The crowds were cheering. The atmosphere was contagious.

'Perfect family event'

For Downing, the marathon was the culmination of a lifetime of running and competing in other races. An injury kept her from running in Boston a couple of years ago. This time, she was aided in her training by daughter Nicole, a former North Baltimore Aquatic Club swimmer who works at a health club in Charlotte, N.C.

Having her daughters at the race made the weekend that much sweeter.

Brannock, a 29-year-old preschool teacher at Trinity Episcopal Children's Center in Towson, had fired off an email laced with excitement to the parents of her students. She would miss class on Monday, she wrote. Her mother was competing in the Boston Marathon and she would be there to cheer her on.

Brannock flew with her mother to Logan International Airport on Saturday, where they met Nicole Gross and her husband. Once the family was together, Downing picked up her race packet and spent some time walking with her daughters around the city. The young women held up running-themed T-shirts, and suggested that Downing buy one to remember the occasion.

"I was worried I was taking too much time; they were like, 'Mom. No. This is your day,'" Downing recalls. "We were just having a lot of fun. One [T-shirt] said, 'Right on Hereford. Left on Boylston.'"

They spent some time at their hotel, the Residence Inn in Framingham, before going to dinner at an Italian restaurant, Papa Razzi Trattoria. "We're just all goofy together," Downing says.

The next day, Michael Gross stayed at the hotel with a migraine and Brannock worked on a biology project for a graduate course at Towson University. Downing focused on final race preparations with Nicole Gross, who had moved to Charlotte about 10 years ago after graduating from Mount Hebron High School and the University of Tennessee.

They went on a chilly, 25-minute run. At Target, they picked up a sweatsuit Downing would peel off after she warmed up during the race. They bought tickets for the "T," Boston's subway system, so the family wouldn't have to stand in line after the marathon. And they made a trip to Hopkinton.

"I said, 'Let's go to the start real quick and see what it looks like ...'" Downing recalls. "We got there and it was just like, 'Oh, this is so great.'"

Before the race, held on the Patriots Day state holiday, some members of the family considered watching the Red Sox play the Tampa Bay Rays — the game was being played early, before the marathon. But they decided there wasn't enough time.

Brannock had another sport on her mind as she prepared to watch the race. She texted a friend: "You think I'm gonna have trouble wearing a Ravens shirt on Patriots day? Haha."

'Dad, there was a bomb'

When Kathryn Ledwell crossed the finish line at 2:44:26 p.m. — after nearly four hours of running — she was exhausted. "I didn't want to take a step further," says the 22-year-old Charles Village resident, a senior at the Johns Hopkins University. "My legs had had enough."

The first 16 miles had gone well, the rest not so much. But she had pushed on.

"My thought was the faster I finish, the faster I can stop running," she said. Medical aides approached. She was OK, she told them, but didn't want to move. Slowly, she walked to a nearby water stand. Moments later, the first explosion sent smoke, shrapnel and debris into the air.

To Ledwell, who grew up in Prince Edward Island in Canada, it sounded "like a mix between a cannon and a bunch of fireworks." But her brain wasn't processing it. Men and women in yellow jackets and sweaters — race personnel and volunteers — and security officers in black vests rushed past her, toward the thick line of smoke. Runners and spectators streamed toward her.

When a second explosion sounded, Ledwell knew to flee. "OK, if there were two, there might be more," she thought.

Three minutes after the first explosion, Ledwell's friend, Charlotte Healy, who had run the race as well and was waiting for her, managed to reach her on the phone and asked what the sounds had been. "I was freaking out and she didn't know why," Ledwell recalls.