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20 Days: Many have unfinished business

In the 26 days leading up to the Boston Marathon on April 21, ESPNBoston.com will share inspiring stories, detail important logistics and go inside the planning for what promises to be an event like no other in the wake of last year's bombings. There are 20 days until the race.

While chaos ensued when two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon last year, confusion reigned among thousands of runners who had yet to get that far.

In direct contrast to that confusion was the certainty that most runners had about returning to the scene of anguish this year.

“There really could be no hesitation. I have a race to finish and we didn’t get to finish it,” said Grace Kennedy, who ran for the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge in 2013 and has returned in the same role.

The Boston Athletic Association invited back all of the 5,633 charity runners who were stopped short of the finish line in 2013. Nearly 80 percent accepted the invitation, according to the B.A.A., and a large percentage of them are fundraising for their respective causes again, even though that was not a condition of returning in 2014.

Lindsay Stives, who also ran as part of the Dana-Farber team last year, is one of those returnees. She was a few miles from the finish line and listening to the radio as the first reports of an incident came in. Like those around her she pressed on, unaware of the severity of the explosions.

She was forced to come to a stop near the Commonwealth Mall, was given water and blankets from friendly spectators and eventually meandered to a friend’s apartment in the South End. It was there, nearly two hours after the bombs went off, where she first realized what had happened through news reports on TV.

It was also around that time that she recommitted herself to the cause.

“I was running for a little girl who passed away from cancer at 2 years old, so all I wanted to do was to get across that finish line, all I wanted to do was honor her,” Stives said. “I enjoyed running for Dana-Farber so much that I thought I’d go back next year by March [of 2013]. Obviously not getting to finish made me say it wasn’t even a question. I’ll be back and I’ll be running.”

Dana-Farber has more than 700 runners this year, its largest team in history. Over 250 of those are returnees like Kennedy and Stives, and every last one of them is fundraising again, albeit with reduced minimums. Applications to join the team doubled from 2013, and it hopes to raise more than $5 million.

The American Liver Foundation’s Run for Research team has 109 returnees to go along with its 215 regular team members. According to campaign manager Lauren Gainor, most are going “above and beyond” their minimums in fundraising and the foundation expects a record amount of donations.

Team Red Cross had a similar response. Inquiries into joining went from 200 last year to 450 in 2014 before the organization stopped tracking requests in November.

Regardless of the numbers, charity runners will represent the marathon’s all-out effort to turn a negative into a positive. Those who were stopped will now press on. Those who failed to finish plan to do so with gusto. And many, like Gary Almeter, who raced last year on behalf of Camp Shriver, will have memories of a race well done as opposed to those he retains from 2013.

There was the stranger had who offered him a ride to wherever he needed to be once he was stopped by race officials with about a mile to go. There were the odd phone calls he received from his postrace ride around mile 24. And there was the almost eerie sight of spectators whose attention turned from the race course to their phones, almost instantaneously.

“People started to stop cheering and started checking their phones and it was ... you see a crowd do that, it’s very startling,” Almeter said. “The physicality of seeing people, like the wave at a baseball game, their hands above their heads and all of a sudden everyone’s hands are down at their waist and typing on their iPhones.”

Almeter had told himself he was only going to run Boston once. The myriad emotions he felt in the aftermath of 2013 prompted a shift in attitude. For him, and maybe for many others, running again maybe the best way to deal with those feelings.

“Last year, in addition to the gratitude and the terror and the sadness and all that, it was really tough processing disappointment too. I kind of felt guilty for feeling disappointed,” he said. “And then it was after a lot of conversations with a lot of people, more in tune with concepts of athleticism than I, to say, ‘You know what? Those emotions are not mutually exclusive. It’s possible to be grateful and angry and disappointed and proud all at the same time.’

“With all that said, when I think about Boston Marathon 2014, I think about the historic aspect of it, but as far as emotions, I think we don’t really know what to expect. I think as overwhelming as it was to just run it the first time, it’s going to be that much more overwhelming this time.”

Kennedy’s mother, who last year was not far removed from finishing cancer treatment, was going to meet her around mile 23 and run with her to the finish line, mother and daughter marking their respective milestones together.

This year, it is much less of a personal matter for Kennedy. It’s something much larger.

“When you run the marathon, if you do it with a charity, then there’s the feeling it’s like running for a cause, but it’s still an individual thing,” she said. “I think this year it’s kind of every runner is a big group that’s running the marathon together. It’s a group thing.”

And when they reach Boylston Street, thoughts of what happened in 2013 will combine with everything they experienced along the way in 2014. For some, it might be too much.

“I’m probably just going to fall into a puddle of tears,” said Stives, who then began to sob at the thought of it.

The emotion remains raw, but within that is a commitment to take care of unfinished business.