Heavy security helps instill light mood at 2014 Boston Marathon (+video)

Spectators along the Boston Marathon course seemed mostly grateful for the phalanx of police and other security measures in place to safeguard this year's race after last year's bombings.

By , Staff writer

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    Runners cross the finish line of the 118th Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. An estimated 1 million spectators turned out for the Boston Marathon on Monday, lining the 26.2-mile course to see a race that has always been a festive event for the eight cities and towns it passes through.
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Under the watch of police officers out in force, an estimated 1 million spectators turned out for the Boston Marathon on Monday, lining the 26.2-mile course to see a race that has always been a festive event for the eight cities and towns it passes through, but that this year was perhaps more so.

The jubilant mood came not in spite of the beefed-up police presence along the course, but rather because of it. Many spectators credited the extra security with restoring a carefree atmosphere to the race, which had been shattered last year after two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line in Boston, killing three people and injuring 260 others. 

With those two bombs came the harsh realization that the world’s oldest continuously held marathon, and one of Greater Boston’s most cherished events, might not be the same reliable race it had been every year. Its annual traditions had, it turned out, belied its vulnerability. Something awful could, and did, happen last year – possibly signaling an end to a race course lined with tables stacked with cups of Gatorade; sizzling, smoky barbecues; and hundreds of thousands of well-wishers for whom this race is an annual celebration of what it means to live in Massachusetts.

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Last summer, federal and local officials decided that the 2014 marathon would indeed look different that it had in years past: It would be more secure than ever. Security cameras would be installed at more than 50 points along the route. Certain items, including coolers and bulky blankets, would be banned. Police presence would be more than doubled.

On Monday, that extra security was apparent. At about 9:45 a.m., just before the first wheel-chair racers whizzed through the halfway point in Wellesley Center, four helicopters flew low and loud over shops selling ice cream and lilac-scented soaps. Nearby, two officers from the New York Police Department’s bomb squad stood next to their cruiser parked outside a bustling coffee shop, from which spectators were ferrying coffee and bagels back to their lawn chairs.

Elsewhere, out-of-town police officers from nearby suburbs of Weymouth, Milton, and Easton manned barricades. Military police officers and National Guard soldiers walked up and down the streets, and Massachusetts State Police officers in vans cruised down the course at regular intervals.

Still, officials managed to make good on their pledge that Boston’s 118th marathon, despite the bolstered security, would remain as light-hearted and fun as ever.

“From the beginning, there was unanimous agreement that we needed to preserve the traditional character and flavor of the Boston Marathon,” said Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, in an interview with the Monitor last month. “I think we’ve done that.”

“Everywhere people look, there will be a police officer,” he says. “But I think people will be happy to see one.” 

That appeared to be true Monday, as spectators lining the woodsy portion of the race route stretching from Natick to Wellesley said the extra police were both obvious and welcome.

“You do notice the extra security, but you feel more comfortable because of it,” says Jim Pech, who was waiting at about 9:30 near the course’s midpoint, at Wellesley Center, to see his partner, Ron Hankins, pass.

In town from Polk City, Iowa, Mr. Pech was wearing a cow hat on his head, per tradition. Each year, he surprises Mr. Hankins, who has run the Boston Marathon four times, by wearing a funny hat. Last year, it was a pink wig.

“From my perspective, it really feels the same,” says Pech, of the race.

For some, the race – always a logistical challenge for those trying to coordinate seeing friends and relatives along the course – also seemed much as it always had. 

On a 9 a.m. train from Boston’s South Station west to Worcester, which stops in several towns along the marathon route, a runner’s father and husband laid plans for the afternoon. If their runner, Kelli, ran 10-minute miles, she would be in the town of Ashland at 11:05, the pair, both from Chicago, reasoned. The plan was to see her run in Ashland and then catch the 11:15 train back to Boston to find her at the finish line.

“We can’t dawdle,” said Mike Palm, Kelli’s husband.

But over in Natick, spectators could – and planned – to dawdle. Along a section of the course that peels past tidy suburban homes, locals flipped burgers and flopped on couches that had been toted from living rooms to the great outdoors for the occasion.

One resident, Scott Russell, had built a 16-foot-tall replica of the Prudential tower (which graces the marathon finish line) on his front lawn, and guests at his picnic who climbed to the top roared as runners thudded past.

“We do all this for the sake of family, of friends, of being together,” says Mr. Russell, who last year built an Eiffel tower replica from which to watch the race. “And everyone on that course is a part of this family.”

Just up the course, at the Natick-Wellesley border, residents had also settled down for the long haul, hopping up from picnic blankets to reel in errant dogs and to offer orange slices to the elite men who ran past at about 11 a.m. One runner, Meb Keflezighi, would soon become the first American man to win the race in 31 years, finishing the course in 2 hours, 8 minutes, and 37 seconds.

“Welcome to Wellesley,” hollered one woman, from her lawn chair. “Looking great! Welcome! Doing great! Welcome!”

About half a mile up the road, where students from Wellesley College have gathered year after year to yell their support for the passing runners, the so-called “Scream Tunnel” was as loud, or maybe louder, than ever – so loud, in fact, that one woman, holding a sign “Kiss Me: I lost my voice,” declined to be interviewed, pointing to the sign as an apologetic explanation.

If the marathon felt different this year, it was more exuberant, more proud, than ever, the students said. This year, Munger Hall, the dorm that by tradition takes requests on its Facebook page for marathon signs got more than 800 requests, up from about 250 last year, says Claire Milldrum, a Wellesley College student.

“Everyone is more excited this year,” says Ms. Milldrum. “I’ve never felt unsafe in Boston, and I don’t think I ever will.”

As she spoke, a state police officer, chugging along on a motorcycle, princess-waved to the cheering crowd.

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