RALEIGH — Esther Dill of Cary trained for nearly two years to qualify for the Boston Marathon a goal she set on her 60th birthday.
Those many miles led her to the starting line last year and most of the way through a race that was filling her with pride. She never made it to the finish line, though.
The bombs that exploded there splintering the crowds, killing three people, robbing 16 of various limbs and wounding at least 260 put up a roadblock that Dill is determined to get beyond.
Like many Triangle marathoners, the 63-year-old Cary retiree plans to return to Boston for the 26.2-mile race. Thousands will line up on Monday to take back their finish line.
I want that sensation, I want that feeling for sure, Dill said.
Though long-distance running is often described as a solitary sport, Dill and other veterans of last years race have adopted the same Boston Strong attitude that has united running communities, the city and much of the country. This marathon, for them, goes beyond personal goals and bests. They want to show the world that acts of terror, no matter the motivation, will not slow them down.
Dill was a half-mile from completing one of the worlds best-known sporting events last year when the sirens started blaring. The race course became chaotic. Confusion, fear, panic and a jumble of emotions set in.
She had participated in other marathons where sirens sounded along the race course. Runners collapse. Emergencies occur. But this was different, she said.
There were so many, Dill recalled. I thought maybe a car had gotten on the course. I didnt know.
Dill had brought her mobile phone with her so she could hang around with her running buddies after the race and then call her husband to come get her. She called him, and he told her what he knew. She told others in the bottleneck with her.
We were just stunned, Dill said. It was nice to have other people around to talk to. At that point, it was obvious it was pretty dire. It honest to God looked like a war zone.
Boston pulls together
Boston, one of the nations biggest cities, has been described as having a small-town camaraderie since the violence on Patriots Day a year ago.
As the anniversary approached, there have been vigils to remember the victims, ceremonies to celebrate the heroism and a montage of media coverage that can be uplifting and exhausting at once.
Its something that runners, I guess, want to convey or prove, Dill said. Theres just no stopping.
Allen Baddour, a Superior Court judge in Orange and Chatham counties, had finished the marathon last year in just less than three hours and was on his way to Bostons Heartbreak Hill to find his family and friends. Then he started getting calls and text messages about the explosions.
He was still basking in the warm, electric feeling that marathoners get from crossing the finish line, proud of his time and looking forward to getting together with fellow runners at one of the citys Legal Sea Foods, a restaurant chain born from the fish market founded in Cambridge.
That never happened.
Public transportation shut down. Tightened security throughout the city made it difficult to move about freely, and eventually the city went into lockdown during the manhunt for the two brothers accused of the crimes.
Baddour knew then that he wanted to go back this year even though he was some distance from the medical tents, blaring sirens and rush of emergency crews tending to the bloodied and maimed.
I was so far removed, literally, from the finish line when things happened, it was not a personal feeling, Baddour said.
Nevertheless, he had what-if moments once he absorbed what had happened.
I went through them, he said recently. What if Id finished later? What if my family was at the finish line?
He even thought about whether he wanted his family to join him again this year. But Baddour said he thinks its important.
Bombings a motive to return
Bart Bechard, 49, a wood stove and chimney installer from Hillsborough, and Wayne Crews, a Cary resident who works at SAS, ran in 2013 and were looking forward to getting lunch and drinks with Baddour after the race.
They, too, said they might not have returned this year had it not been for the bombings.
Bechard had finished his race and was inside a condo when the bombs went off, but he hadnt heard anything before venturing out in the Boston streets to join his friends.
I came out and people were acting strange, Bechard said.
Sirens were blaring then, but he didnt get the real story about what was going on until he checked his phone and a friend from North Carolina wanted to make sure he was OK.
Crews, who has run six out of the past seven races in Boston, said he has experienced a marathon of emotions since the event. His wife and children had been at the finish line waiting for him, and though they were not at the scene of the crimes, the children were scared afterward, and his in-laws were upset.
When it first happened, my mother-in-law said no way youre bringing them back next year, Crews recalled recently.
He does plan to bring them back. But he will ask them to wait for him away from the race course.
Those who plan to return to Boston say they worry less about their own safety, given the enhanced security and new procedures designed to prevent additional terror and copycat episodes.
Nevertheless, they expect the journey to be emotional.
Boston remains special
Kazem Yahyapour, a 59-year-old North Raleigh resident who finished the race last year 12 minutes before the bomb went off, was on his way back to Boston on Friday. He planned to worry less about his time for his 10th marathon and let his mind wander some, thinking about the victims and the resilience of a community determined to continue a sporting tradition.
I want to drink it in, Yahyapour said. Im going to do a lot of high-fives.
Celia Mitchell, a 57-year-old runner from Raleigh, was within yards of the finish line when the first bomb exploded.
She was running alongside a man from Colombia as shards of glass and debris flew into the gathered crowds.
The second bomb went off, and she remembers seeing the bright ball of fire, a sound and image that have haunted her occasionally over the past year.
Its a loud, loud noise, Mitchell said. Thats one noise you know. If I ever heard it again its just such a loud noise.
All the media focus on the anniversary have revived some of those memories and made her wonder about the potential for copycat attempts.
While doing an interview for one TV station on the anniversary of the event, Mitchell heard the news about the mentally unstable man stopped near the bombing site with a rice cooker in a backpack.
Im thinking, Wow, Mitchell said.
But one of the first things Mitchell planned to do after arriving in Boston this weekend was to go back to that section of Boylston Street where the bombs rained terror. She expected a range of conflicting emotions to well inside. By trying to deal with them before the race, she hopes to avoid leaving a trail of tears along the course.
You know, Im hoping I can mentally hunker down and say, Youve done this before, Mitchell said recently. I dont want to be running down the street crying the whole time.
I dont worry about the runners, she added. I think the runners are going to be safe.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1