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Kevin Schnepf, Published April 16 2013

Schnepf: Boston Marathon tragedy 'surreal'

Fargo - Five years ago this spring, Dave McGillivray was the featured speaker at the Fargo Marathon – explaining the challenges of directing one of the world’s most celebrated marathons.

The Boston Marathon – the one in which he had to deal with a 2007 nor’easter storm of epic proportions that threatened to cancel the race for the first time in its 111-year history. A surprising 98.5 percent of the field finished the race.

And just last year, McGillivray had to deal with 90-degree heat – which prompted 4,300 runners to not even run, 2,000 requiring medical attention and 120 taken to a hospital by ambulance. The race went on.

Considering what occurred in Boston Monday for the 117th marathon, those challenges pale in comparison. Two bombings near the finish line killed three and injured more than 140.

“So, so surreal,” McGillivray wrote in a statement. “We all feel so sorry for the innocent victims and their families. Even my young kids (8 and 7) were in the stands and witnessed this senseless act and are so shaken by it all and are now worried about what their father does for work.”

It was back in the 1980s when I was a spectator at the Boston Marathon. So much has changed since then – especially after 911.

Terrorism was the last thing on my mind when I watched more than 20,000 runners congregate in the small town of Hopkinton before the start of the marathon. It was the last thing on my mind when we navigated the crooked streets of Boston to find a place to park.

It was the last thing on my mind when I found a perch in a tree in downtown Boston to take some pictures. It was the last thing on the minds of the tree-climbing college boys who offered me a Lowenbrau.

It was the last thing on my mind – even though the makeshift medical setup in a parking garage, with cot after cot filled with aching runners, reminded me of a war scene.

That was then. This is now. And unfortunately for marathon directors like McGillivray, they plan for events like this. They have been forced to.

Even in little old Fargo – where a marathon with more than 20,000 runners will be held May 18 – plans are being made if such a thing would happen here.

“While it’s next to impossible to prevent from anything happening, I want to make sure we turn over every stone and be as preventative as we possibly can,” said Fargo Marathon director Mark Knutson. “If something were to happen, I don’t want to be the one to say ‘yeah, we should have done this.’ You’ve got to at least try to prepare for it.”

Before Monday’s tragic event, Knutson’s major concern was figuring out an alternative marathon route because of the late-arriving flood. After Monday, Knutson is more concerned about figuring out how to honor the Boston Marathon – perhaps having runners wear something on their bib or create some type of fundraiser.

“You look at what they are dealing with in Boston right now … wow,” Knutson said. “We’ll get through the flood no problem. Our problems are nothing what they are going through.”

Which brings us back to McGillivray, who has produced or consulted on more than 1,000 mass-participatory athletic events around the world, including 26 Boston Marathons, the 1990 Triathlon World Championship, the 1998 Goodwill Games Triathlon and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

“If there is any race director who could handle what happened Monday, it would be him,” Knutson said.

Suddenly, Knutson realized something. For the first time in 41 years, McGillivray did not run the Boston Marathon course. It’s something he’s done after the race for the last 25 years.

“He’s run every Boston Marathon since he was 16 years old,” Knutson said.

Some things did come to an end Monday. Nonetheless, you can bet there will be spectators in the trees cheering on 20,000 runners for next year’s Boston Marathon.

Patriots Day may seem even more meaningful.

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

or kschnepf@forumcomm.com