Three area racers will make their Boston Marathon debut today.
BOSTON — Pat Mills remembers the confusion of that terrifying day one year ago.
The miscommunication. The cell phones not working. The runners not knowing where to go.
Moments before the chaos, Mills was two blocks beyond the Boston Marathon finish line, chatting with his friend, race volunteer and fellow Champaign resident, Danny Lichtblau.
Suddenly, they heard a loud boom and saw a big puff of smoke back toward behind them.
"My first thought was it was the Patriots Day cannon," said Mills, whose wife Julie Mills was still on the marathon course with Lichtblau's wife, Eileen.
After the second boom, they knew it was "something not good."
As news of the two bombings near the finish line filtered down the street to runners and race volunteers, the sound of sirens grew stronger. Mills immediately began doing the math about where Julie might be in her run. He figured she may not be on her usual pace — the challenging course can slow even the best runners — and would be short of the blast area.
His math was good.
Julie was about three-quarters of a mile from the finish line, not quite to Boylston Street, where two explosions in the last few hundred yards of the marathon route killed three spectators and injured more than 200 others, including runners, that third Monday of April 2013, Patriot's Day in Boston.
Mills spent the next 45 minutes searching for his wife, scrambling to a hotel on another part of the race course where runners were supposedly gathering, only to find nothing. He headed back to where he'd been, only to see what looked like hundreds of ambulances.
"OK, this is worse than I thought," Mills recalls thinking.
He finally got back to the bus loading area, where marathon runners are taken to the post-race celebration. There was Julie. She was OK. The Lichtblaus were, too.
"It was very somber," said Mills, who had planned to be back at the marathon today in a volunteer's role, but those plans changed when his wife, Julie Mills, and Eileen Lichtblau, both suffered injuries that kept them from running the marathon again. They, like thousands of other racers who didn't get to finish the world's most famous marathon last year, were invited back to participate today but won't due to their injuries.
But the Champaign-Urbana area will be well-represented today, six days before C-U hosts its own Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon.
For three area racers, today will be extra special. Set to make their Boston Marathon debut today: Champaign's Marty Williams, 43, and Jeff Kohmstedt, 41, and John North, 60, of St. Joseph.
'I've got to see what all the fuss is about'
Williams, a UI crop sciences professor, had already qualified to run the 2014 marathon before last year's race.
That tragic day, he came home to his wife and three sons.
"The minute I stepped in the door," Williams said, he was met by their youngest son, a second-grader, who said, "Dad, we don't want you running Boston."
Williams said his family stayed off the marathon subject for a while, and over time, he explained that while the explosions were horrible, they're rare, and promised he would be fine.
"Once they got on board again, my biggest thing has been just trying to not get injured, so I can be at the start of the race and finish it," said Williams, who missed the cut for the 2013 Boston Marathon by only seconds.
"I've got to see what all the fuss is about," Williams said of Boston, the pinnacle for so many runners.
Last year's events only helped motivate Williams.
"I was all that more determined to be there. I guess because the completely ridiculous regard for life that those knuckleheads had was just not right," he said. "I wanted to run it, so what better year to go than this year? Because there's so much support for runners and spectators not to be discouraged by this ridiculous criminal act."
'I'm not fearful'
Kohmstedt knows the feeling. He, too, wanted to run in this Boston Marathon, which he will after posting a qualifying time in January 2013 after years of hard work.
"There was a time four or five years ago, I never thought that I would be doing this. It's been a long process to get me to this point," said Kohmstedt, who's known locally for dressing as Abraham Lincoln while running Illinois Marathon races. "I'm excited, but I'm also understanding of the things that happened. ... I'm not fearful."
Kohmstedt tossed and turned over whether to dress as Lincoln for Boston but ultimately decided against it, given the emotions associated with today's event.
"I don't want the attention to be me in a costume," he said. "I think Boston is more important than that. I also want to respect the victims of the tragedy by not drawing attention to myself. I just want to be a runner and honor them that way.
"Plus, the hat's too big."
Boston Marathon rules limit the size of props — and, although he didn't measure it, Kohmstedt is pretty sure it'd be against regulations.
So what to wear for the big race instead? He will be sporting a Second Wind Running Club visor and an Illinois Marathon T-shirt.
'Just want to finish'
North would like to wear a ribbon or something that would honor the victims and survivors. He planned to search the pre-race expo for a fitting item.
"I would like to somehow note that in some way if I could," he said.
At 60, North figured Boston was "sort of out of my league."
But now that he has an entry number, he's looking forward to today more than any race he's ever run.
"Just for the fact it's Boston, that's always special for a runner," he said. "I'm like most modest marathoners. They just want to finish."
After last year's explosions, North said, there's always the thought in the back of the mind that tragedy could be waiting around the corner. But all of the heightened security and awareness surrounding today's race is reassuring, he said.
"And I think that just the show of strength, in the face of a tragedy like Boston, is something we all want to demonstrate as athletes and as citizens — that we are not going to be affected by the stupid actions of a few people," North said. "I think that everybody is going to be looking out for everyone else."