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Local runners set for Boston

| Monday, April 21, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Aaron Horrell knew something was wrong when he heard the sirens.

The North Belle Vernon man had just completed his first Boston Marathon and was attempting to board a trolley for the airport to fly home. But the trolley system was shut down, so he caught a cab for the airport.

“We did not know what happened,” said Horrell, 32, who was traveling with fellow Steel City Road Runners Club members Jonathan Kissell and Dave Spell.

“We just heard there were explosions, but we did not know if it was an accident or planned.”

“We heard a number of sirens and we knew it had to be something real serious. It wasn't until we got to the airport that we learned of the explosions on the sidelines where there were spectators.”

On April 15, 2013, two pressure cooker bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding 264 others. The bombs exploded about 12 seconds apart, near the finish line on Boylston Street.

Suspect Tsarnaev Tsarnaev was killed during a police chase and his brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was captured and charged in the attacks.

A year later, Mid-Mon Valley runners who will be among the 36,000 to take part in the 188th Boston Marathon expect they wqill be part of a very emotional day Monday.

Horrell said he realizes that but for timing, he could have been at the finish line when the bombs went off.

He finished in three hours and one minute, about an hour before the bombs went off.

“Had we not been leaving Monday to fly home, we would have been on sidelines to watch a lot of people we knew who were running,” Horrell said.

“That definitely crossed our minds - that I could have been there when it happened.”

Horrell said he already had plans to return to Boston even before running last year. But the magnitude of the horrific events just strengthened his resolve. He qualified for Boston this year through his finish in last year's marathon.

Runners must qualify for the event by completing a previous marathon in a set time, which is based on their age.

“I would have wanted to go back either way,” Horrell said. “But in a way, it was one of those things where you wanted to go and support everybody who was affected by this firsthand, just to show you can't be afraid.”

Horrell supports the Boston Strong movement.

“It's a way of saying this can't affect the country or city, especially a country that prides itself on freedom,” Horrell said. “It's about the ability to go out and live your life the way you want to. It's our way of saying, ‘You can't take that away from us just by instilling fear.'”

Steve Spang, 28, of Rostraver Township, just missed by one minute his chance to run in Boston in 2013, finishing the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. in three hours and six minutes.

He qualified for this year's race by running 2:53.48 at the Erie Marathon Sept. 15.

Spang was following Horrell's progress in Boston last year through an app on his cell phone.

He tried to call Horrell and Spell to congratulate them on their finishes but got no response.

After learning from his family about the bombings, Spang heard seconds later from Spell.

He was glad to hear his friends were safe.

“I saw Dave and Aaron and all of the excitement when they were training for Boston last year,” Spang said. “The excitement has built up a lot this year in light of what happened.”

Spang said he is thankful for all of the people who have supported him and his friends.

“It's humbling,” Spang said. “I'm overwhelmed by how much people are excited for me.”

Spang said he plans to “take it all in” at this yera's race.

“I'll get excited in mile 22 when I've survived all of those hills,” Spang said.

Watching televised coverage of the first anniversary of the bombings, Spang said he has a renewed kinship for his fellow runners.

“There are a lot of similarities between people of Boston and Pittsburgh and their ability to handle difficult challenges,” Spang said.

Emory Strotman, 35, of Forward Township qualified for Boston by running a sub-three hour at the Erie Marathon. His accomplishment was more significant because he joined the elite list of those qualifying for Boston in his first ever marathon.

“How many people can say they qualified for Boston on their first try?” Strotman asked.

Strotman remembers turning on the television last year to learn of the bombings.

“It reminded me of what happened on 9-11,” Strotman said.

Strotman said he realizes security will be extremely tight for Boston this year.

“I can't just let that get to me,” Strotman said. “I just have to get the job done – focus and run my race.”

Strotman said he is “shooting for three hours,” mindful that he has another marathon, the Pittsburgh Marathon, awaiting him 13 days later.

Dave Phillips, 38, of Pricedale, also qualified for Boston during his first marathon, running 3:06.13 at Canton the first weekend in September.

Despite beating his Boston marathon qualifying time by nearly four minutes, Phillips had reservations that he might not qualify because of the demand to be there this year after the bombings last year.

“I always wanted to do Boston, but that pushed me even harder to qualify,” Phillips said.

“I'm excited for the opportunity to run - just the experience of Boston.”

Phillips said he feels a brotherhood with other runners because of the terrorist attack last year.

“It's going to be very emotional,” Phillips said. “It will be intense at the starting line. It will probably bring tears to my eyes because what happened last year.

Chris Buckley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-684-2642 or

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