NEW YORK – It was supposed to be American marathon running’s greatest day. It was the day where American marathoners were going to send a message to the rest of the world that they were – once again – a force to be reckoned with during the Olympics in Beijing next August.
In one regard that was very much the case. As evidenced by Ryan Hall’s inspirational victory in a blistering 2:09:02 over the unforgiving rolling terrain in Manhattan’s Central Park in Saturday morning’s Olympic Trials marathon, American marathoning is, indeed, back.
Big and brassy.
So how can a day that began with so much promise and with so many dreams end so tragically? How can one bear so many contrasting emotions?
How can so many great performances by some of the best in the sport be rendered so meaningless? And how can life be so cruel sometimes?
A run for the ages
Oh, but let’s begin with the heroes so we don’t go crazy…
“I didn’t expect to run this fast on this course, especially after previewing it,” said Hall, America’s great new hope in the marathon. “I didn’t care how fast we ran the first half, I wanted to close fast. It was a good run for me. I was trying not to get too excited too early, but I saw myself achieving my goal in the last lap. The last mile, I knew I was going to be OK.”
During his inspired run to shatter the previous American Olympic Trials marathon record by more than 70 seconds on a criterium-styled course that some experts and runners predicted would gobble up the runners and send them limping in no better than 2:13, Hall announced his presence on the world marathoning stage. In just his second marathon, the 25-year old Stanford grad training in Mammoth Lake, Calif. under the tutledge of ex-Villanova runner and Delaware Valley stalwart, Terrence Mahon, showed that he just might be the next American runner to win gold in the Olympic marathon.
Hall threw down the gauntlet around the 17-mile mark and surged away from four other runners in the lead pack with a pace no one could match. Better yet, Hall went through the first half the race in a modest 1:06:17, before turning it up with a 1:02:47 during the second half… talk about negative splits.
Hall’s surge was a 4:32 mile, followed by a 4:41, and a 4:34. For the 20th mile, Hall ran a 4:40, followed with a 4:51 at 21, a 4:42 at 22. He ran miles 23 to 25 in 14:28 just in case anyone might have doubted his intent. During the last loop of the course when it was clear that no one was going to be able to catch him, Hall pumped his fist, directed spectators who dashed onto the course, pointed to the sky and waved to the crowd.
It was domination with flair.
“I felt like today what I did was more impressive than London,” said Hall, whose 2:08:24 effort in London last April was the fastest marathon ever by an American-born runner.
Judging from the response of his competitors, Hall might be right on the money in his assessment.
I looked at some of the mile splits and honestly, I was blown away,” said defending trials champion Alan Culpepper, who was forced to drop out of the race at the 16th mile with hamstring trouble. “I think he could run three minutes faster on a standard marathon course.”
Said fellow Olympian Brian Sell: “I think he’s one of the top three marathoners in the world right now.”
Hall predicts the best is yet to come.
“I know I can run considerably faster,” he said. “There’s definitely more gears in there. I’ll get to test those in Beijing.”
Meanwhile, 24-year old Dathan Ritzenhein from the University of Colorado finished in second place in 2:11:07, and Pennsylvanian Brian Sell rounded out the Beijing-bound trio by finishing in third place in 2:11:40.
Two-time marathon world record holder and top American qualifier, Khalid Khannouchi, turned in a gritty performance to finish as the first alternate in fourth place with a 2:12:34 after two years worth of injuries limited his training before the trials.
More than a simple reemergence of the American marathoner, Saturday’s trials showcased a dichotomy in racing style, and pedigree. Both Hall and Ritzenhein were high school all-Americans who were highly recruited by all of the big-name running schools as well as the top shoe companies following their highly decorated college careers. Hall ran a 4-minute mile in high school, but struggled with that event at Stanford before moving up to the 5,000-meters.
Less than a year after finishing up at Stanford, Hall won the U.S. Cross Country championship, set the American record in the half marathon with a 59:43 before his epic marathon debut last April in London.
Ritzenhein, the youngest runner in the field, was a collegiate 5,000-meter and cross-country specialist, who won the U.S. Cross Country championships in 2005 – not even a year after he ran the 10,000 meters in the Olympics in Athens.
But Sell was a product of little St. Francis College in Loretto, Pa. after starting out at even smaller Messiah College near Harrisburg. His high school two-mile times were, he says, more than a minute slower than his new Olympic teammates’. A self-proclaimed late bloomer, Sell joined up with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project based in Rochester Hills, Minn. where he developed as a marathoner. A strong performance in the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trials, coupled with even more impressive runs in the Boston (2:10:55 for fourth place) and Chicago (2:10:47 for sixth) marathons in 2006 solidified his standing in running circles.
More than that, Sell became the de facto “People’s Champion” of marathoning because of his penchant for piling on the miles – running upward to 160 per week with most of them faster than 6-minute pace – and his so-called “blue-collar” ethic. Despite running all of those miles per week during his marathon buildups, Sell still found the time to put in his 30 hours working in the garden department at Home Depot.
“I hope every kid out there who’s not a state champ or district champ looks at what I achieved today and says, ‘Hey if I put in the work, I can do this,'” Sell said. “This is the happiest ending I can think of.”
Even his effort on Saturday morning in Central Park personified his ethic. Not blessed with the turnover of the former miler Hall and the all-American Ritzenhein, Sell stuck to a simple plan of running as many 5-minute miles as he could. While running most of the race with the chase pack – sometimes a minute off the pace set by the lead five of Hall, Ritzenhein, Meb Keflezghi, Abdi Abdirahman and Dan Browne (all past Olympians) – Sell says he had no other choice but to stick to his steady-as-he-goes strategy. Had he dipped down ever so slightly to a 4:50 pace, or attempted to chase down the leaders, Sell says he likely would not have finished the race.
“When we were out in 11 flat for two miles, I knew I had to keep it honest to have a chance at all,” Sell explained of his off-the-pace strategy, one he used to run good races in Boston and Chicago in ‘06. “Honestly, I was trying to run around five-flat. I didn’t have too many miles above five-flat. That tells you how fast these guys were up front. I was just fortunate to pick up the carnage from these two. I was just trying to keep relaxed until the last lap, then attack. When I saw them with a lap to go, I just didn’t want to go too hard. I’m just happy I timed it right.”
Had he not qualified for Beijing, Sell told The New York Times he was ready to hang up his Brooks trainers and head off to dental school.
Instead he has at least one more race to train for.
“It’s been 13 years in the making for me, so this is one of the greatest days of my life aside of the birth of my daughter,” Sell said.
But Sell related that elation in a subdued manner. The same went for the guys sharing the podium with him, too.
“Today was a dream come true for me. I’ve been dreaming about this moment for 10 years,” Hall said. “But as great as the moment is, my heart and my thoughts are with Ryan Shay and his family.”
Death in the family
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.
Running, too, is a small, tight-knit community. If there are six-degrees of separation in regular society, cut that in half in running. After all, even a beginning runner can catch up with Brian Sell at the Home Depot.
Amongst the sports’ best, the dividing line is even narrower. At one point or another, the top American runners cross paths for regular training runs, let alone races on any weekend in any back road hamlet across the country. Between all of the training and racing it’s more than a common language or a shared lifestyle that runners share, it goes much more deeper.
That’s why Ryan Shay’s death in Saturday morning’s race – just 5½ miles into the run – sends tremors through the community.
Ryan Shay, a 28-year-old veteran marathoner, collapsed during the race in Central Park and was pronounced dead at Lenox Hill Hospital. No cause of death was given. The Michigan native was a graduate of Notre Dame and was competing in his second Olympic Marathon Trials. In 2003, Shay was the national champion in the marathon and won five total national titles in distances ranging from the 5,000-meters to the marathon.
Shay was considered a darkhorse contender for the Trials race, though was well off the pace through the first five-kilometers.
It is, after all, a small group. Shay was recently married to Alicia Craig, who was a Stanford classmate of Hall and Hall’s wife, Sara. In fact, Sara Hall was a bridesmaid in the Shay’s wedding last July. Hall and Shay lined up next to each other at the starting line of Saturday’s race.
Tragically, Shay’s body was transported in an ambulance past Hall and the frontrunners near the nine-mile mark of the race.
“It cuts me straight to the heart,” Hall said, clearly having a more difficult time grasping the reality of his friends’ death in the race than the realization that he had accomplished his goal of making it to the Olympics.
Shay trained at altitude in Flagstaff, Ariz. with Abdirahman, who told reporters that he warmed up before the race with his friend and kept looking for him on the course as the race progressed.
“I warmed up next to him this morning,” Abdirahman told The New York Times. “I was the one complaining instead of him. He was looking good. In the race, I was looking around at 10-13 miles to see where he was. I expected him to come up because I knew he was in good shape.”
In trying to make some sense of what had happened to their friend, runners were quick to point out Shay’s ability to pile on a heavy workload. In fact, Shay revealed in a Runner’s World interview before the race that he had been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and had finally recovered enough to train hard(er) for the Trials. After the race, Shay’s father Joe told The Associated Press that his son was told he had an enlarged heart as a teenager, but had been cleared to run by doctors. Those doctors, the elder Shay said, claimed the larger heart might have helped him become a champion runner.
“The thing that made him such a great runner may have killed him,” Shay said. “But he never complained about it.”
Shay was born May 4, 1979, in Ann Arbor, Mich.. He is survived by his wife of nearly four months, his father, Joe and mother, Susan, both high school cross country coaches. He is also survived by four older brothers and sisters and three younger ones, as well as his large family of runners.
“He achieved through hard work and effort goals and dreams that most people will never realize,” Joe Shay told the AP. “He was a champion, a winner and a good person.
“He used to say, ‘Dad, there’s a lot of guys out there with a lot more talent than me, but they will never outwork me.'”
More: NBC’s complete race coverage
It cuts me straight to the heart