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Cherri Brewer was cruising.
Competing in her first Boston Marathon last April, Brewer, a 63-year-old registered nurse from Bend, breezed through the race’s halfway mark in 2 hours, 13 minutes and was eyeing a finish time that would qualify her for this year’s marathon.
“I was doing really well for me,” says Brewer, a fit grandmother of two who has 11 marathons under her belt. “And then all of a sudden we came to an abrupt stop.”
Less than 2 miles from the end of the race, Brewer and thousands of other runners ground to a halt after a pair of homemade bombs went off near the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, an act of terror that killed three people and injured almost 300 more.
None of that information, though, was known to the runners stranded on the course.
“It was like a freeway when there’s a car-to-car traffic jam,” Brewer explains. “And we had no idea why. People started grumbling. ‘Don’t they know it’s not wise for distance runners to stop abruptly?’
“Some people had cellphones,” Brewer adds. “You started hearing words like, ‘bomb,’ ‘explosion’ and ‘blood.’ And then you heard the helicopters and sirens. It was such a surreal scene.”
One of almost 5,000 runners who were unable to finish the marathon because of the bombings, Brewer is back in New England today — along with a host of other Central Oregonians — set to compete in what is expected to be a highly emotional 118th Boston Marathon.
Twenty-nine local runners qualified for this year’s Boston Marathon, which starts today at 5:50 a.m. PST in Hopkinton, Mass., and ends 26.2 miles later in the heart of Boston.
“I decided pretty quickly I wanted to be there (for this year’s race),” says Tanya Koopman, a friend and running partner of Brewer’s, who will be running in her first Boston Marathon this morning. “Having friends that were going back (after the bombing), I wanted to be there and support them.”
A veteran distance runner, Koopman, 44, ran in two marathons last year before qualifying for Boston on her third try at Utah’s Big Cottonwood Marathon. She prepped for Boston this winter by competing in marathons in Phoenix, Sedona, Ariz., and Yakima, Wash.
“I’m excited to be around elite runners, and it’s exciting to be around so many people whose passion is marathon running,” says Koopman, a Bend nurse practitioner who will be competing in her 28th marathon today. “But what’s really incredible is being associated with this marathon, an experience that symbolizes the whole year of Boston Strong.”
Amy Houchens, a physical therapist in Bend, returns to Boston after being stopped about a half-mile short of the finish line last year.
“After we stopped, people around me thought they heard something,” says Houchens, who was fairly close to the blasts. “But for me, at that point in the race I wasn’t all that aware of my surroundings. I was pretty miserable, pretty internally focused to get to the finish.”
Houchens, 46, like Brewer, is one of 4,700 runners from last year who did not finish but accepted an invitation to compete again this year without having to record a qualifying time.
“I felt bad that I didn’t get to finish, and then I felt guilty for feeling bad,” says Houchens, who also runs with Koopman and Brewer. “It took some time to process. Do you say you finished? Would (runners who were stopped) have an opportunity to come back? … I definitely wanted to slay that dragon.”
Stephanie Waritz, a 44-year-old social studies teacher at Bend’s High Desert Middle School, runs today after drawing inspiration from friend and running partner Kathy Lein, who celebrated her 50th birthday this year by running her 50th marathon.
“She worked really hard to qualify for Boston, made it and ran in it last year for the first time,” Waritz says about Lein, a former Bend resident who now lives in North Dakota. “That inspired me and made me think, ‘Wow, let’s see if I can qualify.’ Before, I’d look at the (qualifying) times for age groups and think if I keep running, maybe by the time I’m 60 I’ll make it to Boston if they don’t change the times.”
Waritz shaved 31 minutes off her previous marathon personal record to qualify for Boston.
“I’ve tormented my kids all week, making them listen to me about the Boston Marathon all week,” says Waritz, who ran her first marathon in 2010. “This is sort of the marathon that everyone aspires to do. … It’s going to be really special, and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
While today’s marathon is sure to evoke emotions of all kinds, Brewer in particular hopes to return the kindness and caring Boston showed her last year while she was trying to make her way back to her fiance, now husband, Raymond Brewer. After running about 21 miles of the race as a “bandit runner” with Cherri, Raymond had planned to take the subway to the finish line and wait there for his future wife. The train never came, though, and he ran back to the course looking for Cherri.
“I texted him I was OK on a phone I borrowed from someone, but I didn’t know if he got it or not,” Cherri Brewer recalls.
Once she had been ushered off the course, Cherri began frantically making her way back to her hotel, asking anyone she ran into how to get to Franklin Street.
“Boston was very gracious and very kind to me,” Cherri says. “Anyone I’d ask (for directions), they’d help. Needless to say, when I saw Raymond in the lobby it was very emotional.”
The Boston Strong movement started in the moments after the bomb, Cherri Brewer says, before there was even a name for it.
“Spectators, they brought out a pitcher of water with paper cups and passed them around for the runners while we were stopped,” Brewer remembers. “Others went and got trash bags and punched holes in them to be used as jackets to keep runners warm.”
Later that night Brewer had a good cry and laugh on the phone with one of her daughters, who said she was grateful her mother was so slow and not near the finish line when the bombs went off.
“I was indignant!” Brewer says with a laugh. “I was running a good race. The runner in me bristled at that.
“Our experience (last year) was so minor compared to what other people went through,” Brewer continues. “My one goal coming back here is to honor those killed and injured and to show distance runners will persevere and be resilient.
“This act of horror,” she adds, “will not stop people from pursuing their passion.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0305; email@example.com