Deb Walter, Jerry Rauman, Jackie Hodges and Andrea Lampasona were just half a mile from the finish line when two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon last year. They plan to race again this year and finish together.

They weren't supposed to go to Boston this year. Ron and Luni Tiongson already had completed that city's grueling, 26.2-mile marathon in each of the last two years.

"Three years in a row -- we wanted to give ourselves a break," said Luni Tiongson, 40.

But just days after returning from last year's race, and with the sights and sounds of that horrific day fresh in their minds, the avid runners from Skokie were at a computer booking their hotel for a return trip to the famed competition.

"We realized, this shouldn't faze us," she said. "We're going to show them we're better (and) we're stronger."

The Tiongsons are among many Chicago-area runners who have vowed to return to Boston's historic streets despite witnessing the tragic events of last year's marathon.

About four hours into the 2013 Boston Marathon, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line on Boylston Street, killing three people and injuring 264 others, authorities have said. Two brothers were suspected of the attacks. One was killed in a shootout with police. The other was arrested and is awaiting trial.

The 2014 marathon has drawn about 36,000 registered runners, the maximum that organizers allow for the race and 9,000 more than last year. The entrants include more than 1,000 runners from Illinois and hundreds from the Chicago area.

The Tiongsons remember last year's race well. The two had planned to meet friends to celebrate her 39th birthday, which happened to be the very day of the marathon.

It was a good 25 minutes after she crossed the Boylston Street finish line when the first explosion pierced the Boston air, Tiongson said.

"We didn't really think much about it," she said of hearing the first explosion. But when the ground shook again 10 seconds later, she and the others realized something was terribly wrong.

She was about two blocks away with a group of other finishers at the time, she recalled, retrieving her gear and preparing to meet her husband, Ron -- who had finished the race about a half-hour before her -- just across the street.

"We looked at each other and thought, we should probably start moving and get out of here," Tiongson said.

The next few minutes were a blur as volunteers frantically waved people away from the blast site and ambulances whizzed toward the carnage.

Tiongson and her husband rushed to a nearby hotel and watched the horror unfold on television screens.

"There was such a different mix of emotions," she remembered as she watched the news coverage. "You're relieved because you weren't there at that moment. Of course, you are just so devastated. My son was supposed to be with us. He chose to stay here because of exams. If he had come along, he would have been in that same spot."

The day following the attack was an eerie scene, Tiongson said, as the usually bustling streets of Boston were virtually empty.

The couple plans to return to Boston this year ahead of the race. Coming back to the scene likely will stir up emotions, she said.

"Of course, it comes back to you," she said. "For a while last year, I was very saddened. I would find myself crying randomly."

But despite the harrowing experience, Tiongson said she and her husband have not once second-guessed the decision to return to the race.

"You know, this is what we love to do," she said. "Boston has been a very good city for us. For us, it's a way to celebrate life, too."

Tribune reporter Stephanie Baer contributed.

jbullington@tribune.com