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Former 970th pilot wins Boston Marathon division

Pat Rupel, a retired lieutenant colonel and pilot with the 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, crosses a checkpoint at the Boston Marathon on April 28. Rupel beat more than 2,000 runners to win the 60 to 64 year-old male division. (Courtesy photo)

Pat Rupel, a retired lieutenant colonel and pilot with the 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, crosses a checkpoint at the Boston Marathon on April 28. Rupel beat more than 2,000 runners to win the 60 to 64 year-old male division. (Courtesy photo)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- When Pat Rupel crossed the finish line of the Boston Marathon last year, he planned on it being his last. The weather had been perfect for long-distance running with light winds and temperatures hanging in the 50s.

Rupel, a recently retired lieutenant colonel with the 970th Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma, finished sixth in his age group with just five minutes over the three-hour mark on the clock. His brother, Ray, had convinced Rupel to run the Boston Marathon with him as a strong finish to Rupel's competition marathon career.

As the brothers and their families packed their luggage into a friend's SUV for the trip home just before 3 p.m., they heard what Rupel thought were metal bleachers crashing at the finish line. The group was less than a half-mile away from the line, so the noise was easily heard.

"The second bomb went off about 12 seconds later, and I knew it was a bomb," he said. "In about three or four minutes, we could see people running on the street, panicking."

As the minutes ticked by, the sounds of sirens grew. The police began to arrive and told Rupel's group to leave the area.

"I wouldn't say it was total chaos, but it was starting to go that way," he said.

The Rupel family stayed with friends outside the city for a few days before returning to Boston for their flight home. They drove back April 19, 2013, the day bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was arrested in a massive manhunt in Watertown, Massachusetts, less than 15 miles from Boston's Logan International Airport.

"We weren't sure we could get back to the airport because everything was on lockdown," Rupel said. The normally busy streets were mostly empty, allowing them an easy drive.

It didn't take long after Rupel returned home to Edmond to decide to run the Boston Marathon again. He said that he felt he needed to run to support the people of Boston after the terrorism they faced during his last trip. His brother committed to running it with him, and they each began training again for the race.

"We started to plan to go back even a month after," Rupel said. "We had about a year of preparation. Usually, preparation starts about six months out."

He ran that summer with the Mount St. Mary High School cross-country team in Oklahoma City, where he had been volunteering for the last five years.

Rupel's training routine, ranging from 40 to 70 miles a week, wasn't hampered that year by any injuries, he said. Since he began running marathons again in 2008, his injuries have become less common as his running technique improved.

When April rolled around again, Rupel was ready. He and his brother traveled to Boston on their own this time. The change in security between the two years was drastic.

"We got wanded at one checkpoint," he said. "We couldn't carry bags like we did last year."

The welcoming Bostonians more than made up for the tighter security, Rupel said. He thought people were friendly last year, but they went overboard this year to accommodate the athletes.

"The crowds were phenomenal," he said. As he ran, he heard people shouting "Go blue!" and "USA," referring to him by his bright blue Air Force shorts and tall socks with USA written on the sides.

The race stretched through mostly rural towns, but there were plenty of people lined along the route for encouragement, he said.

At about the halfway point, Rupel passed what has become known as the Scream Tunnel, a stretch of the route thronged by women from an all-girls college in nearby Wellesley, Massachusetts, who offer encouragement and tout hand-drawn signs offering free kisses to runners.

Rupel chatted a little with fellow runners, he said. He talked with a group of midshipmen from the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but spent the majority of his time concentrated on the run itself.

"Most of the time you're pretty focused," he said. "When you're competing like that, you don't waste too much time."

As he neared the finish line, one of his hamstrings started to cramp, forcing him to finish the race with a broken stride. His goal had been to finish this year in the top three finishers, but the cramp stole at least two minutes of precious time.

The clock registered at 2:59:08 as he crossed. Rupel knew he did well, but he didn't expect to earn the top spot for the 60 to 64 year-old male division.

"I was a little shocked when I ended up first overall," he said.

Despite his strong performance in the April 21 race, Rupel said that this time is really the last. While he won't give up running completely, the 2014 Boston Marathon is the big finish to his 40-year marathon career.