It’s easy to believe that elite runners are superhuman.
They glide along, looking like their joints are greased ball-bearings and appearing more like passengers on a locomotive than a human reliant upon mortal energy.
All seven of the children born to Joe and Susan Shay from Central Lake, Michigan were elite runners. Ryan is the most famous. He was a state champion four times in cross-country and seven on the track for Central Lake High.
He left Michigan to attend Notre Dame. Before graduating as an Academic All-American in 2002, he earned All-American honors nine times in track and cross-country, the highlight coming at the 2001 NCAA Outdoor Championship.
Ryan was seated forth in the 10K, but he felt good that day and decided to take an early lead. “I told myself it was going to be a 10K race from the start,” he said afterwards. “Anybody who wanted to go out slow, this wasn’t going to be the race for them.”
When Ryan crossed the finish line, no one else was on the final straight.
It was a defining race, a demonstration of his tenacity and strength. Ryan was more muscled than most distance runners, so there was brawn in both his appearance and his approach to racing.
He left college and immediately joined the elite ranks of U. S. marathoners, winning the national title in 2003. It was the first of five national titles he’d win over a three year period at distances ranging from 15K to the marathon.
Ryan appeared at ease in his races, the pain never apparent. The fortitude was built over years of two-a-day workouts and over hundred-mile weeks.
It seemed as if 2007 would be his best year. The Olympic Marathon Trials were scheduled for November 3rd in New York, the day before the New York City Marathon. Those close to Ryan, including his new wife, distance standout Alicia Craig, thought he was ready to make the team.
The day was brisk, perfect for a marathon. The race began as expected, with the favorites in position as they started the first of five loops around Central park.
The Central Park Boathouse bordered the course near the 5.5 mile mark. If you go there today you’ll see a bench with this inscription: “It is necessary to dig deep within oneself to discover the hidden grain of steel called will.” It marks the spot where Ryan suffered a massive heart attack that day. There was a doctor at the scene, but she couldn’t save him.
Stephan Shay, Ryan’s younger brother, was a Brigham Young University student on the day Ryan died.
When Stephan graduated from high school in 2004, he spent the summer training with Ryan and other elite marathoners in Mammoth Lakes, California. He was a kid among distance running legends.
Between workouts the brothers would fish and explore. Stephan got a taste of the professional runner’s lifestyle, and he vowed to join them someday.
After Ryan’s death, Stephanie ran some brilliant races, but just as he was ascending the elite ranks, he faced a series of setbacks. In 2012, he had surgery to remove a fibroma from his plantar fascia. The following year, he was starting over.
At some point, Stephan realized that he would be 28 years old on the date of the 2014 New York City Marathon, the same age Ryan was when he died in New York.
“We were supposed to be a team and run that marathon together,” Stephen said. “I have to cross that finish line to honor him.”
Stephan’s goal was to run an Olympic trials qualifying time, so the race was more than a tribute; it was an attempt to carry on a legacy.
His training went well, and so did most of the race, but as the course went passed the spot where Ryan fell seven years earlier, near the 25th mile marker, Stephan was suffering.
His legs hurt on the down hills, he was cold and his emotions overwhelmed him. That’s when he swears he heard his brother whisper, “Keep it together, Stephan. I know you can do this.”
He collected himself, and then caught two other runners on his way to finishing 16th overall with a time of 2:19:47. He was the 4th American finisher.
We have a tendency to focus on our obstacles. When we do, we fool ourselves into thinking life would be easier if we just had someone else’s talent or good fortune.
But that kind of thinking will blind us to the example the Shay brothers set for us. No obstacle is too high when you dig deep and discover the hidden grain of steel. Your strong will is waiting there.
Find it, and you can live courageously, chase your passion and depart this life just as Ryan did – mid-stride.