It took all of Bob Rummel's remaining strength not to fall to his knees after he crossed the finish line.
The 65-year-old was physically fine, even though he had just run 26.2 miles from Hopkinton, Mass., to Boston's Back Bay. His fatigue was more of the emotional kind. But he had just completed the marathon everyone dreams about when they start running. He had just run the Boston Marathon.
Mr. Rummel checked his time -- 3:36:59, about three minutes behind his mark in the 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon that qualified him for Boston, but still impressive -- and went to the finisher's area to collect his belongings and receive his long-awaited Boston Marathon finisher's medal.
With his blue and yellow prize around his neck over the Pittsburgh Marathon shirt he wore during the race, he began to make his way back to the finish line to watch other runners come in. Eventually, he planned to meet up with his wife Gloria and her sister Cathy. But first he wanted to support the runners experiencing the same glory he had earned just a few minutes prior.
Before he could get there, a TV crew from WBZ-TV, the Boston CBS affiliate, spotted his bright blue shirt and asked if Mr. Rummel, of Latrobe, would be willing to do an on-camera interview as an out-of-towner who just ran the marathon.
The reporter prepared Mr. Rummel with the questions he was going to ask. He reminded Mr. Rummel to stand up straight and show off that Pittsburgh Marathon shirt he wore so proudly.
Just as the camera started rolling and the reporter leaned in to ask his first question, BANG. Mr. Rummel heard a blast and saw smoke rising about a quarter block away. A few seconds later, another one.
"I could feel the force of it," Mr. Rummel said. "The hair on my arms just seemed like it was in a breeze."
The TV crew left Mr. Rummel and hurried to the commotion near the finish line. As panic set in and emergency crews dashed back and forth, Mr. Rummel knew he had to get away and begin looking for his wife.
At some point, though, another thought cropped up in the back of his mind: Mr. Rummel was one of a few dozen runners in Boston signed to run the Pittsburgh Marathon just three weeks later. What would it be like when he took his place on Liberty Avenue in Downtown Pittsburgh and moved toward the starting line? Just three weeks after living through Boston, could he turn around and do it all over again?
Most marathoners don't start running with the goal of conquering 26.2 miles.
They usually start modestly, looking for an easy way to stay in shape or an excuse to spend time outdoors.
Then they run a 5k, maybe a half-marathon, and before they know it they're lining up to do the whole thing.
Aaron Horrell, another runner signed up to run both Boston and Pittsburgh this year, didn't run competitively until 2010, when a group of friends had someone drop out of their Pittsburgh Marathon relay team and needed a last-minute fill-in. He ran a half marathon in 2011 and completed his first full marathon last year in Pittsburgh.
"All the energy of the race, the excitement and everybody coming through the finish line, it drew me to it," Mr. Horrell, 33 of Belle Vernon, said.
The motivations are different to start, but eventually the goal for most marathoners becomes the same: Get to Boston.
The country's oldest marathon, Boston is a weekend warrior's holy grail. It has stringent qualifying times that have caused more than a few heartbreaks.
Kristy Brown, 34, a technician at UPMC Shadyside who lives in the Strip District, started running at 29, with the goal of completing a marathon before her 30th birthday. She did it, finishing the 2008 Cleveland Marathon just 13 days before she turned 30.
She then turned her sights to Boston, but kept coming up just short of qualifying. Thirteen times, Ms. Brown's mark wasn't quite enough to earn the invitation to Boston.
In the 2011 Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, she was 12 seconds too late. When Ms. Brown looked up and saw her time, she couldn't help but break into tears. She made the cut at the same race in 2012.
"I cried as soon as I qualified," Ms. Brown said.
It took Mr. Rummel 14 years of running marathons to make the cut for Boston. Now retired from Burns Chemical Systems, he ran three marathons in 2012 -- Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Columbus -- and qualified at all three. He chose his best time, from his hometown race in Pittsburgh, as his qualifying time, sent off his application in September 2012, and prayed.
The Boston Marathon has a rolling admissions process. First, runners who beat the qualifying time for their age and gender by 20 minutes are granted spots, then it's gradually opened up to the slower qualifiers.
Mr. Rummel finished the 2012 Pittsburgh Marathon in 3:33:55, well ahead of the 3:55 he needed to qualify, but the three-month wait was still agonizing.
One day in January, he walked out to his mailbox and saw a letter from the Boston Athletic Association. Inside was his invitation to the 2013 Boston Marathon, which he has kept along with all his running photos.
"It was like I hit the lottery," Mr. Rummel said. "Oh my god, I got it."
For runners, the morning of the Boston Marathon starts a good five hours before the gun even goes off.
Mr. Horrell and his two friends, Dave Spell and Jon Kissel, had taken a Megabus overnight from Pittsburgh to New York and then to Boston to run in the marathon. They woke up in their hotel near Fenway Park around 5 a.m. April 15, and started playing some music, led off by rapper Ice Cube's "It Was a Good Day," to get them pumped up for the race ahead.
The runners made their way to Boston's Back Bay to drop off their bags and board buses that took them to the starting line in Hopkinton, 26.2 miles away. After months -- for some, years -- of anticipation, their day was finally here.
The race starts in Hopkinton and winds its way through rural New England for the first few miles. It passes through little towns and many of Boston's college and universities before reaching its most challenging section.
Mr. Rummel thought he had conquered hills running Pittsburgh, but Boston's infamous "Heartbreak Hill" around the 21-mile marker has earned its reputation.
"I know why they call it 'Heartbreak Hill' after I ran it. It took all the energy I had to make it," he said.
When runners finally enter Boston, the city's famous Citgo sign signifies one mile to go.
They cross the finish line near Copley Square in front of a raucous crowd thousands strong on Boylston Street.
Mr. Rummel's training had paid off. He powered through the entire course buoyed by the crowd, floating through the course as if in a dream.
But the day would turn truly surreal just before 3 p.m., as the dual explosions that killed three and wounded hundreds more turned the finish line into chaos. Runners scattered to find friends and loved ones, a task made more difficult by spotty cell phone service.
Gloria Rummel, about a block away from the explosions and the finish line, briefly got in touch with her husband to make sure he was OK before cell service cut out, and just started walking with her sister back to their hotel in Brookline, Mass., more than three miles away.
Unsure of where to head, Mr. Rummel started walking the same direction. Between all the road closures and detours he had to take, he estimated he walked about 12 miles after completing the marathon.
Eventually he made it back to Brookline, made a left turn around a corner, and saw his wife and her sister standing there.
"When I saw him, I just thought everything was safe then," Mrs. Rummel said. "I didn't think anything was going to happen to us after that."
The three headed back to their hotel together to sit, eat and take in everything that had just happened. On the way, Mrs. Rummel posed the question to her husband: "'You have Pittsburgh coming up on May 5. What are your plans? Do you really think you want to run that with what's happened here in Boston?"
Really, there was never any doubt for Bob Rummel.
He had run the Pittsburgh Marathon every year since its return in 2009 and wasn't going to stop now.
"If anything, it gave me more confidence that I was going to run that, if nothing else, for those people that were victims, injured and killed at the Boston finish line," Mr. Rummel said. "For me, that gave me more incentive than ever that I was going to do it."
Mr. Rummel, Mr. Horrell, Mr. Spell, Ms. Brown, Scott Yakubek, 33, of Salem, Ohio and Marty Klanchar, 55, of State College, will all run in Pittsburgh this weekend -- either in the full marathon, half-marathon or 5k -- just 20 days after racing in Boston and experiencing the tidal wave of emotions brought on by that day.
They'll join dozens of other runners who made the choice to not let what they saw in Boston discourage them from running this weekend.
Highlighting the field will be 37 runners who didn't finish the Boston Marathon because of the bombings. The Pittsburgh Marathon reached out to them last week and is flying them to Pittsburgh, with race sponsor Dick's Sporting Goods picking up the tab.
When they finally cross the finish line on Boulevard of the Allies Sunday, they'll be able to feel the ecstasy that was taken away from them three weeks ago.
Mr. Rummel and Mr. Spell both said they'd be inspired by the memory of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy killed in last month's attacks. Mr. Spell has young children who could have been watching from the finish line had they traveled to Boston with their father.
"That's all these kids want is one high-five," Mr. Spell said. "I have a feeling I'm probably going to slap 100,000 hands. I'm not going to miss one of them. I'll turn back if I miss one."
Bob Rummel will be running Sunday with "Boston Strong" wristbands on his wrists and the thoughts of the victims in his heart. He said his goal time is 3:20, which would be a personal best. He certainly won't be lacking for inspiration.
"I think everybody's going to be running with one cause and that's going to be for the city and victims in the Boston Marathon," he said. "That's going to keep me going pretty good."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published May 4, 2013 4:00 AM