It would have been easy, on the balmy April afternoon, to let the sunshine and the cheering crowds carry her back to last year, when the brightness of Marathon Monday suddenly darkened. But Heather Abbott, who lost a leg last April, was too busy for that: She had a finish line to cross.
Running alongside Erin Chatham, one of the first people who came to her aid as she lay badly hurt and bleeding last Patriots Day, Abbott stepped briskly down the home stretch on Boylston Street just before 5 p.m. Monday, raised her arms into the air, and triumphantly closed out the most painful, most remarkable year of her life.
“It felt good,” she said, breathing hard as she stopped to recover beyond the iconic blue stripe in the street. She wore one fuchsia-colored Nike sneaker, on her right foot, and on the left, the sleek, custom-made prosthetic blade she uses for running.
Beside her, Chatham beamed, as pleased by Abbott’s accomplishment as she was by her own 26.2-mile achievement.
“My motivation was to make it to Heather, and to run with her,” Chatham said of her five-hour, 25-minute effort Monday.
The two women first met last April 15, in the smoky chaos that descended after the explosions at the finish line. Within days, Chatham, 36, had resolved to make Boston 2014 her first marathon ever, and Abbott, 39, had promised herself she would return to Boylston Street for this year’s race.
Her progress from that point on was steady. She left the hospital in May and returned home to Newport, R.I. She went back to work, kept up with a rigorous schedule of physical therapy, and even got back on her paddleboard by summer’s end. In the fall, she applied to the Challenged Athletes Foundation for a grant to cover the cost of a special prosthesis for running, and in October, her request was approved. She received a high-tech, carbon-fiber blade, tried it on for the first time, and took her first few running steps, on a Harvard practice field in a driving rain.
By January, Abbott had a new vision for Marathon Monday 2014: She wanted to run the final stretch with Chatham, a reunion that would cast away the memories of last year.
“People were talking about the race, talking about running, and I thought, I don’t want to just watch,” recalled Abbott, who sought and received permission from the BAA to step onto the course for the final half-mile stretch.
Before meeting up with Chatham, Abbott spent several hours at Forum, the bar and restaurant where she was watching the Marathon with friends last year.
Those same friends returned with her on Monday, though some acknowledged they might not have come back if not for Abbott’s determination to be there. “She’s pulled us all through this,” said her friend Jillian Baker.
Another friend, Jessica Dimascolo, agreed. “Everybody says, if she can do it, so can I,” she said.
The day was hectic with phone calls and group photos, and that was good, said Abbott, as it left little time for thinking about last year. “I haven’t had time to have a hard time,” she said.
Last year was Erin Chatham’s first time at the Marathon. With her husband, Matt — a former linebacker for the New England Patriots — she attended a party at Forum hosted by the Joe Andruzzi Foundation, where she works as a vice president of finance and operations. After the second bomb exploded outside, the couple rushed into the bar and stopped there, uncertain where to go or what to do next, Erin Chatham said.
But their paralysis lasted only an instant: As soon as they spotted Heather lying on the floor, struggling to get up with her left foot badly damaged, they knew exactly what their mission was.
“I knew then what I needed to do — I needed to help her,” said Chatham.
Two others associated with the Andruzzi Foundation, board member Peter Riddle and financial assistance director Kim Hoy, also moved quickly to aid Abbott.
Erin Chatham spoke to the injured woman, reassuring her and asking her name, while her husband picked Abbott up and carried her out the back door of the restaurant and into the alley, where he laid her down gently.
Even in those first few minutes, full of pain and fear, Chatham was struck by Abbott’s composure.
“I was amazed by how strong and brave and poised she was, and she’s been like that ever since,” Chatham said. “She has an inner strength, and I’m not surprised to see her where she is today.”
Later — after paramedics rushed into the alley and delivered Abbott to an ambulance; after the Chathams left the awful scene — they realized they could not recall the injured woman’s name.
Eventually, after Matt Chatham was interviewed about his role that day, one of Abbott’s friends recognized him and reached out to make the connection.
Then Abbott asked to meet the couple who had helped her — a moment that felt profoundly meaningful to Erin Chatham.
“We were so grateful that she had come through it, and we felt so blessed to be unhurt,” said Chatham.
“If she hadn’t taken the shrapnel, someone else would have. . . . She protected us.”
A sermon Chatham heard in church shortly after the Marathon, about seizing opportunity, convinced her that she had to run the Marathon, though she had never run more than five miles before.
She joined the Andruzzi Foundation’s charity team and trained under the leadership of Susan Hurley. It wasn’t easy. A nagging knee injury forced her to spend more time on the elliptical machine than on group runs, and to make time for hours of extra stretching. She suffered doubts, but thought of Abbott and pressed on.
“I thought, if she can endure this and still smile, I can run the Marathon,” said Chatham.
On Monday, she did, motivated by the thought of seeing Abbott’s face when she reached Hereford Street. “Crossing the finish line with her means more, because I know what it means to her,” she said.
Chatham raised some $8,500 with her run, part of a team effort for the Andruzzi Foundation that brought in nearly $450,000 to help cancer patients with rent, mortgage payments, and other expenses, and to help fund pediatric cancer research.
Abbott, meanwhile, took another step forward, on a journey that brought her — at least for a moment on Monday — full circle.
Together, the two women stopped to talk to family and friends after their finish. Then they wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders and walked on into the sunny afternoon, to pick up Chatham’s medal.
More from the 2014 Boston Marathon — Cullen: Just like the days we used to know | Gasper: Boston reclaims its Marathon | Photos: Marathon scenes | The ‘Scream Tunnel’ and Heartbreak Hill | The elite runners | Boylston Street | Videos from the Marathon | Full coverage