Santa Barbara Marathoners Stay Boston Strong

A Year After the Bombing, Runners Return for Redemption

<b>BOSTON BOUND:</b> These Santa Barbara runners gathered early last Saturday morning for one of their last workouts before they head east to undertake Monday’s 118th Boston Marathon: (from left) Ramiro “Curly” Guillen, Craig Prater, Jill Zachary, Katie Vining, Sandy Roberts, Debbie Kovanda, Gary Clancy, Liz Mikkelson, Jana McKee, Maggie Mason, Jamie Allison, Heidi Heitkamp, and Laurel Mehler.
Paul Wellman

The aftershocks of the bombs that exploded near the finish line a year ago will never completely fade away, but the theme of “Boston Strong” will be paramount on Monday, April 21, when 36,000 runners take to the streets in the 118th Boston Marathon.

Forty-three runners from the Santa Barbara area have entered the historic race, including many who had finished or were still on the course when tragedy struck on April 15, 2013. The first bomb went off at 2:50 p.m., with the race clock reading 4:09:43. The concussion knocked an elderly marathoner off his feet just yards from the finish line. A photographer captured him lying on Boylston Street, an image that made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“I recognized him on the television,” said John Brennand, the godfather of marathoning in Santa Barbara. “Bill Iffrig from Washington. We ran in the same age group [both are in their late seventies]. He’s tough.” Brennand, who ran Boston 11 times, retired from marathons almost 20 years ago but continues to run shorter races.

As dramatic as Iffrig’s spill was, he was a lucky one. He was able to get up and stagger to the finish line, although he sustained injury to his left eardrum. The real damage of the two explosions — a second bomb went off moments later farther down the block — was inflicted on the spectators. Three were killed and more than 260 injured, many of them losing limbs.

Gary and Doris Clancy of Santa Barbara shudder to think how close they came to being in harm’s way.

“I was right on pace to finish in 4:08, but then I slowed down,” said Gary, 69, running his sixth Boston Marathon. “I was about 800 yards from the finish line when the bombs went off. The police stopped us. There were 5,000 of us who didn’t get to finish.”

Doris, his wife, was waiting in a family reunion area 100 yards beyond the finish line. “I walked past the crowd at the finish and thought, ‘Maybe I’ll stay here to watch Gary come in,’” she said. “But something told me to keep going to the family area. I felt the first bomb. It was like a whoosh. I looked up and saw smoke. Then there were sirens and police telling us to leave the area.”

Their cell phones were not working, and Doris did not know of Gary’s fate until she made her way to their hotel an hour-and-a-half later and found him there. “We collapsed in each other’s arms,” she said.

The Clancys cannot understand the evil intent behind the bombings. “Why?” Doris said. “Why pick on a happy event with families and children? It’s never been answered.” The explosions occurred when the flow of runners was at a peak. “The Red Sox game had just gotten out, and there were a lot of spectators,” Gary said. “The devices were designed to maim and cause injuries.”

They could not leave the hotel that Monday night. They had wine and food in the lounge. They commiserated with a fireman from Seattle. “He’d run his first Boston and said, ‘How can I celebrate now?’” Doris said. Their waiter was seething. “He took it personally,” Gary said. “‘This is my town,’ he kept going on and on. ‘I’m gonna find them.’”

Gary Clancy knew then that Boston would come back strong. “I went to the hotel’s front desk and made a reservation for this year’s marathon,” he said. He’s confident he’ll be able to run safely down that last stretch of Boylston Street on Monday.

Debbie Kovanda ran the 2013 race in just under four hours. “I knew Gary [Clancy] was behind me, and I thought about staying around the finish line,” she said. “Then I thought I’d better not.” She had proceeded to the recovery area when she heard “what sounded like a cannon going off, then another boom. Was that supposed to happen? A woman from Boston said, ‘No, that’s not supposed to happen. Follow me.’ We moved out of there like zombies. People were crying. I didn’t know what happened until we got back to our hotel.”

Kovanda, 58, is a Santa Barbara tax accountant. “I thought it would be appropriate to tax myself on April 15,” she said. “I didn’t want to go back this year. Then I found out it’s after the tax season. Maybe that’s another sign. I’m a little nervous, but I’m doing it. I want to break four hours again.”

Shortly after 6 a.m. last Saturday, Kovanda showed up for the workout of the Santa Barbara Running and Racing Team, coached by Rusty Snow and Mike Swan. A dozen of them were training for the Boston Marathon. They’ll be used to rising early for the 8:50 a.m. (EST) start of Monday’s race in the town of Hopkinton.

Ramiro “Curly” Guillen will be starting near the front of the pack. The 31-year-old Goleta native is on his way to becoming an elite marathoner. He won his first 26.2-mile race, the 2012 Santa Rosa Marathon, in 2:40:26. That qualified him for Boston last year. “If you’re going to be doing marathons, the one you have to do is Boston,” Guillen said. “It’s the greatest marathon in the world. I want to see how I measure up against history.”

He improved his time to 2:35:11 while taking in the sights and sounds on the road to Boston. “My favorite part is the Wellesley College section,” he said. “It’s an all-girls college. They’re blowing kisses at the runners.” After finishing in the top 140, he took a train to his hotel 10 miles north of downtown and was asleep when the bombings took place.

“This year it’s about redemption,” Guillen said. It’s also about his continuing to run faster. He did the Chicago Marathon last October in 2:27:14. “My goal in Boston is 2:22 to 2:24,” he said. Eventually he wants to go under 2:18 to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.

Guillen ran track at Dos Pueblos High, SBCC, and UCSB. His college career petered out, and when he got a job as a TSA agent at the airport and started a family, he gave up running entirely. “I kept complaining about the weight I was gaining and kept saying I would run tomorrow,” he said. His wife, Rosemary, had heard enough of it in the fall of 2011. “She pushed me out the door. I huffed and puffed for two miles. I almost fainted.”

He rededicated himself to the sport. Terry Howell, who had coached him at SBCC, agreed to train him at odd hours (besides his TSA job, Guillen does gigs as a deejay). His weight dropped from 182 to 130 pounds. He will run Boston in a Santa Barbara Running Company uniform with a blue-and-gold logo. “UCSB colors,” Guillen said. “That’s special to me. I only raced in a UCSB uniform one season, and I felt like I let people down when I quit.”

For Guillen, for the thousands of others who will run and the million who will cheer them on, this Boston Marathon will be a celebration of perseverance.


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