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Another marathon to remember

Kayla Gaulke of River Falls gets a kiss from her fiance, Derrek Pederson, after Pederson proposed to her at the finish line of the 120th Boston Marathon April 18. Gaulke ran her first Boston Marathon in 2013, the year of the bombings. This year she and Pederson ran together and Pederson created a much happier memory at the end. (Submitted photo)1 / 2
Derrek Pederson, left, of Roberts, and Kayla Gaulke of River Falls run together during the 120th Boston Marathon April 18 before Pederson proposed after crossing the finish line and Gaulke said yes. (Submitted photo)2 / 2

When 2006 River Falls High school grad Kayla Gaulke felt her boyfriend, Derrek Pederson, grab her arm and drop to one knee after they crossed the finish line together at the 120th Boston Marathon April 18, she panicked.

“I asked him, are you OK? What's wrong!?”

Seconds later her fear turned to joy when Pederson looked up with a smile on his face, pulled out a ring and asked, “Will you marry me?”

“For a second, I didn't even register the ring in his hand,” Gaulke said. “Then my mind switched from a racing mindset to the reality that my boyfriend was down on one knee right past the Boston finish line holding this gorgeous ring in his hand and asking me those four words.”

It was quite a different scene from Gaulke's first Boston Marathon -- April 15, 2013.

What if?

Back in 2013, Gaulke was two blocks away from the finish line, posing for pictures with family members, including her mother, Wendy Zillgitt, when the first of two bombs exploded near the spot she had just passed 20 minutes earlier.

“I thought it might have been a cannon from the U.S.S. Constitution,” she said at the time, referring to the historic Navy frigate berthed permanently in Boston Harbor. “Then we heard the second boom.”

With the city in chaos and all public transportation shutdown, Gaulke and her family spent the next three hours walking to their hotel across the Charles River in Cambridge.

“Then you start thinking about the what-ifs,” she said. “What if I had run slower? Maybe my family would have been in that area waiting for me to finish. Or what if I had run faster? Then we all would have already been back at the finish line cheering on the other runners.”

The terrorist attack left three people dead and over 260 injured. But Gaulke was back to run in 2014, helping the city and the nation heal.

After skipping the race in 2015 to run the Los Angeles Marathon, she returned to Boston this year to run with her boyfriend, Pederson.

It started in Duluth

Gaulke, 28, the daughter of former Wildcat basketball coach Greg Gaulke, is no stranger to running. She was active in both track and cross country at River Falls High School and was a member of the cross country team at UW-River Falls.

Pederson was a state qualifier in both track and cross country at St. Croix Central High School before continuing with both sports at UWRF at roughly the same time as Gaulke.

“I just ran cross country at UWRF so we actually knew a lot of the same people but we never crossed paths in college at all,” Gaulke said.

Both continued to run after college and finally met in person at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth in June, 2014. They've been together ever since.

After skipping the Boston Marathon in 2015 to run in Los Angeles, Gaulke was determined to get back for the 120th running of the world's oldest marathon this year.

“Derrek hadn't ran Boston before so we decided to save our money and go,” she said. “Derrek is a faster runner than me. Because this was his first Boston Marathon he wanted to take in all of the sights and sounds and really get the full experience of it so he was going to run with me and help me get my fastest Boston Marathon time.”

Runners' high

Gaulke said running the race this year brought back plenty of memories from her past two Boston experiences.

“It brought back amazing memories, especially in 2014 when the weather was nice and everything was incredible,” she said. “The crowd and spectators were out in full force. It was absolutely incredible.

“The Wellesley College 'Scream Tunnel' was so loud this year and the Boston College kids around mile 22 after Heartbreak Hill were just as loud and crazy as ever. A runner could literally high-five spectators the whole entire course if they wanted to.”

With just a few miles remaining, Pederson told Gaulke she was on pace for her best Boston Marathon time ever, and to stop looking at her watch and just stick with him.

“I didn't want to let myself down, or Derrek, so I picked it up as much as I could and we cruised through the last two miles with the streets at least 10 spectators deep on each side,” she said. “We turned the last corner on Boylston Street and saw the most beautiful sight of the bright blue finish archway over the street that you cross under and the thick crowds on each side.

“You couldn't even hear your own breath it was so loud. We sprinted towards the finish line and crossed the finish line with our arms up in the air and huge smiles on our faces”

Best time ever

Gaulke had done it. Her time of 3 hours, 18 minutes, and 32 seconds was not only her fastest Boston Marathon time ever, it placed her in the top 5% of all female finishers in this year's race.

She said she was feeling on top of the world.

“That feeling of knowing all of your hard work of training has paid off and you are taking part in the world's oldest annual marathon; this historic, legendary race with over 1 million spectators,” she said. “So you try and cherish each breath, each stride, and each cheer, because in this moment you are living life to the fullest and soaking it all in.”

Well, what do you say?

As Gaulke stood stunned on the other side of the finish line, a medic spotted Pederson down on the ground and moved in to help before realizing what was happening.

“The medical guy looked at me and said, 'Well, what are you going to say?' Gaulke said. “I screamed, 'Yes!' then Derrek put the ring on my finger and stood up and we kissed.”

All of this happened inside the finishing chute with a raucous, cheering crowd about three feet away.

“I couldn't stop smiling!” Gaulke said. “I couldn't believe that it just happened! I was just proposed to at the Boston Marathon finish line; the race and city that is so near and dear to my heart for many reasons, and now my boyfriend just proposed to me at it!”

Gaulke said her cheeks were still sore from smiling later that night. And instead of a three-hour trek through a terrorized city like her first time in Boston, Gaulke, her mother and her new fiance hit the town to celebrate.

New beginnings

Gaulke, a counselor at Park High School in Cottage Grove, Minn, said for her and Pederson, a 4th grade teacher and track and cross country coach in New Richmond, the finish line at the Boston Marathon is just the beginning.

“Each finish line is never really the end,” she said. “It's the start of another amazing journey and where this one incredible running journey ended, Derrek made an unforgettable memory for us and created another journey and adventure that we can't wait to take together.”

In addition to planning a wedding, Gaulke will run in the 40th Grandma's Marathon in Duluth this June. Both she and Pederson have qualified for the New York City Marathon in November.

But she said Boston will always have a special place in her heart.

“The 2013 Boston Marathon is one that I, along with many others, will never forget,” she said. “Three years later it's still very real and very fresh in my memory. It's taught me that life can be taken away in a single moment and how you cannot take anything for granted.

“This year running the Boston Marathon with Derrek meant so much to me,” she continued. “He witnessed first-hand what Boston was all about. Then the finish line proposal made this race and the day something I will never forget.

She said she and Pederson plan on making more memories in Boston.

“Derrek and I definitely want to run Boston again because once you experience it there is nothing truly like it, and you just want to keep coming back,” she said. “But now it truly has an even more special reason to both of us that we need to celebrate too.”

Bob Burrows

Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.

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