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05/09/2013

Boston Marathon runners ask for 'second chance' in 2014

Boston
Scenes from the Boston Marathon bombings are displayed on an outfield screen before a baseball game between the Boston Red Sox and the Kansas City Royals on April 20 in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer, File)

How much pressure is the tiny non-profit organization that runs the Boston Marathon going to be under in 2014, when everyone and their dog wants to run in solidarity with the city?

A foretaste is emerging in a fast-growing online petition pleading with officials to give a second chance to the 5,700 runners who never crossed the finish line in April when the bombs went off.

Some 20,000 people have signed in support of the petition launched by Williston, Vt., runner Ryan Polly, who was a mile from the finish line when the explosions ended his race. You can consider him fortunate, of course, that he walked off the course without any physical injuries.

But Polly and thousands like him worry now that the rulebound Boston Athletic Association, which runs the race, may not accommodate their passion for a do-over. As President Barack Obama told mourners during the nationally-televised memorial service in the wake of the attacks, "We finish the race." That's all they want.

"Thousands of runners had our dream destroyed by the attack at the Boston Marathon," writes Polly in his petition, created on Change.org. "By not crossing the finish line we have been left with a mixture of emotions that are difficult to articulate. We need to be able to finish what we started. We need the closure that only crossing the finish line can bring. Our families and friends need it as well. We really hope the BAA will listen and let us run again."

Sounds simple, right? Just let them run.

But it's a bit trickier that, according to BAA spokesman Marc Davis, who explains how the organization, with barely 10 full-time staff, has been scrambling to close the unfinished business of 2013's tragedy before it turns its attention to next year's race.

"We're still working to get stuff back to our runners -- matching up bags that were left behind with their owners, getting people their medals, establishing race times for people whose race ended midway through because of the incident," Davis told the Star.

"We appreciate and empathize with everyone who wants to run again. We're going to try our best to accommodate people however we can. But we need them to understand it's much more complicated than they think."

The Boston Marathon, Davis explains, is unlike most big-city runs, crossing multiple jurisdictions, from the narrow streets of Hopkinton, Mass., to the congested finish line in Boston. Each year's race involves multiple negotiations with multiple stakeholders, from local and state police to the Massachusetts emergency management authority.

With all those moving parts, 27,000 runners is the consensus number everyone can live with comfortably. And the vast majority of those runners earn their place in the race through the complex and costly qualifying requirements outlined on the BAA website.

But other runners enter the race on waivers distributed by key sponsors and various charities, bypassing the normal requirements. Davis estimates that "about 85 per cent" of the 5,700 who were unable to finish this year fell under that category.

"It's kind of like winning the lottery. It's the ultimate Bucket List item for people to get these waivers. A true life-long dream and they are very hard to come by. Maybe 1,000 or 1,500 of the 5,700 who didn't finish would be able to qualify under the formal requirements -- the rest are anxious to get a second waivor."

The BAA isn't saying no -- not at this point, anyway. It's asking for "patience and understanding" as it grapples with all the moving parts that the 2014 race entails. It doesn't want to hamstring essential sponsors and charities by limiting the number of waivers they can issue next year. But the BAA also is daunted by the logistics involved in raising the overall total of runners, given the historic resistance of other stakeholders along the route.

"You can have a mayor or even a president say something like, 'We can do this.' But look at the New York Marathon -- it was cancelled last year after Sandy despite what the mayor said," said Davis.

"The fact is we're a very small organization and we don't get to tell the other agencies involved what will happen in 2014, we have to ask 'Can we do this?'

"The good news here is the incredible passion and interest in our 2014 marathon," continued Davis. "Pretty much 99.9 per cent of our 2013 runners have been unbeliebably humble and gracious in the face of very difficult circumstances. We're going to do everything we can to meet their needs. They just have to bear with us."

Mitch Potter is the Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Toronto Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

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