Boston blasts changed marathons forever

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For 30 years, Mike Thompson has worked behind the scenes as operations director at road races across the globe -- from Ireland to Colorado to Arizona in the past month alone.

Mr. Thompson, 55, jokingly calls himself "a glorified road-cone mover," but his company, Eagle Events Management, is a premier crew contracted by event organizers to plan race routes and coordinate operations at start and finish lines. They have 83 events on this year's schedule, including the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon on May 4.

It's "the business of creating happiness," Mr. Thompson says.

But that sentiment was shattered on April 15, 2013. Mr. Thompson, a Boston native, was working at the finish line of the Boston Marathon that day.

He was standing at Dartmouth and Boylston streets when, just after the four-hour mark, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded on the sidewalk, killing three spectators and injuring more than 250 others.

"I was in a safe zone" about 100 yards from the first bomb, Mr. Thompson said. "My initial reaction was to run toward everything that was happening."

Mr. Thompson had faced plenty of obstacles in three decades on the job, but nothing like this. He wrestled metal barricades aside and sprang into action alongside paramedics and police officers.

"I unfortunately got to see and experience things I thought I would never see in my lifetime, much less at a road race," he said.

"We pretty much triaged everybody in 22 minutes. It was kind of incredible to be able to do that. It was unfortunate, of course, but fortunately we had people in place to make a bad situation as good as we could."

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Five hundred miles west on that same April day, Patrice Matamoros, CEO of Pittsburgh Three Rivers Marathon Inc., was in disbelief. Her mind "immediately" flipped to her own marathon, just three weeks away.

"Wow," she recalled thinking. "This changes everything."

When Ms. Matamoros was hired as race director of the Dick's Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon in 2009, she brought in Mr. Thompson, a former director of the Philadelphia Marathon, and his team to manage race-day operations.

Pittsburgh has been on the front edge of the security wave, Ms. Matamoros said, since a scare during the 2010 Pittsburgh Marathon in which a microwave oven was discovered on the sidewalk along 11th Street and was dismantled by a bomb squad. (It was later found to not be an explosive device.) The race was temporarily detoured but was ultimately completed without incident.

"It opened up our eyes completely," Ms. Matamoros said. "It was a huge learning experience for everybody."

The averted crisis, she said, prompted event coordinators and city offices to work together even more closely to formulate security measures to "make sure all of us are ready for anything."

"Anything," of course, became all the more extreme after the Boston bombings. In response, Ms. Matamoros said, Pittsburgh race coordinators last May used additional fencing to create runner-only zones, mandated a clear-bag policy for gear check and brought in extra security.

Those measures, especially separating fans from spectators, simplified things and "added to the quality of the experience for runners," she said.

The security force was approximately 760 strong, Ms. Matamoros said, up from about 550 in 2012. The number this year will be similar to last year, she added, although with a slight decrease in uniformed police presence.

"And, so there's no question," she added, "we do pay for everything."

Runners should allow for plenty of time to pass through bag check -- 11/2 to two hours "is not out of the question," Ms. Matamoros said.

Event organizers have alternate plans to reroute anywhere along the marathon route and can send out a text message to every participant should an issue arise. An emergency patient tracking system was created in conjunction with the Chicago and Houston marathons and was used successfully last year.

"The event is in our hands in terms of how we run it, but we also answer to the city in all aspects of public safety," Ms. Matamoros said. "Every single thing we plan and do for the marathon is done in coordination with public safety, with the police and with Homeland Security."

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Recently, Mr. Thompson came across a photo on Facebook that showed the Boston Marathon finish-line crew around midnight, more than nine hours after the bombings.

Tired and dirty, they were still working to hand out bags and medals and reconnect runners with families, trying desperately to regain their grip on an event that had spiraled so rapidly out of their control.

"It was certainly something that I'll never forget," Mr. Thompson said.

As he drove away that night, he recalled, he had the feeling "that everybody had come together." When he returned to the finish line over the next few days to help return belongings and hand out medals, so did runners.

"They told stories of what their day was like," Mr. Thompson said. "That was really comforting. It brought meaning and validation to what we had done throughout that day."

Mr. Thompson was watching on TV a few days later, in the early hours of April 19, as residents lined the streets of Boston, which had been a ghost town for the previous 24 hours, to applaud the first responders and police.

"It was such a great feeling that now we were able to take back our community again," he said. "We were not going to let terrorism turn us away."

That weekend, it was back to the business of creating happiness, as improbable as that felt. Mr. Thompson was working at a 5K just a few blocks from where the MIT officer had been killed. The prevailing attitude, he said, was "about never being denied."

"The attitude was that we were not going to let this get to us," he said. "It was a bright, sunny day, and people were out and saying, 'You know what? I'm going to run my race and have a good time.' "

On Monday, Mr. Thompson and his crew will be back at the Boston Marathon, then on to Pittsburgh less than two weeks later. In the past 12 months, as safety has come to the forefront, he has seen an increased awareness among spectators to "look left and right."

"The best way we're going to be able to provide security is if everybody looks out for one another," he said. "That may have been lost over the years. There wasn't that kind of camaraderie. There may have been an I'm-racing-against-you type of mentality. Now, you're more aware."

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