Everybody's a winner - even at 6 p.m.

"Welcome slow runners," read a big red sign in white letters near the finish line of last Monday's 103rd Boston Marathon.

It's 6 p.m. Do you know where your runner is?

It's been nearly four hours since the winners, Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia (women) and Joseph Chebet of Kenya (men) completed the 26-mile, 385-yard run to Boston in less than 2-1/2 hours.

But over the next several hours, thousands of other runners jog (or walk) to the finish line. At least one knelt to kiss the pavement in celebration. Some are unofficial runners (known as "bandits"); they all have one goal - to cross the finish line, no matter what.

As afternoon fades toward evening the number of spectators has shrunk considerably. Marathon officials begin to roll up the mats that electronically record each official entrant's finish time. Workers are sweeping up the tons of paper cups, wrappers, and other debris that litter the sidewalk.

"Everything starts to shut down, and there's no one left to greet [the runners]. So that's what we're here for," says one of the men holding the red sign. "Can you imagine crossing the finish line without anyone here to meet you?"

Richard Farrell, running his first marathon, isn't one of those lonely finishers. His personal cheering squad is at the finish line. His wife, Helen, and her two young children, hold a sign reading, "Go Dad Go. We Love You."

"He always wanted to do it, and now he can say that he has," Mrs. Farrell says. Moments later, Richard arrives and is greeted with hugs and kisses. He looks exhausted, happy, and relieved, all at the same time.

For Denise Banet, a college student in the Boston area and bandit runner, it was a personal mission. "I wanted to run because no one [thought] that I could do it," says an emotional Ms. Banet, with tears rolling down her face. "It feels so good. I just want to sit down now."

But she continues to stand.

"I didn't train for it," she explains. "I run about four miles, two or three times a week, and that's nothing compared to this."

Remo Sinibaldi of Clearwater, Fla., one of the official runners, had run two marathons before in New York. He trains with his daughter and son, who both ran the race too. "I'm looking for them right now. They ran ahead of me!" Mr. Sinibaldi says that he will be attending a party tonight where he'll announce his retirement from marathons, "just like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky."

But he might be tempted to run Boston again. "The Boston Marathon is the granddaddy of them all," he says. "Unless you run it, you haven't run the marathon. I was in pain earlier in the race, but it's funny how you forget it after a while."

Ahmie-woma Deen of Milwaukee crossed the finish line at 5:15 p.m. Ms. Deen, who is an actress and a singer, says she was hoping to complete the race in 4-1/2 hours. "The fact that I finished it after doing eight shows [this week] was a great feeling," she says.

Alan Leon, a senior at Boston College, had another reason. "I wanted to say that I did it before I left" the Boston area, he says. "It's something you watch on TV, and think, 'Wow, that's amazing what those people do.' Anyone can run the marathon if they set their mind to it."

Beyond the finish line, a sea of foil "blankets" covers the streets. The runners who have made it this far are walking with them tied around their waists, around their heads, and even sharing them with each other.

Sitting down were friends Nick Fondulis of Saugus, Mass., and Joe Doucette of Melrose, Mass. It was Joe's first marathon, Nick's second. Both say they are sore and cold. So why did they decide to run the marathon?

"To put it on my rsum," says Joe.

"... Of life," Nick says, finishing the sentence.

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