heal.

Sherer is putting her shoes back on when a woman approaches her. She says she's toured the marathon route, and warns her that Mile 25 is tricky. Sherer laughs and says she's heard that before.

"I just want to finish," she says. "Just to show people you can get up and go on."

At 8 a.m. Sunday, roughly an hour and a half after Sherer took off in a mass of bobbing heads, Joe Bowers walked his daughters to the Kids Marathon, which covers the last 1.2 miles of the race. It's the first time Carrie Jean, who's 9, and Emery Jo, 7, have run in a marathon event. C.J. is getting older, and she's started asking questions about what happened to her grandma. Her namesake. Carol Bowers was a supervisor with the Social Security office. Everyone called her Carrie. She put in for retirement in January 1995, but the paperwork was late and kicked back. She was told she'd have to wait until December. On the morning of April 19, she was working in her office when Timothy McVeigh pulled a Ryder truck loaded with ammonium nitrate up to the building.

Joe Bowers was a kid in his 20s at the time. He worked downtown, and used to pull up to that spot when he'd stop in and visit his mom. When he heard the explosion, he called his mom's office and the phone kept ringing. A few minutes later, he tried again. The line was busy. So he rushed down there, but the streets were blocked off.

It was before most people owned cell phones. Bowers figured the best way to hear from his mom was to go home, but then she didn't call, and his gut told him it was bad. She would've called. That night, his worst fears were confirmed: Carol Bowers was dead.

Joe was an only child and was very close to his mom, a jeans-and-sweatshirts kind of woman who was always in the stands for his baseball games and knew about all of the hip clothes and trends. She loved pink roses. Every year, on April 19, Joe leaves a pink rose on her chair at the Oklahoma City memorial. He does not go inside to the museum. He went once, a long time ago, and made sure to avoid the room in which an audio tape of the blast is played. But it was still too much. In one room of the memorial is a display of car keys that were found in the rubble, keys that were never claimed. There's a sad-eyed stuffed cowboy dog from the nursery where many children died. There are shoes that were blown off bodies.

On one wall is an inscription that describes the day. Amid the chaos, people reach out to one another. They assist the living and comfort the dying. It sounds a lot like Boston.

When Bowers heard of what happened at the Boston Marathon two weeks ago, 18 years worth of memories came rushing back. Most of all, it made him angry.

"I'm kind of a spiritual man," he says. "I ask the Lord -- I'm very thankful for what I have -- but sometimes I wonder why He doesn't just pull the plug on this whole thing and start over.

"I can't figure out how someone wakes up one morning so angry at society that you want to take it out on other people."

Bowers tries to think about the good that came out of evil. It made him closer to his family. It made him appreciate things. Bowers and his wife Rachell take their daughters to the memorial every year. He goes, in part, to see the people who are hurting just like him. He doesn't know a lot of their names. But they hug and catch up anyway.

After Boston, someone asked Bowers if he was worried about taking his kids downtown. He said no; he can't live his life in fear. If he could tell the people of Boston one thing, that's what it would be.

He watched his girls "like a hawk" on Sunday. His wife ran with Emery Jo; Bowers took off with C.J., a long-legged kid who is already tough to keep up with. He honored his mom by running with his daughters. He wasn't going to let anyone take that moment away from them.

"A guy from work asked me, 'What if something happens?'" Bowers says. "I said, 'If it does, I hope I'm sitting on it.'"

Ask any runner why they do it, why they punish their knees for a medal or a T-shirt or a time, and you'll get 100 different answers. Diane Sherer liked the way it cleared her head. She'd start with something weighing heavily on her mind, and by the time she was finished running, the problem seemed smaller. Sherer, a software engineer for Raytheon, regularly runs with Christy Korns, a co-worker who's also a good friend. They talk about everything on those runs.

On April 15, Korns was following the marathon at work. It was the first time Sherer had made it to Boston, and the people in her office were eager to see how she'd do. "It's what everyone strives for," Sherer says, "to get to Boston."

The Boston Marathon, she figured, would be her last marathon; a great way to go out. She asked her husband Rusty to fly out and watch. She'd done about 10 marathons, but he'd never seen her run one before.

He met her at Mile 17, handed her a different pair of shoes for the rest of the run, and gave her a kiss. He'd see her at the finish line, around the 4-hour mark.

The last 8 miles were an intense struggle. Her left arch was aching. She'd injured it six months earlier in the Air Force Marathon, and couldn't train nearly as much because of it. Sherer listened to some music on her iPod as she tried to struggle through it -- "Glorious Day" by the Christian group Casting Crowns -- and felt relief when she reached the 40k marker. She knew she was close.

When the explosions went off, she didn't hear them -- her headphones were on -- but everyone around her did. At first, they thought it was firecrackers or celebratory cannons. They were forced to stop at 25.7 miles. At first, Sherer was just confused and wanted to finish the marathon. Soon, she was frantic. She heard the explosions were at the finish line. Rusty was at the finish line, she thought.

The runners stood on the course for 45 minutes. She couldn't get a hold of him. She limped 2 miles, through the crowds, to find him. It was in the 50s, and she was covered with sweat. She was freezing.

"It was the worst thing," she says. "It's kind of selfish running a marathon. You're running by yourself.

"I would rather have something happen to me than him because he's coming to watch me. This is my deal; it's not his deal."

Turns out Rusty missed his subway to get to the finish line, and was OK. Back home in Texas, Korns was tracking her friend online. She quickly knew she was OK. A couple of hours later, when Sherer got her cell phone, she texted Korns.

"Holy crap," she wrote.

When Sherer found out people had died in the bombing, the fact that she didn't get to finish seemed meaningless. But then Oklahoma City extended an invitation, and Sherer asked Korns if she'd run with her.

They drove four hours on Saturday morning to get there, stopping at a Starbucks for an extended amount of time. They knew they wouldn't sleep Saturday night. They rarely sleep the night before marathons, and it wasn't going to be any easier to get some rest before this one. Their alarms were set for 4:15 a.m. When they went off, they'd already been awake for nearly three hours.

Amy Downs ran in the half marathon on Sunday. In 1995, she was the last survivor to be pulled from the Murrah Building. She was 28 years old that day in April when the redbuds were blooming. The only things weighing heavily on her mind were her career, making money and the things that young people dream about. She had a co-worker who was 7 months pregnant. Everybody was excited about that.

Downs was just about to ask her co-worker if she needed anything, and in that split second, the building blew up.

She plummeted three floors. She was trapped in the rubble for 6½ hours. Her co-worker never made it out. Downs runs and sees the banners all over town with the names of the victims, her friends.

She runs because she can.

There's a training program developed by an ex-Olympian named Jeff Galloway. It is designed to make marathon running easier by using a walk-run ratio. Sherer and Korns, fearing that they're overmatched, decide to follow that plan on Sunday in Oklahoma City.

But by the 22nd mile, Sherer's calf starts to cramp up. They walk more. They reach the 40k marker, and Sherer soon gets a weird feeling. She's almost exactly where she was two weeks ago when everything changed. But they kept going, and finish in 4:42.28. It's probably the worst marathon time she's ever had.

It doesn't matter. They hug. Sherer cries.

"It's kind of a feeling of closure," she says. "What happened in Boston and in Oklahoma City, they're so related. It kind of felt like a completion to the Boston Marathon, too."

This was the first major U.S. marathon since Boston. The morning started out with 168 seconds of silence for those who died in the Oklahoma City bombing, then another three seconds for Boston. An extra layer of security -- marathon organizers wouldn't elaborate on how many more police were called in -- ensured that nothing happened. And then roughly 25,000 people ran and wheeled and remembered. And finished.