Jennifer Dranoff will return to Boston next week to finish something she started a year ago — completing the Boston Marathon.
The 26-year-old Williamsburg resident is an elementary school teacher in Hampton. She was five miles from the finish line last year when two bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring 264 more.
Like thousands of others, Dranoff and a handful of locals will return to Boston for Monday's 26.2-mile race, vowing not to let last April's attack dissuade them.
George Neil of Williamsburg will be among that group, lacing up for his seventh Boston Marathon. "Last year was going to be (my) last Boston, but I couldn't let it go out on such a sad note."
"Marathon Monday was my favorite day in Boston for the entire six years I was there," said Dranoff, who went to college at nearby Northeastern University. "It was my first marathon. I began running a few years ago, and always wanted to run it in Boston. It was by far my favorite day of the year in Boston. I used to go every year and stand at the finish line."
Dranoff had a different vantage point last year as one of the few runners to be given a spot in the race with no qualifying time. She spent nearly four months training, running more than 350 miles in preparation. Her family, including her parents, husband and an aunt and uncle, were awaiting her arrival at the finish line.
Dranoff had completed Mile 21 as the first bomb went off. "I knew something was wrong," she said. She received confirmation four miles later when a group of police officers informed her the finish line had become a crime scene.
"On a day-to-day basis, I take pride in my ability to keep calm and collected in times of need, especially around my students," she said. "In that moment, I needed others to help me."
Several people reached out to help Dranoff over the next couple of hours. One person gave her a coat. Another texted her mother and husband to help facilitate a meeting place. The woman who handed her the jacket also gave her $20 to buy food. Another man bought her a beer to drink as she waited for her parents.
"They were safe," Dranoff said. "They knew I was safe as well because they were tracking me and knew I was not near the bombs yet. I was unable to know if they were safe for over an hour."
The experience was Dranoff's motivation to run again.
"When I think of singing the national anthem at the start line, I cry," she said. "When I think of crossing where I stopped, I cry. When I think of seeing the finish line, I feel overwhelmed with emotion."
Neil finished the 2013 race approximately 15 minutes before the bombs went off.
"I picked up my medals and was walking back to my hotel with a European runner when we heard the explosion," he recalled. "He asked what it was, and I told him it was probably a cannon celebrating Patriots Day. I was very wrong, but didn't find out until after I had cleaned up at the hotel and gone back downstairs to relax."
Lynn Howard, pastor at Wave Church in Williamsburg, ran last year with his business partner, Matt Boothe, to help Boothe reach his goal of training and finishing his first marathon. "We trained for a year and finished in just over five hours."
Howard said they were two-tenths of a mile from the finish line when they were stopped by police. They ran back to their hotel to get their cellphones and contact family members and friends, who were at the finish line near where the explosions occurred.
"We ran about 27 of the 26.2 miles," he said. "Running is the only way back to Boston from the starting line in Hopkinton. We covered the full distance. There just wasn't a finish line at the end."
Howard said Monday will mark his 14th and final Boston Marathon.
"The city of Boston demonstrated phenomenal character," he said. "I was impressed with the complete absence of panic on the course, at the finish line, and in the aftermath around the city. Not many cities in the world would have responded with such class and toughness."
That's why Howard wanted to return this year.
"The tragedy will be the backdrop for this race, but it will not be the story. Boston is the greatest marathon in the world. People run for lots of reasons. If I could put the character of this race into one word, it would be 'undeterred.' Folly and tragedy will not stop us from doing life well."
Suzy and Sonny Lowe of Williamsburg also ran last year.
"This was a big race for my wife and me," Sonny said. "It took us several years to qualify for Boston, so you can imagine our expectations. It started off perfect, then things got ugly. We were still running when we found out what had happened. Needless to say, our emotions ran wild."
Sonny said they reached Mile 25.5 when they were stopped by law enforcement and told, "The race is canceled. Go home," he recalled. "We felt helpless. We ran the gamut of emotions from selfish disappointment to overwhelming grief for everyone affected, both physically and emotionally."
The couple will try again, thanks to help from race organizers.
Sonny qualified, but an injury prevented Suzy from making the required time. Sonny petitioned the Boston Athletic Association, the company that has organized the event since 1897, to allow a runner who was unable to finish due to the cancellation to compete again. "I did what I could to convince them to let us finish."
The BAA ultimately added 5,000 runners who ran last year to this year's field.
"I believe they had always had this in mind, and they did it in a way that no other qualifiers were affected," Sonny said. "I couldn't in good conscience have taken the place of another runner who qualified. I know firsthand the struggles involved in qualifying for Boston."
Suzy plans to make the most of the opportunity. "This year's event will be a very emotional celebration," she said. "36,000 runners from all over the world will congregate and make the 26.2-mile trek from Hopkinton to Boston. We will be celebrating our sport and remembering the lives lost and persons injured. This year's race will demonstrate that runners are a resilient group who will not be scared away from doing what we love."
Greg Dawson, a Navy submarine officer who lives in town, said this event hits home for him.
"Boston stands out as the ultimate event," he said. "We will reaffirm to ourselves and the world that we are not afraid and will not be deterred."
He's only competed in the event once, in 2008.
"It was amazing," he said. "I had planned to return upon turning 50 (in 2016), but after the bombings of the 2013 Boston Marathon, I immediately decided that I would run in 2014 to show solidarity with the victims and with the people of Boston."
"Part of me does not want to go back and face it again," Dranoff said. "However, I want to take it back for all of Boston and those victims, and I want the finish line that was taken from me."
She plans to honor the victims in her own way, kneeling at both bomb sites before crossing the finish line. And to celebrate, she'll meet that stranger at the restaurant for a post-race beer.
Harvey can be reached by phone at 757-345-2352.