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At the Boston Marathon finish line, a city heals by moving on

Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Thousands returned to the site of tragedy at the Boston Marathon finish line on Monday morning.

BOSTON -- They came down Boylston Street, runner after runner after runner, through what one competitor called a "human tunnel of emotion." They cried. They grimaced. They sprinted. They limped. They spread arms wide and mock flew toward the finish line. They high-fived the fans who pressed against the barricades, who carried signs and made T-shirts and banged cowbells.

So many runners, all headed toward where the bombs went off a year ago. Three had died after the race. Some 260 others suffered injuries. The Boston Marathon, an event that helped define a city, a Patriots' Day staple in this most patriotic place, had become a mess of blood and smoke and torn limbs and broken glass.

A year later, Jimmy Plourde just wanted candy. This was his small act of defiance, his way to let the terrorists know they had not won.

CAZENEUVE: Meb Keflezighi wins an emotional Boston Marathon

Last year, after the second bomb went off, Plourde went inside the store Sugar Heaven, which looked like a disaster zone. He found Victoria McGrath there, injured, scared, on the ground. He picked her up and carried her outside and a photographer snapped their picture, her leg wrapped in a tourniquet, her feet bloody, her arms wrapped around his neck. Plourde dropped McGrath off safely and went back inside. And back inside. And back inside.

They all did. Plourde wanted to emphasize that Monday. He wanted to credit all the first responders and fade back into a normal life. But first, he went back inside Sugar Heaven. The floor he saw covered in blood a year ago was wiped clean. The shattered glass had been replaced. He and his wife, Michelle, bought $10 worth of gummy bears. They carried the bag with them as they walked. "To be able to buy candy and not have to think about what it looked like last year, I can't tell you what that means," Plourde said. "It was a little eerie at first. But I needed that."

Increased security greeted the more than 35,000 runners and an estimated one million spectators who turned out for the 118th Boston Marathon. There were surveillance cameras and police on rooftops and checkpoints to search bags. By lunch, so many had assembled near the finish line that officials closed off the entrances around it.

PRICE: How last year's bombings made the Boston Marathon stronger

Soon afterward, there came Meb Keflezighi, an American runner with the most American of stories, the American dream embodied. He fled with his family from his birth country, Eritrea, in 1987, immigrated to the United States, settled in San Diego, went to college at UCLA, and later won both a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics and the 2009 New York City Marathon.

Keflezighi was near the finish line when the bombs exploded in Boston last year. They reminded him, he said, of his childhood. He vowed then that he would return. "When the Red Sox won and put the trophy on the finish line, I wanted to do that for the runners," he said.

Few expected him to win. Not at 38 years old. Not with a personal best time of 2:09:08. But there went Keflezighi to the front early, a daring strategy that saw him attack and then attempt to hold on. The crowd propelled him forward. They chanted U-S-A! U-S-A! He returned to the same thought, over and over, two words that have come to define both a tragedy and a city's response to it: Boston Strong.

Keflezighi would later drape himself in an American flag, the names of the four victims -- Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi and Martin Richard, as well as MIT police officer Sean Collier -- written on the four corners of his race bib. "This is probably the most meaningful victory for an American, just because of what happened last year," he said.

Thousands show up for Sports Illustrated cover shoot at the Boston Marathon finish line

As Keflezighi chugged toward the finish line, the crowd roared. Helicopters circled overhead. Caleb Bernhardt waved an oversized American flag. He wore a USA jacket. A runner for Nazarene University who specializes in the steeplechase, he was supposed to be at practice, which is where he was a year ago when the bombs went off. He had a long drive to Chicago ahead of him and will miss Nazarene's meet next weekend as punishment. But with two chances to qualify for nationals, he believed just watching this Boston Marathon would inspire him. "It's really amazing to see all these people and how much they love their freedom," he said. "They're not going to allow anyone to dictate that."

Across the street, runners passed by the fire station of Ladder 15, Engine 33. A makeshift memorial was displayed out front. There were daffodils, American flags, a work boot, a silver pendant, a Boston Bruins towel and two wreaths. Firemen sold T-shirts for $20.

A firefighter named Mike manned the booth. He declined to give his last name. He never considered any other line of work. His is a family of firefighters that dates back several generations, 100 years or so, he said. He was on duty last year when the bombs hit. "I'd rather not talk about it," he said. "That's all in the past. That's over now."

That is what they did on Monday. The runners moved forward and everyone who attended the Boston Marathon attempted to move on. Where one year earlier there was death and chaos and destruction there was a proposal at the finish line. And Rita Jeptoo, the women's winner, for the second year in a row and the third time. And two participants, Patrick Downes and Jessica Kensky, who each lost a leg in the bombing and crossed the finish line together a year later.

"Last year, what happened here changed the world we live in," said Ernst Van Dyk, who won the men's push rim wheelchair division. "I didn't really know how I was going to handle it. You could feel something push into your throat."

Not nerves, not exactly. More like pride and resilience and defiance.

SI Longform: Boston, One Year Later -- The faces. The voices. The stories.

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