They were strangers before Monday’s Boston Marathon and they are strangers today. But Howard Mayes, Demi Clark, and Mary Jenkins are now linked indelibly to what happened at 2:49 p.m. on that day. At the precise moment when the first bomb exploded on Boylston Street, these runners, a retired teacher from Missouri, a health coach from South Carolina, and a quality control investigator from Ohio, took their final steps across the finish line.
The amateur and professionally recorded videos of the first explosion, along with those final steps to the painted strip by the staggered and shocked runners, have become the iconic, moving image of the bombing, watched by millions on YouTube and shared, posted, and tweeted around the world.
The runners themselves admit they’ve watched the clips repeatedly. It is hard, says Clark, not to feel a connection with these strangers who were finishing right alongside of her.
“I don’t know any of them, but if you put us all in a room together, I would be in tears and hugging every one of them, and I’d be hard-pressed to think they wouldn’t do the same,” said Clark, 36, now back home in Fort Mill, S.C.
Timing is everything. It’s how a handful of runners, having started a race that included nearly 27,000 people, ended up in the same place at the same moment, 26.2 miles away and four hours later. As the race clock hits 4:09:44, Mayes can be seen on the right side of Boylston in a fluorescent green shirt. Jenkins, in purple, is a few feet to his side. Volker Fischer, all in black with shades and knee socks, jogs down the center. Clark, her red hair tied in pigtails, is two seconds off their pace. Brian Donovan, wearing a bright orange shirt for his cause, the Grassroot Soccer team, is three seconds behind her, on the Marathon Sports side of Boylston, as the bomb explodes.
Donovan hadn’t trained properly for Boston, leaving him a half hour off his previous best marathon time. Fischer was also running slow, not wanting to push himself too hard. He wasn’t heading back to Illinois after the race. He planned to run the London Marathon six days after Boston. That morning, Fischer, a chemist at a pharmaceutical company in Illinois, taped up his feet to deal with training blisters, sucked down a can of Ensure, and headed to the shuttle bus.
“I didn’t have as much training in me as I was hoping for,” Fischer said. “I figured I’d try to qualify for Boston again. That’s 3:55 for me. The weather was perfect, the crowd was good. Everything was perfect.”
Jenkins also felt great. Her quads, though, cramped by Heartbreak Hill and she started walking. She had already decided this Boston Marathon, her fourth, would be her last. She found her spirits revived by the cheers around Boston College and began running again.
Mayes has always viewed running as the ultimate tour guide. He didn’t run his first marathon until 2008, when he was 57, but Boston would be his 49th marathon in 35 different states. He had qualified with a 3:49 last year in Phoenix. He wasn’t running that fast on Monday. Mayes had been sick all winter, his training schedule cut back dramatically. In the early miles of the race, he watched as people scooted by him.
“It was like I was driving a VW Bug on the interstate,” he said. “I felt like there was a lot of back pressure, a lot of people passing.”
Mayes had worked out a plan with his wife, Karen, so they could see each other twice. She took the Green Line out to Newton and staked out a spot near Newton-Wellesley Hospital. Carrying his cellphone, he called around mile 16 to let her know to look for him in about 10 minutes. Karen waved, snapped pictures, and then hopped on the train so she could meet him at the finish line. They didn’t decide exactly where.
“We had discussed which side she was going to try to get on,” said Mayes. “We knew the Copley Square Station was closed and she would have to go to Arlington to go to the other side and would have to come back because of all the fencing. So I didn’t know where she was going to be. I knew she was going to try to go someplace where she could try to get a good view.”
Demi Clark’s family didn’t have to worry about finding a spot. The former NASCAR public relations employee turned health coach had raised about $9,500 for Dream Big!, a charity that offers sports and fitness equipment to homeless and low-income girls. That meant her husband, Brian, and daughters, Maizie, 9, and Willa, 6, wouldn’t have to jostle for a spot at the finish. They were allowed into a special section of bleachers at the Boston Public Library — directly across from Marathon Sports.
That morning, Clark hopped the shuttle bus to Hopkinton, ate a vegan nutritional bar and banana and waited for her 10:40 a.m. start. Brian took the girls to Langone Park in the North End to play, then to Subway for lunch. Around 2, they arrived at the stands on Boylston, had their bag searched and took their seats.
“It could be any minute now,” Brian told the girls as they waited with their handmade signs, drawn with colored marker on large, white paper.
“Is that her?” they would say as the seemingly endless stream of finishers rolled through.
Clark had been running along the left side of Boylston after making the final turn. She slapped high-fives with the crowd as she passed the Atlantic Fish Co. and Forum. But she knew where her family was sitting on the other side and with the finish line a quarter of a block away, she cut across a lane of Boylston to spot them.
Mayes and Jenkins were just a few feet ahead. Jenkins always ran on the right. Why? “I have no idea,” she would say later. It was just habit.
Even before the blast, before the endless replays of the clip online, Jenkins had taken note of the runner next to her, in black shorts, a white hat and that bright yellow shirt. He was just 5-foot-11, but she remembers him being so tall.
“I thought, ‘Maybe he could cut the wind down for me and bring me to the finish line faster,’ ” Jenkins said.
History and the official Boston Athletic Association records will show that Jenkins, Mayes, and Fischer finished at the same clock time: 4:09:44. But the video has Jenkins crossing a split second first, then Fischer, by a foot, and Mayes. Clark is two seconds behind and then Donovan.
Donovan said that he first believed the blast was a celebratory cannon, and only later learned something has gone terribly wrong, at 4:09:49.
When it was over, these five runners would do what so many others did. Frantically dial their cellphones until realizing service was out, hug their spouse after finally being reunited, take the kids to the Aquarium to establish “normalcy,” break down in tears in their hotel rooms. They all vowed to return to run Boston next year.
But for five seconds, over a 10 foot stretch of pavement, as a terrible thunderclap turned celebration into chaos, these runners became linked forever, jogging forward yet frozen in the kind of cultural snapshot only possible in this new media age. Millions would watch them online, on TV, in the newspaper.
And Clark, still trying to get a good night’s sleep days after the race, thinking back to the moment she reached the Lenscrafters store just before the second bomb went off, can hear her husband shouting her name from the bleachers.
She cuts across Boylston, right hand raised, and waves to her daughter, now smiling and holding up their makeshift signs.Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.