Nina Dimke picked the perfect spot for the Boston Marathon Monday morning — near the finish line, behind the flags, where she could watch her friends from Palm Beach County finish the race.
The Boynton Beach woman was there early enough to see the grandstands installed and take photos of police dogs sniffing around the course. At one point, as people started trickling into the stands, she saw a Boston cop make them leave and go through the security line.
Dimke, watching the cop, thought, “What a jerk. Isn’t that being a little precautious?”
Ricky Montez, of Palm Beach Gardens, running his first Boston Marathon, found the people of Boston welcoming and the weather great. “It was just an amazing day,” he said.
Jupiter resident Barry Green had attended the marathon more than 20 times, but only as a spectator. After a year of training, he was fulfilling a dream — running the marathon himself.
“I went there with my friends in middle school, I went there with my friends in high school, in college. I went there with my kids,” he said.
The whole 26.2 miles were lined with people, he said, cheering the runners on and handing out water bottles and Popsicles. Some would shout out the names on people’s jerseys.
“The people attending the Boston Marathon have a reputation for being second to none in terms of fans,” Green said.
“It was gorgeous outside,” Dimke said. “No wind. Perfect conditions for the run.”
Michael Papa, of Palm Beach Gardens, also was running his first Boston Marathon. He was in the third and final wave of runners, starting at 10:40 a.m.
He felt good and the crowd, especially near the end, kept him into it.
“I was having a blast,” he said.
Montez and several local runners finished about 1 p.m. Dimke met up with him and others at a nearby park before going to lunch on Boylston Street.
Lilia Drew, of Jupiter, finished her first Boston Marathon about an hour later. It was the best marathon since her first one five years ago in Palm Beach, she said.
“Those 26 miles went by in a heartbeat,” she said. “Every step of the way, there’s thousands of people cheering you on.”
After finishing, she went to the Four Seasons for lunch.
About a mile short of the finish line, a leg cramp stalled Papa. He stretched for 30 seconds before continuing.
He had less than 150 yards to go when he heard the first explosion.
“You didn’t know what it was. Was it some idiot throwing fireworks?”
“It was a significant boom. You could feel it,” Dimke said.
“You’re running, and then the group of people in front of you all of a sudden turn,” Papa said. “Some are bleeding, some are crying, and they’re all coming at you. There’s smoke. The cops flooded everything. We were blocked off. They shut the road off behind us.”
“I just remember hearing the explosion and thinking, What?” Montez said. “You could see the course, and all of a sudden you see a little bit of smoke coming into our vision, and then all of a sudden you see runners running the exact opposite way, at full sprint. … It was pandemonium.”
Kelley Rosen of Delray Beach was celebrating a block from the finish line.
“The whole place was loud. Everyone was cheering,” she said. “And it went dead silent. The whole city.”
“It was just people screaming and running,” Dimke said. “It was amazing how quickly people were crying and covering their faces and running full speed.”
Restaurant staff told everyone to leave, and Montez and Dimke didn’t hesitate.
“People were jumping out the window,” Montez said. “We jumped out. It was pretty much a 7-foot drop.”
Stacey Garbowit of Delray Beach was in a throng of runners collecting their medals when she heard “a very muffled boom.”
“In the area I was in, there wasn’t a lot of mayhem,” Garbowit said. “People were looking at each other and wondering what was going on.”
Green was too far away to hear the blast. He had to stop a half-mile before the finish line, where the runners ahead of him had stopped.
Once he learned there had been an explosion, he asked a passerby to send his wife a text message. Soon after he was directed by police to the bus he had arrived in, which took him back to his hotel.
Drew learned about the blasts from the news showing on televisions at the Four Seasons, but didn’t realize the significance.
“At first we didn’t really understand how big it was,” she said.
That’s when the calls and text messages started coming in from family and friends.
After hours trapped on the street, police finally let Papa and other runners return to their bus for their belongings. In running shorts and 50-degree weather, they walked 10 bone-chilling blocks. And once back at his Sheraton hotel, within the crime scene area, armed guards wouldn’t let him leave for food. He said he didn’t get something to eat until 9:30 p.m.
Garbowit called the aftermath “surreal.”
“Nobody knew how to act. Nobody was saying congratulations.”
When she was at Boston’s Logan Airport Tuesday to catch a flight home, an FBI agent approached her to ask if she had any photos from the race. The runner handed over her camera, and the agent scrolled through her pictures.
“He seemed like he knew what he was looking for,” Garbowit said.
Green checked his cellphone when he returned to his room and was surprised to see the number of messages. “I didn’t realize how many people out there truly care about me,” he said.
Papa was interviewed by 13 media outlets, including ESPN.
Race officials offered him a medal, but he refused to let them hang it around his neck.
“Physically and mentally I did not cross that finish line.”
Garbowit traveled to Boston with her family, including her 6-year-old son.
“He wants to know if they’ve caught the bad guys yet,” Garbowit said.
Palm Beach County runners, numbering at least 55, have found ways to express their support. Several said they felt they had to return to the race in 2014, and Dimke said she wants to run for the first time next year.
Wellington running store Fit2Run is dedicating its weekly run to the victims. The 4- to 5-mile run will begin at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Fit2Run’s Wellington Mall location. The store asks that runners dress in white to show unity.
Garbowit said she had not planned to run the Boston Marathon again, but after Monday’s attack, she’s leaning toward returning next year.
Rosen said runners shouldn’t let the incident “overcome what’s a pinnacle for people who run, a dream for people who run, to qualify for the Boston Marathon.”
“Is it ever going to be the same? I can’t answer that.”
Staff writers Fedor Zarkhin, Jeff Ostrowski, Matt Porter, Joel Engelhardt and Jodie Wagner and staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.