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Debris is seen along Boylston Street after explosions went off at the 117th Boston Marathon in Boston, Massachusetts April 15, 2013. Two explosions hit the Boston Marathon as runners crossed the finish line on Monday.

JESSICA RINALDI/Reuters

Three hours, 17 minutes and 53 seconds.

It was a personal best for Nicole Mikhael, an Ontario runner who on Monday raced her fifth marathon since lacing up for her first 42-kilometre test two years ago. She finished elated at her performance, the culmination of a year's training and a morning spent calming butterflies that flutter in a runner's core.

"I was bawling at the finish line," she said. "I was crying my eyes out that I had done so well."

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The weather was perfect for the Patriot's Day race – far cooler than the heat last spring, which saw more than 2,000 competitors forgo their 2012 qualification in exchange for automatic entry into this week's run. For Ms. Mikhael, Monday's weather was just chilly enough – and her pace just quick enough – to spare her from the carnage that ensued after two bloody explosions rocked the finish line.

In keeping with runner's decorum, the 30-year-old clinical researcher intended to wait for her six Canadian friends at the finish line, to hug and high-five them upon finishing a storied marathon that attracts some 27,000 runners, more than 2,000 of whom are Canadian. But thank goodness, she said, that her shivers ultimately drove her toward the subway line, her sights set on the warmth of her friend's south Boston home.

It was then that she heard a loud "bang!" but, in all her post-marathon emotion, she thought little of it at the time. By the time she emerged from the underground, her voicemail and e-mail inbox were jammed with messages from her concerned parents and siblings – two brothers and two sisters who, out of sheer fear, demanded Monday that the Boston trip count as Ms. Mikhael's last to the United States.

"Someone's watching over me, I'll tell you that much," Ms. Mikhael said, sirens whirring in the background as emergency responders rushed to care for the more than 100 people injured in the explosions. "This is supposed to be such a happy day. We've been training for a year, let alone to qualify, and you get here and it's supposed to be fantastic. And then this is happens?"

The race was, in a sense, bookended with tragedy: Before the stopwatches starting clocking times, the runners gathered in the Athlete's Village for a moment of silence in honour of the Connecticut school shooting victims who perished in December.

Hours later, the scene – with its plumes of dark smoke, spectators climbing over one another to flee the bleachers in fright, and blood splattered on pavement just tread by competitors enjoying the emotional high that only endurance sport can conjure – made for yet another dark moment and it, too, was cast within an otherwise bright setting.

The Boston marathon is, after all, the world's oldest annual marathon and one of just six World Marathon Majors. Entry is coveted by racers worldwide who hope to become part of the history, to run with the very best and the likes of athletes such as Jean Marmoreo, a Canadian septaguenarian who finished first among women aged 70-74. (She emerged unscathed from Monday's attack.)

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Canada's top male finisher, Robin Watson, described the difficulty he experienced in reconciling the emotional extremes, from the exuberant vibes on a course he completed so fast (two hours, 15 minutes and 33 seconds) that he landed the 11th spot among men, to the shock and horror at the reality of dead and injured.

"There was just so much love out there," he said. "Even with the terrible, horrible events by what I presume are terrible people."

"The day turned from that sort of triumph and sense of joy and achievement that you get in a marathon to this terrible tragedy," Alan Brookes, race director of Canada Running Series, told The Canadian Press.

Some 36,000 athletes are expected to run past iconic attractions like the Tower of London and Buckingham Palace this upcoming weekend as part of the London Marathon. Its organizers immediately issued a statement Monday, assuring that safety will be a top priority. Organizers in Ottawa, too, acknowledged that the nation's capital could be targeted at the annual May run.

"It's sad, as runners, to think that this will taint our sport and events," said Blaine Penny, a seasoned runner who finished Monday's race about 90 minutes before the explosions. "This is one of the biggest events for runners and it's heartbreaking to see this happen."

Mr. Watson, for his part, said his running spirit has not been shaken, emerging Monday with the sort of optimism that the running world will need as it presses on with the rest of the 2013 race season.

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"You can't live your life in fear," he said. "It's terrible it happened today and it happened here, but I'd come back and run the marathon any day. I'd come back tomorrow."

With reports from Laura Hubbard and Rachel Brady

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