Ryan Hall's record win at the marathon trials came in the shadow of the death of his friend and fellow runner Ryan Shay
THEY WERE similar in many ways, from their first name (Ryan), to their chosen profession (distance running), to their loves (both married former Stanford runners). Yet they were different, too. Ryan Hall is regarded as a surpassing talent, capable perhaps of ending the East Africans' two-decades-long dominance of marathon running. Ryan Shay had a more modest talent, but he was universally respected for making himself one of the best runners in the country through sheer hard work.
And they were friends, not just in the way that all distance runners are friends. They trained together in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., for half a year at the start of 2006. Last Friday afternoon they went for a run together in New York City's Central Park with their wives, Sara (Bei) Hall and Alicia (Craig) Shay, both now professional runners. Now the two men are linked in a tragic way: Hall validated; Shay dead after collapsing less than six miles into Saturday's U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
Hall, 25, delivered one of the most compelling performances in U.S. marathoning history in the race. He broke free from a five-man pack in the 18th mile and finished first in a trials record 2:09:02. Hall ran the second half of the race in a sensational 1:02:45 on a very hilly and challenging Central Park course. His performance was both a fulfillment and a promise. "I think he can run three minutes faster on a standard marathon course," says 2004 Olympian Alan Culpepper. If he does, that would put Hall within range of the best in the world.
Like many of the best African runners, Hall was raised at altitude, in Big Bear Lake, Calif. Last April he ran 2:08:24 in the London Marathon, the fastest debut by an American, so Saturday's performance was no fluke. He was emotional as he came to the Central Park finishing line, repeatedly shaking his fist and pointing skyward. Dathan Ritzenhein, 24, long regarded as a future world-class runner, followed in 2:11:07. and Brian Sell, 29, who had said he would quit competitive running and enroll in dental school if he did not qualify for the Olympic team, took the third and final qualifying position in 2:11:40.
At the press conference all three runners were told that Ryan Shay, 28, had been pronounced dead at 8:46 a.m., almost an hour before their finish. (The initial autopsy was inconclusive.)
The news of Shay's death in the aftermath of Hall's breakthrough run left the top runners shaken. "I was incredibly delighted after the race," says Ritzenhein. "But then I heard this and ... it's just running. There are more important things than running." Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic silver medalist in the marathon and also a former training partner and friend of Shay's, sat next to Shay on the bus from the hotel to the starting line. He said he wept when he was told—and then wept while retelling the story.
Shay, an All-America at Notre Dame, was regarded by his peers as one of the most voracious trainers in a sport full of tough athletes. Sara Hall recalled seeing him take a treadmill test in which runners are instructed to run to the point of collapse to determine lactate thresholds. "His max was further than most," she says. "He had an incredible ability to tolerate pain." Deena Kastor, the 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medalist, wrote in an e-mail, "This has been a bittersweet day for American distance running. Ryan Hall ran the most spectacular Olympic trials the U.S. has ever seen, and in the same hour the death of Ryan [ Shay] shocked the community that felt so close to him."
Hall's emotions were the most extreme. He had run an extraordinary race, blowing open the competition with a 4:32 18th mile. Yet, all of this faded into the background on Saturday. "Something like [the Olympic trials] is very important," he says. "I've been dreaming about this moment for 10 years. But to lose a friend, it changes things. I trained with Ryan. He inspired me."