(First of a two-part series)

Last Friday marked 10 years since the passing of Ryan Shay, an elite marathoner who lived in Flagstaff.

It was a shocking, heartbreaking event that sent our community reeling.

It was the unexpectedness of the loss: Shay’s heart failed racing the US Olympic Trials Marathon in New York City.

It was his youth and strength: Shay was 28 and even among the country’s elite marathoners, known for his capabilities to push himself farther than most.

It was who he left behind: a mother and father lost a son, seven siblings lost a brother. But Shay had just married only months before, and that morning Flagstaff’s Alicia Craig (Vargo), lost her husband of four months, her best friend, her training partner, her love.

There is no sense in such an early loss, and the sorrow that followed. However, when we remember Ryan, the 10 years that have passed show us a stunning example of the healing that can occur, and just what a community can get through together.

The Trials

In the fall of 2007, Flagstaff was humming with activity in the buildup to the Trials, a race held once every four years to determine the US Olympic marathon team. Our town was full of athletes deep in preparation for the race. One of those runners was a barrel-chested Michigan legend who was in his second year of calling Flagstaff home. A former NCAA champion from Notre Dame, Ryan Shay was someone I had heard stories of for years: tough, unbreakable, the workhorse.

He and Alicia, a former NCAA champion herself at Stanford, lived in my house for much of 2007 before their wedding. There I witnessed Shay’s grit firsthand. His training was so focused and intense. He believed no one would out work him, and what I was witnessing made me believe that too.

I can remember him passing me going opposite directions in Buffalo Park during a winter blizzard, not seeing his silhouette until right in front of me, charging, then gone into the white again. I was happy to simply be out shuffling through such conditions. Shay was running the same pace he did the other 364 days that year, insulted the blizzard would propose otherwise.

Alicia provided balance in Ryan. She was unfazed by his stubbornness, a confident equal who he would listen to. Alicia brought out a playfulness in him. I’d hear their giggling in the kitchen together, and I’d think, how would all the folklore of Shay hold up if anyone could witness the softness brought out in this love? I was reminded of this for a final time, in 5 a.m. darkness on Nov. 3, 2007, sitting on a bus waiting to move us Trials participants to the start line.

With my head resting against a window, it looked like everyone was loaded until I made out two last silhouettes emerging toward the bus. I recognized the outlines as Ryan and Alicia. In a brief moment their figures merged. She leaned forward in an embrace and watched him step away.

At 7:30 the race began, sending us speeding through eerily emptied city streets into Central Park. That is where Shay fell, although unknown to us racing until the end.

The finish of the Trials leaves one both trashed physically and blurred with a concoction of joy and sadness unavoidable at the end of a race years in the making. In this state, we heard “Ryan Shay was down.” That combination of words sent a spiraling disbelief through me that I still have never shaken.

Down?

The word didn’t fit in marathon racing. An early exit to a race is called “dropping out,” but more than that, the word didn’t make sense in a sentence that referred to Ryan Shay. I marvel at what that initial puzzlement speaks about the impression Shay must have left on me, that a man could have lived his life in such a way that the mere suggestion of his falling was to sincerely consider that something would have had to take his life to not finish.

Michael Smith is the Director of Men's and Women's Cross Country and Track and Field at Northern Arizona University. He also is the founding coach of Team Run Flagstaff. This is the first in a two-part column. Part II: “The Healing” will be published Tuesday, Nov. 7.

Myles Schrag is coordinating editor for High Country Running. He invites submissions on any aspect of the local running scene, as well as submissions for the “To Imogene: A Flagstaff Love Letter” book project. He can be reached at myles.schrag@adinapublishing.com.

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