Sherri Knupp has finished the Boston Marathon 10 times, but she knows Monday’s 26.2-mile journey will be like none other she has experienced before.
The 58-year-old Crystal Lake resident again will line up alongside her running partners, Angela Dampier and Cheryl Naughton – a threesome known in local running circles as The Boston Babes. Like they have in the past, they will ride a bus to the start together. They will take a moment to pose for a prerace snapshot, hug one other for luck and then look forward to reuniting a few hours later after they finish.
But this year when more than 1 million spectators are expected to line the course, the three runners also will shed a few tears at the start of a familiar course that is different after last year’s bombing that killed three people and injured 260 more. Each of the women will carry their own memories into Monday’s marathon – memories they’ve spent a year trying to work through.
Memories that have prompted their return to Boston.
“We thought we needed to go back and redeem the time that we so look forward to because it was really tainted,” said Dampier, 41, who typically runs Boston every other year and who wasn’t planning on competing there until 2015. “So I definitely think [last year’s events] motivated us to go back this year and make peace with what happened.”
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The past 12 months have provided healing and closure for the three runners. But the two explosions still remain fresh, especially for Knupp, the last of The Boston Babes to finish last year’s race.
As Dampier and Naughton recovered at their nearby hotels in Copley Square a mile from the finish line, Knupp had just crossed the finish line and was being handed her medal. That’s when the first bomb went off.
“I’ve done enough races to know that this wasn’t normal,” said Knupp, who works as a nurse. “I turned around and you know that plume of smoke you saw on TV? That’s exactly what I saw.”
Despite just conquering one of the world’s most grueling courses for the 10th time, Knupp started to run toward her hotel. Her flight back to Chicago was scheduled to leave in 90 minutes, leaving her little time to work with. But knowing something wasn’t right, Knupp knew she had to get out of harm’s way.
Her plan was to get to the hotel, shower, change and get to the airport.
That’s when the second explosion took place.
“Honestly, I didn’t even turn around,” Knupp said.
Back at the Marriott Copley Square, Dampier was just finishing her shower when Naughton called her, asking if she knew what was happening. Dampier, the first of the three to finish, looked out her window to see German Shepherds perched on alert on the roofs of buildings along with SWAT team members and armed soldiers.
After she had finished, Dampier had posted a photo on her Facebook page with the message, “I’m Alive,” referencing her finishing the marathon.The irony of the situation suddenly hit her.
“I had no idea what was going to transpire after that,” she said.
Like Dampier, Naughton, now 43, had finished before the explosions turned the finish line into a war zone. Although she was safe, her run had been anxious nonetheless. Naughton’s daughter, Maddie – 11 at the time – stood at the finish line during the race, anxiously awaiting her mother’s arrival.
Throughout her run – her second at Boston – Naughton kept pushing herself to finish as not to keep Maddie waiting too long. It was a discomfort Naughton hadn’t felt before.
“I have to get to the finish – that’s what I kept telling myself, ‘You’re not going to stop,’ “ Naughton said. “I just had this feeling that I needed to get there. I don’t know what it was. It was just a weird feeling that I had.”
As she crossed the finish line, Naughton heard Maddie and other relatives cheering her accomplishment. Later, after the two explosions went off, mother and daughter were huddled up in their hotel room, fearful of what was going on around them. Maddie couldn’t stop crying.
When the first bomb went off, Naughton had confused the explosion for fireworks. But that’s when she looked out her window to see the plumes of black smoke.
“Oh my God – I just kept thinking 9/11 – it wasn’t right,” she said. “It was beautiful outside and that smoke didn’t look like regular smoke. Then it was the sirens and the police and the fire engines. It was very surreal.
“Until we got home, I couldn’t grasp what had happened. It was shock and then it was surreal.”
So started a year of mixed emotions.
A week after the bombing, Naughton, Dampier and Knupp got together to run. Each wore their blue Boston Marathon jackets and hats, determined to run for closure.
After they finished their run, they stopped, embraced and started to cry. They posed for a photo – a picture that now reminds each of them how lucky they were to be able to run again. And to be able to run again together as friends.
Dampier couldn’t get enough of the news coverage. She followed the story that she felt like she had a direct connection to. The more Naughton watched, the more the tragedy seemed real and the more in sunk in. But Knupp couldn’t bring herself to watch.
During her run from the finish line to her hotel, Knupp watched as parents grabbed their children, wondering where to run next. She couldn’t shake the image.
“It’s the worst memory I have – those parents with this look of terror,” Knupp said. “You don’t know where you run, you have your children and you don’t know how to protect them.”
She struggled to shake that memory, and so reliving the experience through media reports was something she didn’t want to do. There was nothing Knupp could do to change what had happened, prompting her to try to move on rather than keep reliving the past.
But like her fellow Boston Babes, Knupp knew she had to return.
Monday’s run will come with mixed emotions.
As excited as the three local runners are to compete for those who were injured or killed during last year’s marathon, some lingering sadness remains. Dampier will be moving to South Carolina in a month and so Monday’s marathon will mark the final time – at least for a while – that that the Boston Babes will run together.
To commemorate the occasion, they will take a new photo and autograph the “Boston Babes” T-Shirts each wore on their trip to Boston.
Dampier worries that she and Naughton will cry too much at the start. Knupp, who has run Boston every year since 2004, again will embark on the gold standard of marathon experiences, determined to create fresh memories after last year’s tragedy.
Even though she wasn’t hurt, Knupp feels like last year’s marathon experience drew her closer to her family and gave her a new perspective moving forward.
“I’ve always appreciated life and I’m always grateful,” she said. “But I think it just strengthens relationships with people because you realize how lucky you are because in any given moment, it could be over.”
Dampier hopes for another bright, sunny day – similar to the one tainted by last year’s bombing. Like Knupp, Dampier will take a moment to reflect on the past, but will spend the rest of her run appreciative for the chance to put last year behind her and her fellow competitors behind her once and for all.
There will be tears, she knows. But this year, the feelings behind them will be different – both at the start of the race and at the finish line that now is forever changed.
“I think it’s going to be emotional, but I think it’s going to have a lot of meaning,” Dampier said. “Runners are persistent and tenacious and I think we’re determined to show the world that nothing can stop you and that you can’t allow fear to rule your life.”
Stepping back onto Boston’s famed marathon course will be the the first step.