April 13, 2014 at 12:09 PM ET
It was to be a day filled with pure joy, a day to celebrate their athletic triumph and their deep love for each other.
But when April 15, 2013, became a day of unimaginable tragedy as twin bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line, two runners kept their plans to become husband and wife, even as the sirens still wailed nearby, their show of defiance against evil.
A year after that bittersweet day, when their elation was mixed with sadness, Robert and Kelli Watling are now expecting their first child. They are heading back to Boston, compelled to run the storied race once again.
“Being able to share our first anniversary together at the exact same spot that we got married, mourn those that were lost, but also celebrate all the progress the city of Boston and all of the victims have made, is very special and unique for us,” Kelli said in a recent interview. “We would be very sad and somewhat unsettled if we weren’t able to return. It’s everything for us right now.”
The 39-year-old runners from Dallas didn’t think they would run Boston again this year, although they had achieved the race’s qualifying standards. They have each finished the prestigious race twice, and had other spring marathons on their wish list. As they absorbed the news of the deadly attacks, though, they knew they had to be a part of this year’s event.
Robert said the couple imagined they would return to Boston later, for their five- or 10-year anniversary, but “after everything that happened, we figured there’s no way we couldn’t return.”
“That’s the most unforgettable day of my life, from the tremendous high of marrying the person that I love and want to spend the rest of my life with, to the low of such a terrible act of terrorism,” added Robert, an administrator at Southern Methodist University and a former Army infantryman.
Both members of Team Watling, as the running duo call themselves, are excited to be back in the pack on April 21. But things will be different for them this time.
“We’re looking forward to adding our little girl to Team Watling,” said Kelli, a health care practice administrator who is due in October. “It’s neat to be able to return a year later and say we have another little runner on our way.”
Robert will try to set a personal record by breaking his 2013 Boston time of 2 hours, 54 minutes, 1 second. Kelli, who finished last year in 3:26:44, aims to complete at least half -- if not more -- of the 26.2-mile event.
“I’m not going to race this year, I’m just going to run it at a comfortable pace and I’ll stop and walk when I need to,” said Kelli, who will be 16 weeks pregnant on race day.
They married last year as the chaos was still unfolding, holding their small marathon-themed ceremony, dubbed “A Race to the Altar,” outdoors a short distance away at the Boston Public Garden.
With Kelli’s father officiating, the couple exchanged vows before their parents and siblings, their marathon medals hanging around their necks. They dressed in running sneakers and running-inspired wedding outfits -- Kelli in a long white dress made from moisture-wicking material, Robert in a “traxedo.”
The ceremony came at a nerve-wracking, uncertain time as the casualties were still being tallied and suspects still at large, but they say they kept their wedding plans to inspire others on a day filled with sadness and to avoid living in fear.
With a year to reflect, both are thankful they went ahead with their nuptials. And they soon learned that many others were as well, as words of congratulations and encouragement poured in from friends and strangers alike.
“For weeks after, we received so many emails and feedback about how happy people were for us and how that gave them a lot of hope for the future,” Kelli said. “That was just kind of the bright star they needed to keep going forward with their lives.”
The couple, who held a larger wedding reception in Texas in June, plans to relive some wedding memories in Boston and take in the city sights and commemorations. As they soak up the marathon atmosphere, they are also bracing for a range of feelings, similar to those that washed over them last year.
“Every Boston Marathon is special, but I think this will be the most special Boston Marathon,” Robert said. “It will be such an amazing, emotional experience to cross the finish line.”
Kelli is preparing for what she will find in Boston, recalling the flowers and teddy bears left near the blast sites last year.
“Seeing those things makes it real,” she said. “We’ve been so far away from it physically, for a year now, returning to it, I think the realness is going to hit me.”
The devastating reality was also the happy start of their marriage, and an early test of resilience.
“It was certainly a blessing to be able to get married on that day,” Kelli said. “Having overcome all the tragedy and things that occurred that day, it just kind of set us in the right direction. If we stick together, if we truly are Team Watling, we can get through pretty much anything.”
Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter: @lisaflam