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Faces in the crowd

By Maggie Cassidy
Globe Correspondent / April 17, 2009
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Rick Ball

In some ways, Rick Ball is an Average Joe. He works for the Toronto Transit Commission, leads a happy life with his wife and two sons, and will be among the thousands of runners competing in the 113th Boston Marathon Monday.

But in other ways, Ball, 43, is far above average. He donates his time by speaking at elementary schools or informally counseling sick children. He was named 2008 Athlete of the Year in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario. And on Monday, the amputee will attempt to run Boston in less than three hours, competing in the able-bodied division while wearing bib No. 5424.

Ball, who had his left leg amputated below the knee as the result of a car accident more than 20 years ago, didn't start running until about a year and a half ago, when doctors fitted him for a new carbon fiber prosthesis.

"As soon as I started running I had this crazy idea in my head about Boston," said Ball, who has never been to the city. "I still don't know where I got it from - I guess [because] it's so well-known."

Ball told his idea to a running coach, Roger DePlanke, who asked Ball what kind of times he had. Ball didn't know what "times" were. DePlanke laughed, and asked Ball how many kilometers he could run. Ball said he could run 12 kilometers - about 7 miles. DePlanke laughed again.

But DePlanke transformed Ball into a 50-mile-a-week runner. Ball placed 10th out of 801 able-bodied runners at the Oakville Half Marathon near his home last September and 25th out of 2,260 at the Chilly Half Marathon in Burlington, Ontario, last month.

He knows that breaking three hours at Boston is a lofty goal, but he's up for the challenge.

"I don't like to just run a race and putt along," Ball said. "I want to run a race as fast as I can."

Cathy Merra

Cathy Merra wasn't sure how she would do when she ran the Maine Marathon last October.

Just a few years earlier, she was in so much pain she would often have trouble sleeping through the night. She would walk down stairs one step at time, and needed help from her husband or two sons with simple tasks such as opening jars.

Affected by psoriatic arthritis since her early 20s, Merra had previously controlled the disease - which caused her joints to stiffen and swell - through exercise. But by age 46, it had worsened to the point where she "walked like a 90-year-old," she said.

"It's not until the pain goes away that you really realize how bad it is," said Merra, who lives in Amherst, N.H. "Everybody has something that you have to deal with and that was just my thing."

So it was a surprise to Merra, who turned 50 this month, when she ran 3:16 at Maine - good for fourth overall and first in her age group.

She controlled the pain with a weekly injection she began taking three years ago. That was important for Merra, who has had room in her heart for running for more than a decade. After her older son, Anthony, who now competes for Columbia University, started running for local clubs at age 9, Merra started a running club at Amherst Middle School. She now coaches a Junior Olympic cross-country team and the Souhegan High School track team.

Members of those teams will be on hand Monday to cheer on Merra in her first Boston Marathon. When she tapes on bib No. 7493, the significance won't be lost.

"I grew up watching the Boston Marathon, watching Bill Rodgers," she said. "It's been a dream of mine."

Eric Johnson

When Eric Johnson's son joined the Army three years ago, Johnson decided he needed a distraction to ease his worries.

So Johnson, the executive director of development in Tufts University's fund-raising department, decided to run marathons around the country. It was a fairly easy transition for Johnson, who, in 2003, helped organize the school's Boston Marathon team and has been competing with the Tufts team since.

But when he received word two years ago that his son, Griffin, would be deployed to Iraq, running a few marathons wasn't enough. So he set a new goal: Run all five World Marathon Majors (Boston, New York, London, Berlin, and Chicago) in one year.

Johnson, 49, achieved his goal last year, adding a sixth marathon (Miami) for good measure. He ran Boston only eight days after running London. In the fall, he knocked off the final three majors in a five-week period.

"It was something else to focus on. I was either training or traveling or running throughout the year," said Johnson, who was joined by his wife, Regina, in Miami, Boston, and Chicago. "It gave my wife and I both something positive to focus on instead of thinking about what might be happening to him."

With Griffin, 21, back home safely after more than a year of service in Iraq, Johnson will run Boston with the Tufts team Monday, wearing bib No. 26568.

Johnson, a Methuen resident, said he aims to "finish the marathon before the winners get back to their hometowns." Of all the majors, he said, Boston is special because of the field it draws from around the world.

"It's fun being with all those very talented runners who were able to qualify, who go off at the starting line and you never see them again," he said.