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Boston Marathon: A day full of emotions

The Boston Marathon on April 15 was supposed to be a memory that every one of the almost 27,000 runners who took to the starting line would cherish for the rest of their life.

Marathon runners
From left to right, Alexandria area runners Julie Miller, Jeanne Barlage, Shawn Severson and Sabrina Hoppe stood for a photo about a month before all four of them left to run in their first ever Boston Marathon. Barlage and Severson both plan to join the thousands of others who have vowed to run again next April. (Eric Morken, Echo Press)

The Boston Marathon on April 15 was supposed to be a memory that every one of the almost 27,000 runners who took to the starting line would cherish for the rest of their life.

That was the expectation that local runners Shawn Severson, Julie Miller, Jeanne Barlage and Sabrina Hoppe shared going into the day. Now, after an attack that left three people dead and more than 180 injured in two explosions near the finish line, they are left balancing how to remember a day filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.

"There's always that shadow where you kind of feel guilty because you feel [so proud of finishing]," Barlage said. "But that's what we don't want them to take away, the greatness of it, because if they do, they win."

Barlage was the closest to the finish line of any of the four area runners when the first bomb went off. She had just finished running the race in a 2014-qualifying time of 3:58:52.

Barlage had battled tears during her last mile as she realized what she was about to accomplish. She slowly made her way through the crowd away from the finish line as she soaked it all in. Almost 11 minutes had passed since she finished when the first bomb went off.

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"It was just such an intense sound," Barlage said. "We turned around and looked and saw the smoke. The second one went off and then the police were just running and saying, 'Keep moving.' There's so many people, and at that time, they really weren't alarmed."

Confused was the initial reaction for a lot of people around her. It wasn't long though before cell phone service went out for many and confusion quickly turned to concern.

Miller had already crossed the finish line in three hours, 46 minutes, but Severson and Hoppe were still out on the course. Severson was half a mile out from the finish line when she found out what had happened. Her immediate response was to try and figure out where everybody was.

Miller didn't have her cell phone on her, but she had agreed to meet Severson at a certain location after the race. That's where Miller went. Severson sent a text message to friends of hers, asking if they could check for her at that spot. They had never met Miller before so they went to Severson's Facebook page to see a picture of her. That was enough to help them find Miller and assure her that Severson was OK.

"I definitely felt the hand of God's protection and I know that these gals and myself were prayed for by my family and our school and teachers and so forth," Miller said. "For whatever reason, evil still happens in the world, but I do believe that He protected us that day and got us back home safe."

Miller said it took about 45 minutes between the time her family found out about the explosions and everyone knew she had not been injured. Those are moments that left her questioning whether it would be worth lining up for another Boston Marathon in the future.

"I may be different from the other gals because it shook me," Miller said. "As much as my own fear of injury, I just think of my family. I know that they were pretty scared and I just don't want to put my family in that situation again."

Severson and Barlage feel they need to be back and say they will no matter what. Barlage has already qualified with her time and Severson has no doubt that she will in one of the three upcoming marathons in which she plans to run.

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Severson came in with some high expectations for herself. She had hoped to qualify for the 2014 Boston Marathon with this year's time, but her pace started to slip around the 14th mile once the hills and the difficulty of the course started to get to her.

She knew she wasn't going to meet her desired time. Instead of dwelling on it, she changed her approach and enjoyed the experience of running with thousands of spectators cheering her on the whole way.

"I was just so thankful that I was not hurt and that my friends were not hurt," Severson said. "I was fine with not finishing. I was thrilled that I wasn't at the finish line when it happened, and I'm going to be back next year. I plan on it being a great celebration."

Hoppe feels no one can tell them that they didn't finish. Not after she battled a knee injury that limited her to either sprinting or walking for the final 20 miles. That's the only way she could find any comfort once her knee worsened after about six miles of running almost entirely downhill to start the race.

Hoppe was almost 22 miles in when the bombs went off. Her husband sent her a text notifying her what had happened, but no one pulled her off the course. She continued on her way for almost an hour before they stopped her near mile 25. Hoppe was on pace to finish in about five and a half hours, but she was going to finish one way or another.

That's why she returned the next day to get the finishing medal that she felt she deserved. Race organizers agreed. There was even a finish line that someone had drawn for runners to cross before the medal was placed around their neck.

"I did finish," Hoppe said. "I would have finished. It's not like I dropped out at mile 13. I was on my way to 26.2, and I got that medal. As far as I'm concerned, I finished and that's good enough for me."

Hoppe won't be at the starting line of the Boston Marathon next April. She has no plans to ever run another spring marathon in any city, but that stems from the negative impact winter training had on her body and not at all out of fear.

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She is like a lot of runners in that she won't let the tragedy caused by two individuals ruin all the good that comes from this race. Hoppe ran alongside many runners whose only purpose in running was to raise money for charity.

Miller said she was inspired by the people she saw who weren't going to let anything keep them from the race. From a father who ran with his son who has cerebral palsy to athletes who were blind and helped through the course by a guide.

All four were amazed at the welcome they received and the thousands of fans who cheered on runners who finished, from first all the way to last. That's the Boston they will remember when they think of a day that's impossible to forget in so many ways.

That's the Boston that so many will return to when runners and spectators gather for the 118th time on April 21, 2014.

Eric Morken is a sports and outdoor editor at the Echo Press Newspaper in Alexandria, Minnesota, a property of the Forum News Service. Morken covers a variety of stories throughout the Douglas County area, as well as statewide outdoor issues.
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