Feeling pain of tragedy at a great event

Bill Iffrig, 78, lies on the ground as police officers react to a second explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston on April 15. Enlarge photo

JOHN TLUMACKI/The Boston Globe

Bill Iffrig, 78, lies on the ground as police officers react to a second explosion at the finish line of the Boston Marathon in Boston on April 15.

Yes, I felt fear after finishing the Boston Marathon. I was petrified that I was going to pass out.

Like those running last week in the famed race, nine years ago, I had few worries other than exhaustion.

Here’s what I remember most:

The tens of thousands of spectators along the entire 26.2-mile route, cheering me and 18,000 others, making us feel like champs even though we were 2 hours off the winning pace.

They set up water hoses to douse us on an 85-degree day. They handed us chilled water, ice cubes, Popsicles and more. And these were just spectators and local residents – not the official water stops.

Their enthusiasm and generosity was astounding. Nine years later, I still feel the love.

And I feel sadness – not only for the 180-plus victims of two bombs that exploded near the finish line, but for everyone connected with what could arguably be called the world’s greatest running event.

The Boston Marathon began in 1897, a year after the first Olympics of the modern era. This was the 117th running. I ran the 108th edition on April 19, 2004.

Had those bombs detonated at that parallel moment in 2004, I would’ve been close enough to hear the blasts, if not feel them. At that point in 2004 – more than four hours after the official start – I was sitting on the street, my back up against a temporary steel fence, struggling to stay conscious, wondering if I needed medical attention.

Running and finishing the Boston Marathon was a landmark in my life. But the highlight, by far, was the people along the route. So many times I run events with one eye on the stopwatch. Five minutes into the Boston Marathon I was running merely for the experience.

At every opportunity, I traded high-fives with kids. I wanted to cheer the spectators as they cheered for me. Each time I took cold water to swallow or to douse my overheated body, I thanked them profusely.

Today, I thank them again. And I sympathize with their pain.

Other Durangoans have similar affinity for the event. Matt Kelly ran Boston twice. In 2003, his family members sat in the VIP grandstand across from where the bombs went off, he said in a phone call Tuesday. As terrible as he felt after hearing of incidents such as the Aurora movie shootings or Newtown school massacre, he felt a more direct connection hearing about Boston.

Kelly has friends who ran or spectated this year. As race director of the now-defunct Durango Marathon and the recently resurrected Durango Double, Kelly has even a greater empathy. He has met Boston Marathon director Dave McGillivray.

“It makes me sad for everybody,” Kelly says.

Durango-area and personal connections to the marathon are numerous.

My longtime friend Jane Hand, a Boston-area resident at whose house I ate my post-race dinner in 2004, knew that her husband and two children were at the marathon last week. When she arrived home from work, they had not returned. She feared they’d gone to the finish line. Fortunately, they were fine and had viewed the race from Heartbreak Hill, the famous breaking point for some runners around mile 20.

Kelly used the words “sadness,” as well as “anger,” “tragic” and “senseless” to describe his emotions. In email and other exchanges, he also came across another word: “fear.” In the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, the leading men’s marathoner was grabbed by a spectator, lost time and momentum, and wound up finishing third.

“We can’t protect you on a marathon course,” is the bottom line for event organizers, Kelly says. “We can’t fence 26 miles of a course. Even in the Olympics, we can’t protect runners as we’d like to.”

What security measures are coming for marathons or, for that matter, any other public, mass event?

I just can’t stop thinking of all the happy people who cheered me on nine years ago. I think of the friends and families of runners, the people who love the event and love their city and go out of their way to make you feel like a hero on that special day.

Next year, will they return to line the course as it winds its way from Hopkinton, through a half-dozen suburbs, into downtown Boston?

Will they feel safe?

Bostonians have a well-earned reputation for grit and determination and a no-nonsense attitude. Last week’s terrorism will test their mettle.

I hope the spectators will return in droves. But I fear they may not.

johnp@durangoherald.com. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.