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A heartfelt return to Boston for local running community

More than 250 Austin athletes joined thousands of others on Monday for the 2014 Boston Marathon, some finishing what they couldn’t last year, when two bombs exploded near the finish line, killing three.

In the final two-tenths of a mile of the storied race, they passed a cluster of homemade crosses, a memorial to those who died. Once across the finish line, they hobbled gingerly along sidewalks and hugged friends and family.

“I started getting tears in my eyes coming down Boylston Street,” said Michael Woo, 51, who trained with Austin’s Gilbert’s Gazelles running group. “I tried to hold it back, but coming by the (bombing) sites I couldn’t.”

This year’s race marked Woo’s 25th marathon and seventh Boston Marathon. But this one was different.

He struggled because of the heat — temperatures rose above 60 at the finish — and he quickly dropped his plan to finish the race in less than three hours.

“My feet were burning by mile three, and I was dumping water on myself. I was in survival mode … the last 20 miles I just played defense,” he said. He said the crowds that packed the route cheering “USA, USA” and the handful of runners wearing shirts that identified them as survivors kept him going. “I wanted to do it for the families, the victims and the city. It was pretty special.”

David Schwalm, 46, of Austin, missed five weeks of training leading up to this year’s race due to injury. Still, he couldn’t stay away. He ran the race last year and organized a vigil in Austin to honor the victims of the bombings.

This year he thought of the tragedy as he covered the miles. “It was just emotional during the whole race,” he said. “There wasn’t even a thought of walking. You can’t let those people down.”

John Jertson, 26, of Austin, wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with the word “Baustin” to show his solidarity with the city.

“I think Boston did a very good job of reflecting on the past but moving forward,” Jertson said. He couldn’t believe the roar of the crowd all along the route. “I’ve been to concerts that weren’t as loud as this.”

As for his legs? Sore. “I feel like my dad, and he’s 83,” Jertson said.

Michael Madison, 29, has run the Boston Marathon twice before. This year, though, was the first time he saw metal detectors and police officers on rooftops at the start line.

“There’s no place like Boston,” he said. “Not a quarter-mile went by without someone cheering us on. You didn’t want to slow down because so many people were cheering for you.”

Kyle Endres, 29, a graduate student in government at the University of Texas, rubbed his sore quads as he waited for friends near the finish area.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said of the race.

As she struggled on a course made tougher by the heat, Gretchen Sanders, 33, thought of her coach’s advice from the day before. Steve Sisson, the co-owner of Rogue Running, reminded his group of more than 50 Austin athletes that they weren’t running as individuals or competing against each other, but running as part of something much bigger.

That helped Sanders, competing in her first Boston Marathon, push through the hard parts. She called the final stretch down Boylston the most spirited two-tenths of a mile she’d ever run.

“Amazing,” she said of the atmosphere. “That turn from Hereford to Boylston — you’ve been hearing about it for a year. To finally be on it … I think it’s got to be one of the greatest moments in sports.”

Sipping from a bottle of water, she winced a little with every step and tugged a disposable reflective blanket tight around her shoulders.

Then she said what many marathoners say in the painful hours immediately after their race: “I’m officially retiring from marathoning.”

They don’t all stick to that promise.

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