"I've been coming to this for about 30 years now," said Joe O'Rourke, 66, of Bedford, N.H. "It's the best day. It really is. It always is. But I have never seen crowds like this."
A giant video screen was erected high above the corner of Boylston and Exeter Street so fans could watch the race. The street roared as Meb Keflezighi held off all challengers and became the first American man to win since 1983. He led from start to finish, though he won by only a few seconds.
The throngs chanted "USA, USA, USA" as he ran the last few hundred yards.
"This is so perfect," said Peg Davis, 46, of Kingston, R.I., Jessica's mother.
This was the 118th annual marathon, the nation's oldest and most historic foot race. And it was the most emotional in history - the first since the bombings last year that killed three people, and injured and maimed more than 260.
Teree Brennan, 51, of Garnet Valley, Pa., was visiting her daughter, enjoying the race along Boylston. "This is probably the safest city in America today," she said.
Jeff Vicaro, 44, who lived in Northeast Philadelphia for many years but left in 2000 for Los Angeles, said he never imagined it possible to secure all 26.2 miles of a marathon course. But he's run several, including Boston, and this was like no other. "I've never seen such a presence of police," he said. "They were every 50 yards. It was crazy."
Dee Perkowitz, 49, an ironworker from Westville, N.J., was forced to stop a few hundred yards before the finish last year. She was back running Monday, but the intense security upset her.
"Oh my gosh, the police were everywhere," she said. "Snipers on rooftops. ... It seemed to me more of a party on the course today, but I don't feel that way about it. It's not a happy occasion for me. It's something I had to do. And now I can move on."
Perkowitz was probably more the exception than the rule. So many felt the run was a release, and a day of America at its best.
Johanna Hantel, 54, of Malvern, Pa., injured in the blast last year while running, said the last three days in Boston were incredibly uplifting.
As for the race, temperatures in the high 60s took their toll. "I just completely cramped up," Hantel said. "I had to stop, walk, and stretch. But the support was amazing. People were thanking me for coming back and running. That was touching."
She took her time on the course, soaking it all in. "Passing the bombing site was not easy," she said. "I kind of had a breakdown and had to find Dr. Palamarchuk. He took care of me."
Howard Palamarchuk, an associate professor at the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine, has led a team of students to work the medical tent for nearly three decades. He also treats Hantel as a patient in Philadelphia. When she found him in the tent, he gave her a huge hug and stayed with her until she located her friends.
As for breaking down and crying at the finish, Hantel thinks it was healthy. "It's taken a year," she said. "I think it was good for me. I held it in."
Palamarchuk, 61, said not a day went by in the last year when he didn't revisit the tragedy in his mind, and he was both extremely eager and anxious to come back. He walked the course along Boylston on Sunday by himself. "I made my peace with it," he said.
He and his students were extremely busy Monday - not with bombing victims, but, happily, cases of dehydration and heat rash from the unusually warm weather, as well as the usual blisters, cramps, and other running issues.
Palamarchuk paused at exactly 2:49 p.m. - the moment that the first bomb went off last year - to see if anything would happen. Nothing did.
Mike Schlitt, 55, and Cindy Hill, 52, South Jersey pediatricians, ran again this year with their daughter, Meghan Schlitt, 24, a Thomas Jefferson University medical student. Mike Schlitt said that he hadn't run a step in five weeks, suffering from a stress fracture, but that there was no way he wasn't coming back.
He felt the pain after one mile. And "by mile two it was really killing me," he said. But with the crowd's support and his own grit, he limped along the second half at 13-minute miles, his wife alongside him. Their daughter had gone ahead.
He said he and his wife had high-fived the crowd the last few hundred yards down Boylston. "The energy and the emotion - for them and for us - was just beyond description," he said. "It was electric."
Nearly 5,000 runners who were not able to finish last year accepted invitations to return this year. Rita Jeptoo of Kenya successfully defended her women's title and broke a 12-year-old course record, finishing in 2 hours, 18 minutes, 57 seconds. Buzunesh Deba of Ethiopia was second at 2:19:59.
Keflezighi, the overall winner at 2:08:37 - 11 seconds ahead of Kenya's Wilson Chebet - pulled out before last year's race due to an injury and said he left the stands about five minutes before the bombs went off. This year, he wore the bombing victims' names on his bib.
The weekend leading up to the race was filled with emotion as well.
On Easter morning, at Trinity Church on Copley Square, runners were asked to come forward for a special blessing.
"The whole church stood up and clapped for several minutes until tears were streaming down the face of every runner, including mine," said Brandon Hamilton, 46, of Haddon Township, president of the South Jersey Athletic Club. "As the runners went up for Communion, the organist started playing Chariots of Fire."
Hamilton said the level of emotion was almost indescribable. He saw several fellow runners carrying thank-you cards to hand out to the crowd as they ran.
It was the spectators who suffered most of the injuries from the bombings. And yet the crowds along the course were by all accounts bigger, louder and deeper than ever.
Even louder than at the finish, many runners said, were the women of Wellesley College, around milepost 12.5.
"The girls were outside screaming at the top of their lungs," said Tony Mastroberardino, 39, of Erie, Pa. "It was like a rock concert."
Many, in keeping with tradition, held signs urging runners to kiss them. "One said 'Kiss me, I'm a chemist,' " Mastroberardino said. "I was tempted. If she'd said, 'Kiss me, I'm a mathematician' " - he's a math professor at Penn State Erie, the Behrend College - "I would have done it."
Steve Scoleri, 42, a Drexel University graduate who lived in Philadelphia for many years before moving to Atlanta, showed no such restraint: "I kissed some random girl. It was wonderful. She was holding up a sign asking me to kiss her, so I did."
Scoleri said the Boston College women were also holding up signs, but by the time he reached Brookline at mile 23 he was too tired and too focused on finishing.
Among the spectators was Terry Delaney of Haddonfield, N.J., who ran last year. "My decision to come back was really a show of support for the fans who have supported me," he said. "It was just to show the support for a place where I felt the love for so many years."
He hung out this weekend with many other runners from the Philadelphia area, just like in previous years. "The traditions and the routines before the race were exactly the same," said Delaney, 52. "There was something restorative about that."
Amy Garofalo, 46, of Middletown, Conn., was knocked unconscious by the blast a year ago at Forum, a restaurant on Boylston near the finish. She went back there this year to watch. She was still watching and cheering late in the afternoon, more than four hours after the leaders had crossed the line.
"It has been a great day," she said. "It's the day we should have had last year. I was feeling anxious walking to Forum this morning, but the anxiety disappeared and the day has been inspiring, exciting and beautiful. Just as it should be!"
BY THE NUMBERS
Runners in the 118th Boston Marathon.
Estimated size of crowd.
National Guard soldiers and airmen.
Medical personnel on hand with 500 bags of ice, 800 cots, 4,000 adhesive bandages, 500 tubes of petroleum jelly, 25 EKG machines, and 10,000 pairs of medical gloves.
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