Missoula Runner Sara Stahl Reflects on Her Experiece at the Boston Marathon


April 16, 2013

I’m on my way home from Boston where, as you may know, I was among the 25,000 people who awoke yesterday to run the world’s greatest marathon and went to bed having been at the heart of a national tragedy. Enough friends and colleagues have asked about my experience that I decided to put it down here in hopes of saving it from becoming a worn-out anecdote.

So here goes. To set the record straight, I did not see or hear the bomb blasts, and I didn’t fully appreciate their impact until I saw the sad, horrible images later on TV. I had finished the race about 40 minutes earlier and with my metallic race blanket draped around my neck superman-style, made my way to the atrium of a building about five blocks away. This is where I had planned to meet my sister and fellow runner, Caroline Spencer, along with Brian Coakley, my friend, colleague and now five-time supplier of post-marathon transportation. (Some of you in the OTR Global family may know this building as the company’s previous Boston office – you know, the one on the corner of St. James and Arlington that had the same bachelor-pad feel of the current office but with a better selection of coffee and snacks.) Other marathoners were congregating there, and like me, were texting and calling family and friends. I had just gotten off the phone with my husband, Tim, when a runner came up and asked if I’d heard about the bombings, which he said had gone off 30 seconds after he crossed the finish line.

My first concern was Caroline, who according to the marathon website, had passed the 40K mark, but had not reached the finish at 42.195K. A man at a table nearby relayed that runners were being pulled from the course, including his wife, who called to tell him she was okay. Caroline didn’t have her phone, and shortly after, the cell phone network went down, so I focused on reviewing her splits to calculate her projected finish time vs. the time of the blasts. Meanwhile, Tim, along with Julie Mallatt Jenks (my cousin and wonderful host during our visit) were texting information from the media. (My appreciation also goes out to Sally and Boomer Jenks who I later learned were texting on their mom’s behalf. Ghost texters?)

Even under normal circumstances, converting to metric confounds me, so I asked my new-found friend to help with my math problem.  He, along with his mother and two kids, had just abandoned the finish area because they were cold from the wind. We both absorbed what might have been, and then he dug right in to help me – one of those examples of disaster bringing out the best in people. We concluded that Caroline was close to the finish but short of it by 10 minutes. But there must have been a large measure of wishful thinking involved because later I learned Caroline was closer to the finish line than our estimate and would have been even closer if she hadn’t slowed her pace to prepare for a planned surge down Boylston Street.

In the meantime, Brian, who was already downtown but not in the immediate area, put himself in harm’s way by coming to help me. (Brian, I don’t remember knowing you were doing this. Suddenly you were just there. Thank you!) I warmed up in Brian’s car while emergency vehicles streamed by. Sirens were going off everywhere, but at the same time, things were surprisingly calm, with police officers efficiently managing people and traffic. (The fact that Brian found a parking place on the street tells you how quickly authorities had shut down the area.) Julie also ordered us to turn on the radio. (Brian, have we figured out why we couldn’t think of doing this this ourselves?!) Concurrently, texts and emails poured in to check on my well-being, while Renate Bush back in Missoula let me know the other Missoula runners were accounted for after this was ascertained by the good folks at Run Wild Missoula and the Runner’s Edge. Thank you everyone for your kindness and concern.

We learned about a meeting place for runners and their families, thanks to texts from Julie and Tim, so Brian and I walked there. Again, it was surprisingly calm as people searched for their loved ones. Then I received a text from Caroline – unimaginable relief. She had been pulled off the course. For those who’ve run the race, Caroline’s location was before the underpass that leads you to the famous right on Hereford. She said spectators in the area gave runners the shirts off their backs and also passed around cell phones so runners could make contact. Anxiety was particularly high among this group because many had friends and family waiting for them at the finish but couldn’t reach them.

Caroline eventually worked her way to the meeting area, and then we exchanged texts with our exact locations. In a comedy of errors, we walked to her spot, and she walked to ours, missing each other in the process. But it must have been meant to be because in doing so, we ran into Missoula runner Pam Estill, who was cold, without her cell phone and unable to access her hotel due to security around Copley Square. She joined us, and then we found Caroline. Hugs, tears, relief.

That's my sister Caroline Spencer on the left, me in the middle and fellow Missoulian Pam Estill on the right.

That’s my sister Caroline Spencer on the left, me in the middle and fellow Missoulian Pam Estill on the right.

Tim sent word out to our families and also urged us to get out of the area, relaying that undetonated bombs had been found. (Later I learned there was a brief period when our oldest daughter knew about the tragedy but didn’t know I was okay – a reminder that in many ways this was harder on our families than us.) With no traffic to contend with, Brian drove the three of us to the Jenks home in Newton. Julie and Bill took over, and we were in perfect hands. Dinner on the porch was the medicine we needed – reflecting on the day’s events, sharing our stories, expressing thanks. (Sally Lentz, Mary Scott, we missed you this year.)

To wrap it up, the lasting impression for me is so many human emotions compressed into such a short interval of time. When I finished the race, I walked through the finishing area with a guy I met from Rochester, Minnesota – Don, I think – who ran the marathon despite a foot injury. He said he did it because it meant a lot to his children and grandchildren. It made them proud. We both expressed appreciation for our families, our health, for being alive on such a picture-perfect day in a city whose residents for hours on end urge perfect strangers to give it their all. (“Go Sara! You got it Sara!” yelled out in that lovable Boston accent is a tape that keeps playing in my head. Many of you have participated in similar events – especially you uber-athletic Missoulians – so you know the feeling.) Then life turns on a dime in the most unexpected way, and you’re reminded of these very same lessons but via tragedy this time.

I’ve been asked whether I’ll run the marathon again. The answer is an unequivocal yes. The event was already more than a marathon for me; it’s become a precious reunion with family and friends. But now its significance is even greater, and I intend to lace up my shoes again as an act of solidarity.

We all have a story about April 15, 2013. Thank you for sharing in mine. And again, thank you for expressing your support and friendship. Please know the feeling is mutual.



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Picture1Sara Stahl was introduced to Montana through a high school backpacking trip and has been in love with the state ever since. Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Sara and her husband, Tim (pictured), moved to Missoula in 2002 and have three children, Katie, Caroline and Henry. When not running trails or running kids around town, Sara performs financial research for OTR Global, a New York-based investment research firm.