BOSTON — Two blocks from the Boston Marathon finish line, Phil Kent stopped and fell to his knees on the warm pavement.
Clutching an American flag in his right hand, the Chatsworth man faced the sidewalk where the second bomb detonated last year and prayed.
For Kent, Monday's 26.2-mile race twisting from Hopkinton, Mass., to Boylston Street revolved around the final two-tenths of a mile. Each stride brought the emotion of last year closer. Of running 10 days before pancreatic cancer surgery. Of halting in front of the Lenox Hotel, steps from the finish line, when the first bomb exploded at 2:49 p.m. Of Jennifer Hartman and Renee Opell, longtime friends from the L.A. Leggers running club, digging their fingernails into his arms. Of the second bomb erupting behind them. Of not finishing.
So, Kent prayed for the three spectators who died: Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi and Martin Richard. He prayed for an end to violence. He prayed for others suffering from cancer; his is in remission.
"I've never been around explosions before. I've never been around people killed before," Kent said, his voice faltering. "It was such a terrible thing to do."
Almost 36,000 runners started Monday's race. But it's behind a few of the faces in the sea of humanity that the race assumes a different, more personal meaning.
For Kent and Hartman and Opell, they got to finish.
To stifle pre-race nerves, Kent met up with Hartman and Opell in a hotel lobby near Boston Common just after 7 a.m. Starting the day earlier than needed calms the 35-marathon veteran. Kent finished a banana and whole wheat bagel as dozens of school buses rumbled down Tremont Street, transporting the first wave of runners to the start.
The three friends wrote their names on strips of tape affixed to their jerseys so fans along the route could shout for them. None of the runners slept well the night before. That's normal. They posed for pictures and guzzled bottled water and cracked nervous jokes. They weren't anxious about security. They told each other that the race would go off without a hitch. That they would finish.
"I feel great" Kent announced to the lobby.
He crossed his fingers.
For Hartman and Opell, the emotion welled up Friday when they walked Boylston Street toward the finish line. They didn't remember being so close to the bombs. They were shocked. Even looking at pictures from that day, they didn't feel as close to the terror as they were.
Approaching the finish Monday, Opell spied the Lenox Hotel and, instead of stopping, redoubled her effort to cross the finish line. The three friends weren't together this time. Instead, tears spilled out as she entered the usual post-marathon assembly line of water and disposable blankets and medals and more water. A circle left open for the last year finally felt closed.
"I got emotional, but then I couldn't breathe," the Studio City resident said, then shook her head at the thought of trying not to hyperventilate after running a little over four hours.
Hartman, expecting her first child Oct. 3, arrived 41 minutes later. Earlier in the day, the Los Angeles resident quipped that she carried money in a fanny pack to grab alternate transportation in case she couldn't finish. She expected to walk eight miles or so of the course. But energy surged into her for the final two miles and the final blocks down Boylston Street, as last year's landmarks leapt into view, and she finished more quickly than she expected. The crowd's noise seemed to drive away any lingering uneasy feelings from last year.
After the first prayer, Kent jogged to the spot the first bomb exploded in front of Marathon Sports. Time on the race clock seeped away. That didn't matter. He thought about this weeks earlier. Stopping wasn't even a question. Kent kneeled and prayed again. Like the circle closed for Opell, the gesture did the same for Kent.
In the months after the bombing, even while recovering from cancer surgery, he second-guessed how he handled the 12 seconds between bombs. Kent figured he could have helped the injured instead of standing stunned and motionless.
A couple of hours after the race, that seemed far away. The three runners lounged in the same hotel lobby with spouses and fellow runners and friends. Medals hung from the trio's necks. The hardware wasn't coming off.
Kent inhaled two chocolate milks, Gatorade, pretzels and a banana to fight cramps. Opell, looking forward to her customary post-race hamburger, lowered herself to the carpet, careful not to spill a glass of white wine. Hartman sipped on a soda. They moved gingerly. They laughed. They swapped tales from the race. They compared their favorite signs held by spectators along the route. They talked about how safe they felt.
"I'm glad I got through it, really," Kent said.
Last year's tears were gone. They were finished.