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Completing her mission

He brought along his camera on that unseasonably warm morning last October when his young wife ran the Chicago Marathon with a single goal in mind: to qualify for Boston.

She needed to beat a time of 3 hours, 41 minutes to be awarded a number and an official spot in this Monday’s race, and anyone who knew Rachael Townsend knew she would do it. At 29, she was an elite athlete, an accomplished soccer coach, and a college dance instructor. She had methodically trained for months, often with her husband biking at her side as she pounded a course through the rural hills of southeastern Ohio.

On marathon day, Brian Townsend stood at the 3-mile mark and snapped her picture as she raced by. She gave him her typically focused look, the half-forced smile that said, as he recalls, ‘‘This is business.’’

She was, to say the least, competitive, a trait that Brian Townsend could well appreciate. He was a former college football star who played two seasons in the NFL and now coaches basketball at Ohio University.

At the race, he hurried ahead to the 12-mile mark, where things were noticeably different. Rachael gave him what he described as ‘‘an overwhelming smile,’’ accompanied by a big wave, and she kept looking back at him long after she ran by. ‘‘She was really enjoying it,’’ he said.

She ran past friends at the 17-mile and 25-mile points who called Brian to report that she looked great. And she crossed the finish line in 3:40:32—fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon with 27 seconds to spare.

Meantime, Brian Townsend and the couple’s friends gathered at a spot near the finish line at the end of the chute, waiting to heap congratulations on her. And they waited. And waited. Fifteen minutes turned to 20, turned to 30. At 45 minutes, Brian checked the first aid tent, figuring she might have cramped up or become dehydrated, but she wasn’t there. At 50 minutes, Brian’s cellphone rang. The caller identified himself as a doctor from a nearby hospital. It’s about Rachael, he said. It’s important. Come immediately.

‘‘I’m thinking she had heat exhaustion,’’

Brian said. ‘‘She’s one of the most fit persons I know. She would lead five aerobics classes and then run cross country with her team.’’

At the hospital, he was led not to a ward, but into a desolate little conference room where a doctor came in and somberly said, ‘‘I worked on her for 45 minutes and she wouldn’t come out. . . .’’ The rest was little more than a blur.

Rachael had finished the race. She clicked the stopwatch on her wrist that showed her time. She knew she’d be heading to Boston, where she had talked about dining at Legal Sea Foods on her 30th birthday on Sunday. And then she collapsed.

An autopsy would reveal a heart murmur that neither she nor her husband was aware of. Doctors believe she was probably dead by the time she hit the ground.

They met in 1994 at the University of Michigan when he returned to get a teaching degree after his football career had ended. They married in 1998 and became each other’s most important critic and strongest supporter. ‘‘I lost a wife, but a wife is so much more than just the person you come home to,’’ he said.

This weekend, thousands upon thousands of athletes and revelers of every possible color and country will gather in Boston as part of one of the most celebrated athletic events in the world.

And among them will be Brian Townsend, carrying on a mission that his wife was unable to complete. He’s not running, though a couple of friends plan to race in Rachael’s honor, one of whom will wear the number that would have been hers. Rather, he simply needs to be here, in the city where she so badly wanted to be.

‘‘I’m completing the trip for Rachael in many ways,’’ Brian said yesterday from the airport in Chicago as he awaited his connecting flight to Logan. ‘‘It was her goal. So I’ll be there for her.’’

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at  

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