BOSTON -- They're a familiar sight to anyone who's stood next to the race route at Heartbreak Hill or cheered as participants ran down Beacon Street, the finish line literally around the next corner.
Groups of strong men dressed in fatigues, marching in time and carrying their massive military-issue rucks, hardly noticing as the mid-April sun beats down on the thousands of spectators and participants of the annual Boston Marathon.
But this year, the ruck marchers, active members of the military or ROTC, along with other unregistered "bandit runners" will be prohibited from participating in this year's marathon, thanks to heightened security concerns on the heels of the bombing last year.
“This really is the year they need to avoid the Boston Marathon,” said Marc Davis, a spokesman for the Boston Athletic Association, which runs the marathon. “With an already large field, it is just not the year to run if you’re not registered. We’re asking unregistered runners to just stand on the sidelines and cheer.”
The official number of runners is already higher this year -- up to 36,000 from the 27,000 last year, when the iconic event was rocked by two bombs near the finish that killed three people and injured hundreds.
The restrictions came as a shock to organizations such as Tough Ruck, which competes the march in honor of soldiers who have died in battle.
“My first reaction was of course disappointment, but I understand that there are safety and security concerns,” said Stephen Fiola, Tough Ruck founder and a member of the National Guard who would have been rucking for the seventh time this year. “We knew that there were concerns, but we did not know that a policy was going to come out prior to the B.A.A. announcement.”
Fiola said his group's registration had soared ahead of this year's marathon: 746 ruckers had signed up, compared to about 20 or 30 last year.
Tough Ruck members were among the first to respond after the bombs went off last year. Among them was Carlos Arrendondo, who is credited with helping save the life of Jeff Bauman, who went on to positively identify alleged bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
“There was no problem with throwing my face, Carlos Arredondo’s face on magazines, but when it came to ‘Hey we have this program, we want to be involved,’ everyone just seemed to go away," Fiola said.
Fortunately, his group has worked out an agreement with the National Parks Service to make the full march -- just on a different day, and on a different course.
"We are going to ruck 26.2 miles, and we are going to be doing it on the [Minuteman] Battle Trail,” Fiola said. “We have a partnership solidified with the Parks Service. It’s completely separate from the marathon.”
The Minuteman Trail ruck will take place on April 19 (the race is April 21), and Fiola said the new plans help connect servicemen of the past with those fighting now.
"This event is going to be kind of a big deal, because we are focusing on the fact that there’s a historic significance, and we will be honoring the soldiers of yesterday and today," he said. "It’s a historical honoring."
And it seems the door isn't entirely closed on the ruckers somehow participating in the events on Marathon Monday.
Davis, the BAA spokesman, said the ban on military marchers "hasn't been decided yet."