Both Ryan Hall and Ryan Shay awoke on November 3 hoping to fulfill their Olympic dreams. For Shay, it was a long shot at best, while Hall was an odds-on favorite for one of the top three spots. In fact, both were well aware of the other's state of mind, as they were close friends, even having gone for a short jog together on Friday, the day before the trials race.
Shay was realistic enough to know his chances of finishing in the top three were not great, since his personal best of 2:14 was well off that of many of the other top contenders. Before the race, the former Notre Dame star said, "I know it's going to be difficult. You just hope that you have the perfect day. What else can I do, sit home? You go out there to race. If you have the qualifying mark, you've got to go out there. That's what makes our system of qualifying for the Olympic team great, because it gives even the biggest underdog a shot at making the team."
Those Olympic dreams were fulfilled for Ryan Hall, as he easily pulled away from the lead pack at mile 16 to score a spectacular victory in 2:09:02, the fastest time in Olympic Trials history. For Ryan Shay and his family and friends however, the Olympic Trials Marathon turned into life's worst nightmare, as he collapsed past the five-mile mark and died suddenly.
There is no way of gaining solace in the death of a healthy 28-year-old athlete cut down in his prime. There is no making sense of why it happened when it did, in what was supposed to be a showcase event for American distance running. It goes far beyond the disappointment that is such an integral part of athletic competition. Mary Wittenberg, CEO of the New York Road Runners, said, "This cuts a knife through everybody's heart. This casts a cloud over what otherwise was the greatest trials ever seen."
Meb Keflezighi, a silver medalist at the 2004 Olympic Games, was one of those runners that was left behind by Hall and finished out of the top three. He saw his own dreams of another Olympic Marathon disappear in the final miles, as he struggled with cramping calf muscles. After the race, Keflezighi said, "It's not the end of the world. There will be other races, other marathons." That perspective was particularly poignant, given the news that came soon thereafter, that it truly was the end of the world for Ryan Shay, that there would be no other races and no other marathons for this well-liked and talented runner.
Hall, who trained with Shay in Mammoth Lakes, California, was visibly shaken when he learned of Shay's passing. "This is supposed to be a sport. This is supposed to be fun," said Hall. This day, one that should have been one of the happiest of his life, suddenly turned into one of the saddest. The fun of the sport was left behind in a trail of tears for an athlete who died too young.
Don Allison, from Weymouth, Massachusetts, is the former publisher of UltraRunning Magazine and a founder of Cool Running. He has completed 55 marathons, with a personal best of 2:35. In addition, Don has completed several ultramarathons, Ironman triathlons and cycled across the U.S.A. in 2006.