Runners try to make sense of chaos at Boston Marathon

It wasn’t what anyone expected on the steady downhill after Heartbreak Hill: Closing in on the 24-mile mark at Coolidge Corner, runners grinding toward the finish of the Boston Marathon were herded to the sides of the course to allow police cars, sirens screaming, to race by.

A half-mile later, race volunteers made an announcement: The finish line had been moved.

At mile 25, a Boston police officer broke the news to those who hadn’t yet finished. “Race is over, folks,” the officer said. “There is no finish line.”

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As chaos unfolded at the Boston Marathon Monday, bewildered runners were redirected without explanation. It was the beginning of an hours-long odyssey for the competitors, many of whom were without their cellphones, or money, or anything but thin singlets and shorts. Dazed out-of-towners struggled to find designated gathering spots or their hotels, asking passersby for directions or a call on a cellphone. Many were unable to retrieve their belongings. Most of all, they were cold and exhausted.

Yet many were met with kindness from locals; offered blankets and jackets, cash and food, and a free place to sleep. “People in this city have been unbelievable,” said Glenn Sheehan, 50, a runner born in Wakefield and now lives in South Carolina. “ ‘Let me give you food, let me give you water’ — it’s been like that all afternoon.”

Forced from the race course at Massachusetts and Commonwealth avenues, 45-year-old Kathy Cote got a helping hand outside the Eliot Hotel.

“A very nice man offered me his jacket and his cellphone while he went into the Eliot and got me a blanket,” said Cote, a bartender from Mashpee running her second Boston Marathon, who was swept toward the Common by police with bullhorns.

From moments after the explosion until late in the afternoon, runners and spectators struggled to meet up with loved ones.

Lisa Vasallo, 45, of Dedham, was in the tunnel on Commonwealth Avenue leading to the race’s final stretch when police stopped the runners. They waited impatiently for word that it was safe to continue, when they heard that there had been two explosions just after mile 26.

“My first thought was my children,” said Vasallo, breaking into tears. “I knew they were at the finish line.” She was later reunited with them.

On Clarendon Street, a man waited at a police barricade, trying to find his girlfriend. She had sent him text message updates — she was OK, she wrote in one. Then, another: “Blood everywhere. People are dead.”

Hours after the explosion, runners, some with their families, wandered around the Boston Public Garden, covered in only Boston Athletic Association foil blankets, finishers medals around their necks. Usually a buoyant scene, competitors instead embraced family members, or stared solemnly into cellphones, checking for more news on the blasts. Corralled into Boston Common, they were blocked by police tape, masses of military personnel, and SWAT officers with rifles conducting traffic on Charles Street.

Rachel Moody had finished the race 25 minutes before the first explosion. She and her running partner did not know what to do: They tried to find their friends, but police told them to get back. So they went to Copley Place to text people that they were OK.

But 20 minutes later, police cleared the mall. Moody, from Herriman, Utah, didn’t even know where she was, she said, tears in her eyes. A woman in a pink hat pointed her toward the Common. Moody and friends eventually assembled at a McDonald’s on Tremont, which was flooded with other out-of-town marathoners.

A Boston police officer on a bicycle pedaled up and down Stuart Street, urging runners and their family members to leave. But many — those whose hotels had been evacuated or cars were stuck in locked-down garages — had no place to go.

To help accommodate them, the McDonald’s was set to stay open all night to serve stranded runners and first responders. Other downtown restaurants posted signs, asking runners to pay only if they could. An online spreadsheet was shared via social media, with hundreds of locals offering guest rooms and spare couches.

City officials set up a resource center for runners at the Park Plaza Castle. Late Monday night, Barbara Ferrer, head of the Boston Public Health Commission, said 50 people had arrived, looking for help finding loved ones or their belongings.

“It’s really been sort of trouble shooting, but mostly for runners,” Ferrer said.

She said shelter would be provided and the center would reopen for services Tuesday morning, with mental health counselors on the scene.

But not every runner or race worker needed help: Some sought to help others.

Emily Clark, a Boston College junior, who was also forced to end her Marathon early, ran to Massachusetts General Hospital with two friends, intending to donate blood. Clark said hospital staff told her to come back Tuesday.

At 6:30 p.m., Marathon volunteer John Gannon drove slowly down Charles Street in his Honda Accord, calling out the window to ask if stranded runners needed a ride or a phone to borrow.

He scoured the streets, trying to help out-of-town runners separated from their family and friends, their phones and their wallets.

He had taken two carloads to Harvard Square and a third to the Newton Marriott.

“I just couldn’t go home. I felt like I had to do something,” said Gannon, a lawyer, his voice faint. “We just felt like our mission wasn’t done.”