Quality time

— -- KACIE HERRICK WASN'T sure she was going to finish. She was running through Boston in something more than marathon pain. A month earlier, she had slipped on some ice while training in her native Maine and injured her right knee. She feared she wasn't going to be able to run in Boston at all, but she decided she didn't want to miss one of the great American races. With more than 16 miles to go, her knee began to swell and ooze. "It was pretty gross," the 29-year-old says today. "There were a lot of prayers, a lot of tears." Finally, with her parents and one of her sisters cheering her on -- "They had such a good spot," Kacie says -- she ran down Boylston Street and crossed the finish line. Her time was 3 hours, 33 minutes and 22 seconds.

A friend of hers was volunteering and put her in a wheelchair, taking her to a medical tent. That tent was out of ice, so they moved to a second tent. Her family finally found her, but Kacie's father realized he'd left his camera hanging on a lamppost next to a mailbox near the finish line. Herrick's mother went back to retrieve it. She returned to the tent, and that's when they heard two blasts. It wasn't until later that they began to piece together what had happened. Safe in Quincy Market, Herrick's sister looked at the first photographs of the bombings on her phone. There was the lamppost, and the mailbox, and the sidewalk covered in blood.

The Herrick family had joined the thousands of that day's near misses, men and women and children who had been spared by the narrowest margins. "All the different variables ..." Kacie Herrick says, before she trails off. "Everything changed in just a second." She had already planned to move to Florida immediately after the race, and she made some silent resolutions during that long drive south. "I just decided that at any point, anything can happen," she says. "Live life with passion. That's all I can do." Her mind often returned to the Boston Marathon, and in time, she decided the rest of her should too.

Not anyone can run Boston. To qualify, runners have to finish the previous year's race or another sanctioned marathon within a certain time. For instance, a 29-year-old woman like Herrick would have to finish faster than 3 hours and 35 minutes. But this year's marathon was already on track to be the second largest -- 36,000 runners, 9,000 more than usual -- because thousands of runners who couldn't finish last year were invited back, and several thousand more bibs were given to survivors, hospital staff, charities and sponsors. There were 25,654 applicants this year and room for only 22,679 of them. The Boston Athletic Association drew a line: Runners had to beat the usual cutoffs by 1 minute and 38 seconds, the toughest standard in the marathon's 118-year history.

One minute and 38 seconds: 3 hours and 35 minutes became 3:33:22. Had Kacie Herrick finished Boston just one second slower, just a few strides off her agonizing pace, everything would have changed once again. "It's going to be a very emotional experience to go back there," she says. "But it was meant to be."

She is far from the only 1:38er headed to Boston this year. Alex Harsha-Strong, a 28-year-old from Naperville, Ill., ran the Chicago Marathon just fast enough. "It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it," he says. "Whenever I run a marathon again, starting with Boston, I'm going to know how much little things matter." Jenny Wilkes, a 31-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., also finished Chicago right on time. "I guess it gives me hope," she says. "It's made me more thoughtful, to keep going even when it starts to hurt." Wayne Lambert, a 60-year-old from Centennial, Colo., who qualified in Big Cottonwood, Utah, will be running in part to honor a friend struck and killed by a van while training for last year's race. "I know that nothing's forever," he says.

Together they will join Kacie Herrick and 35,996 of their fellow runners on April 21, and their friends and families will stand among the hundreds of thousands of spectators in the grieving, defiant streets of Boston, all of them in their own way flush with the same knowledge: Even in a marathon, every second counts.

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