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Nicole Gross and 200 Charlotte runners reclaiming marathon

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/18/15/28/PZPpm.Em.138.jpeg|316
    - KIM HUMMEL PHOTOGRAPHY
    “I’m wanting to become a normal person again,” said Nicole Gross, with her husband Michael.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/04/18/15/28/Dpz27.Em.138.jpeg|194
    JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
    In yellow shirts, Caleb Boyd, left, and Billy Shue and other members of the Charlotte Running Club take a light run on the McAlpine Greenway on Tuesday in preparation for the Boston Marathon next Monday. Boyd ran last year, when an explosion killed three people and injured many others. His wife, young son and in-laws had been standing in the same spot where the bomb went off, but Caleb finished the race about two hours before the explosion, so they were in their hotel when they learned about the bomb. Shue also ran last year, finishing in 2 hours and 38 minutes, the fastest of the Charlotte runners. He was about a block away when the first bomb went off. After the second bomb, he stopped to pray with several people who told him what had happened at the finish line.

A year after being severely injured in the Boston Marathon bombings, Charlotte’s Nicole Gross says there was no doubt she and her family would return for the first anniversary.

“We all knew we needed to come back to finish what was started last year,” Gross said Thursday. “We knew that was the closure our family needed. And to show our nurses and doctors how well we’re doing now.”

Gross and her husband Michael returned to Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital Tuesday to reunite with medical caregivers and travel with them and other survivors to the anniversary observance. With them were Gross’ sister, Erika Brannock, who lost her left leg as a result of the explosions, and the women’s mother, Carol Downing, who was nearing the finish when the bombs went off.

“It was very moving, and very humbling,” Gross, 32, said of the observance. “There was just so much support.”

Gross and her family will be joined at this year’s Boston Marathon on Monday by about 200 Charlotte runners who are scheduled to participate and who, in interviews one after another, declared their determination to support the survivors and demonstrate their resilience.

“You cannot live your life in fear,” said Hazel Tapp, 49, a member of University City Road Runners. “I just want it to be a lot of fun, something good for the survivors.”

Gross said she’s experienced some anxiety about returning. But she said her family has chosen not to be afraid. “There’s no time or place in our recovery to have fear. It’s too negative,” she said. “We’re choosing to focus on moving forward and on the support of the people who have embraced our family.”

Gross spent 34 days in two Boston hospitals last year being treated for her injuries – two broken bones in her lower left leg, a nearly severed Achilles tendon and an injury to her eardrum. She had been knocked off her feet by the blasts, which killed three people and injured more than 260.

Downing, 58, of Maryland, will be running again this year, and her daughters and other family members and friends will be cheering her on. “She deserves to have that full 26.2-mile Boston Marathon experience,” Gross said. “It’s going to be an amazing Boston Marathon Monday.”

Soon after the explosion, a photograph of the injured Gross circled the world. The image captured the shock and disbelief on her face after being knocked off her feet by the blasts. It bothered her, but she said she’s decided to make her face “a reminder of resilience more than tragedy.”

In the past year, Gross has made only a few public appearances. In May, when she and her husband returned to Charlotte, she moved gingerly on crutches with bandages still covering her lower legs. In June, at a Charlotte City Club event to thank supporters, she was more mobile, leaning her crutches against a wall as she posed for photographs.

In November, Gross waved the flag to start the Thunder Road Marathon in Charlotte. Her mother ran the half-marathon while her sister, in a wheelchair, was pushed along the course by relatives and friends. With about 100 feet to go, Brannock, 30, stood with the aid of a walker and finished on her new prosthetic leg, with Gross walking alongside.

After months of rehabilitation, Gross underwent her latest operation in January and started over with therapy weeks later. She began walking without crutches and set a goal to walk the 5K in Boston Saturday.

“I’m having to re-learn how to walk properly,” she said. “I’ve had to focus on slowing down and appreciating that I’m progressing one day at a time.”

She’s wearing shorts in public now, revealing long scars on her legs. “It’s part of my need to embrace it and not be afraid to expose my legs,” said Gross, who was an accomplished triathlete, swimming coach and fitness trainer before her injuries. “I’m sort of getting used to my new body. I want to get back into athletics. I’m wanting to become a normal person again.”

More entrants this year

This year’s Boston Marathon has an expanded field of runners, from 27,000 to 36,000, because of interest generated by the tragedy. Many people, such as Allen Strickland of Charlotte, who didn’t run last year, were inspired to enter this year to support survivors. But despite the wider field, it was still hard to get in.

Strickland, 47, ran the Boston Marathon for the first time in 2012, and didn’t return in 2013. After the bombing, he said, “I felt like I should have been there. I was quite upset. Mad, really.”

In his quest to qualify, Strickland ran two marathons in 2013, achieving a best time of 3 hours, 24 minutes and 30 seconds. That was 30 seconds under the qualifying time for his age group, but so many others applied, it wasn’t fast enough. But he was accepted for a charity spot and has raised $7,500 for the Dick Beardsley Foundation.

“I was pretty determined to get there,” Strickland said.

The will of runners

That same resolve is echoed by other Charlotte runners returning to Boston.

“Runners are strong-willed people. Stubborn may be the word,” said running coach Joe Schlereth, 64, who finished last year’s race about 25 minutes before the bombs explosed. He’s returning for his 14th Boston Marathon, his 300th marathon in 29 years. “We want to show the terrorists and others...that you can’t intimidate runners.”

Caleb Boyd, 31, a sales representative for Western State Bank, was also determined to return after finishing last year’s marathon about an hour and a half before the explosions. “We’re not going to let something like this defeat us,” he said.

Boyd’s wife, Kristen, had been standing with their 8-month-old son, Ethan, and her parents, in the same spot where the first bomb went off. But they were back in the hotel when they learned what happened. “It’s pretty scary looking at the photos,” Boyd said. “It sent chills down my spine…I just feel so fortunate that nothing happened to them.”

This year, Boyd, a member of the Charlotte Running Club, plans to honor the three victims that died by writing their names on his arms. “When things get tough late in the marathon, I can look down and see (the name of) somebody who lost their life last year. That puts your small moment of pain in perspective.”

Coming “full circle”

Hazel Tapp, from the University City running group, remembers feeling helpless and guilty after finishing last year’s race and then hearing about the spectators who were killed or injured. When she returned home, she had trouble sleeping and concentrating, but didn’t understand why. A researcher at Carolinas HealthCare System, Tapp said a doctor she works with helped her understand that she was reacting to having experienced a traumatic event. Tapp shared that with fellow runners who were suffering too.

“You have a kind of a survivor’s guilt because such awful stuff happened,” she said.

Billy Shue, 30, was the fastest Charlotte runner in the marathon last year, finishing in 2 hours, 38 minutes and 42 seconds. It was his first Boston race and he finished about two hours before the bombs went off.

He and his friends flew out of Boston that night, but he followed the news closely as the identity of the suspects became known. Four days after the explosions, Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout in Watertown, Mass. The next day, police arrested his younger brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, wounded and hiding inside a boat in a nearby back yard. Now 20, he is awaiting trial.

Shue, an internal auditor for Wells Fargo, had not planned to return to the Boston Marathon this year, but the bombers changed that.

“You don’t want to live in fear. When you do that, the terrorists win,” Shue said. “I was determined …to show that we’ve come full circle, and America won.”

Garloch: 704-358-5078
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