NEW YORK — Wouldn’t you know it … Anton Krupicka was in New York City today for a screening of In the High Country, a movie I caught at the premier in Boulder, Colo. last July. After the movie I had a chance to talk with Anton and told him about how tough runners don’t just scale 14,000-feet of rock. Sometimes the tough guys run in the heat and humidity of Central Park.
As it turned out, it was humid in Central Park this afternoon. It was about 92 percent, according to the weather stats, and it would have been unbearable if it had not been for the snow falling over the city.
I didn’t see Krupicka in the park on Monday or Tuesday, but I bet he was there. After all, where else is a guy going to run in the middle of Manhattan?
Central Park has it all. There are hills, trails, woods, lakes, waterfalls and wild life. There is also sweeping vistas of the skyscrapers to go along with the nature. Mix in the tourists, the city life and tons of runners and bikers and the park is the nexus of the world.
It doesn’t take long to see the genius of Frederick Law Olmsted within 400-meters inside of the park’s borders. Central Park just might be the greatest piece of American architecture ever created. It’s truly an inspiring place and there are few better places in which to run in the world.
The test in the park, of course, is running the big loop. Not only is it approximately 10 kilometers around without veering off to other trails, but also the big loop passes by seemingly every social, cultural and financial castes. In fact, one of the prettiest spots in the park is the Harlem Meer and the nature trails on the north side of the park.
Neither the Meer nor the Harlem side of the park are not part of the Central Park Marathon, a race I’m jumping into on Feb. 23. Instead, the marathon course will be the very same five loops run in the 2007 Olympic Trials, one of the most exhilarating and tragic days in American running history.
It was a great day because Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein and Brian Sell made the Olympic team. Hall did so spectacularly while Sell fought for third place as if he was in a gang fight. Hall also established himself as the most talented American-born marathoner ever by obliterating the field and a hilly course in 2:09. Over terrain more favorable to fast running, Hall might have challenged the American record.
The tragedy occurred nearly 30 minutes and approximately 5.5 miles into the race when Ryan Shay collapsed and died on the course of a heart attack caused by an enlarged heart. By the time the ambulance got into the park and carried Shay to nearby Lenox Hill Hospital, he was gone. In a cruel irony, the ambulance carrying Shay passed the leaders of the race near the nine-mile mark. Hall, Ritzenhein and Sell had no idea what was happening.
These days there is nothing to indicate the exact spot where Shay collapsed. But for those who take their runs through Central Park, no marker is needed.
We can feel it.
There is a rock along the side of the road just north of the Boat House on the east side where Shay fell. For those of us who know what happened on Nov. 4, 2007, our eyes are drawn to the spot as we close in on the Boat House. Running through that area of the park feels like a sacred act. It’s like passing through a shrine site where one of “our guys” went down.
The memory of Ryan Shay is one of the reasons why many of us run. Distance running, and marathon running in particular, is as beautiful as a sport can be. Bathed in simplicity, running is as pure as athletics can be. But it’s also a cruel sport. Often, every weakness is exposed during a competition no matter how strong or well prepared a runner is.
But then again, that’s part of why we love the sport so much.
The only memorial to Ryan Shay in the park is a bench, located on the other side of the road from “Ryan’s Rock.” The inscription reads:
“It is necessary to dig deep within oneself to discover the hidden grain of steel called will.
Ryan Shay, 1979-2007
It’s going to be an honor to run a marathon in Central Park along the course used for the Olympic Trials. It’s also going to be tough and hilly. It’s going to take a lot of strength.
It always does.
Here’s a shot of the Harlem Meer from a run around the park last January:
This is a shot of the park from the Essex House on 59th Street from last February:
And this is the statue of Fred Lebow, the legendary director of the New York City Marathon: