Boston reclaims Patriots' Day beauty

— -- BOSTON -- The solemn tributes and the poignant reminders of a marathon gone horribly, horribly wrong one year ago finally gave way to a new day, a blue sky and a race we could all passionately -- and gratefully -- embrace.

The running gods smiled on our city Monday. They decreed sunny weather with only a smidgen of humidity; a supportive, respectful and emotional crowd; and the first American male winner of the Boston Marathon in 31 years.

A gracious Meb Keflezighi, who will turn 39 next month, won the race in 2:08:37, then dissolved into tears.

"When the bombs exploded [last year], every day since then I've wanted to come back and win it," he said.

Keflezighi is an Eritrean refugee who came to the United States when he was 12 years old. He evolved into a running sensation in San Diego and became a naturalized citizen in 1998.

He became Boston's Favorite Son yesterday by invoking the names of the Red Sox, Aerosmith and Martin Richard.

Keflezighi, who said he wanted to win for the survivors and the victims of last year's attack, held off second-place finisher Wilson Chebet of Kenya by 11 seconds.

"I kept thinking, 'Boston Strong, Boston Strong,'" he said.

The hope was Monday's event would carry us beyond the pain and the sorrow of an unspeakable tragedy. For some, it is too soon. It felt best to stay away from a day they can't quite bring themselves to celebrate.

They deserve all the time they need to heal. The bombings are a pock on this day, an ugly, indelible part of marathon history. That we cannot change.

So we mourn the loss of innocence, and understand the days of this race doubling as a freewheeling, Patriots' Day frat party are over. Security was tight along the course, as it should have been. Bags were given a second -- and third -- glance. Streets were blocked off and subway stations were closed.

Hardly anyone minded.

New Englanders are a resilient lot (see Red Sox futility, circa 1918 to 2004). It's true we are perpetually angst-ridden over the fortunes of our favorite athletes, whether it's Wilfork's Achilles, Rondo's future or Lester's contract. The rest of the country delights in mocking the way we "pahk our cah," and loves to dismiss our habits as "provincial."

That's fine. But what Boston has demonstrated in the wake of the marathon bombings -- and did so again Monday -- is our ability to band together, exhibit uncommon resilience and move beyond.

The throng of people who stood 10 deep on the streets, who urged runners on from Hopkinton to Heartbreak Hill, was indisputable evidence we are ready to take back our city, our tradition, our peace of mind.

The day did not come and go without some trepidation. Sabrina Dello Russo, who stood outside Forum Restaurant last year and suffered a head injury from one of the blasts, ran her first marathon to honor her friend, Roseann Sdoia, who lost her leg in the explosion.

"I'm very excited but I'm also scared something could happen," Dello Russo confessed beforehand. "I'm very afraid for my family and friends to be out there, and for strangers to be out there, and me being on the other side, and not knowing if something happened, like the runners from last year."

Last year Sabrina watched the finish outside Forum, standing behind a mailbox that absorbed some of the force of the bomb and may well have saved her life. She was no more than 20 feet from Martin Richard and his little sister, Jane, each of them leaning into the metal barriers for a better view.

The mailbox Sabrina stood behind has been replaced and new barriers were erected for the 118th running of the race. This time, 11-year-old Francesca Spagnuolo of Grafton, Mass., and her 12-year-old sister, Isabella, craned for their own optimal vantage point in the exact spot where the Richards were standing.

Their mother, Tanya, recalled watching the explosion on television last year and promising her daughters, "We're going to be there next year. No fears. Nothing is going to take this race from us."

Francesca admitted she was a "little nervous" to be so close to the finish line, but as the day unfolded, the positive energy from the thousands of spectators became contagious.

"It's great," Francesca declared, beaming. "Just awesome."

Not 10 feet from them, Bobbie and Jeremy Smith of Newburyport, Mass., snapped pictures of the runners with their phones and reveled in the sunshine.

"I didn't come here for an anniversary," Bobbie Smith explained. "I came for what it is supposed to be -- a race on a beautiful day that's a Boston tradition."

There were residual makeshift memorials that sprouted up Monday, among them random pots of daffodils along Arlington Street and a string of votives on Hereford that flickered as the wind picked up in the afternoon.

The city held its collective breath at 2:49 p.m., the moment all hell broke loose last year, and then, when there was nothing -- no explosions, no screams, no bloody horror -- Boston exhaled, relieved and still a bit reflective.

It was a day without incident, and that was the best thing of all.

Ben Coughlin of Worcester, Mass., ran Boston last year. He was celebrating his finish with his family when the bombs interrupted their moment.

"I needed to come back," his mother, Suzanne Coughlin, said Monday. "I felt it would be healing."

Ben's fiancée, Megan Robertson, accompanied his parents to the finish, but she did so reluctantly.

"My dad is a New Jersey state police officer," she said. "He tells me stories. I didn't want [Ben] to run. ... I told him how I felt, but I also told him he needed to do what he had to do."

Ben Coughlin's final tweet before he tackled the course was succinct: "26.2 miles to closure."

He crossed the finish line in 2:38:31, a personal best. It took Sabrina Dello Russo a little longer than that to pass the mailbox, the Forum, the site of the most traumatic moment of her life, but when she crossed at the exact same spot as Ben Coughlin and Meb Keflezighi, she did so in honor of Roseann and her fellow survivors.

The sun was still shining, and more than 5 hours into Marathon Monday, the crowds were still cheering.

It was a beautiful day.

Just like it always used to be.