Wednesday, November 7, 2007

To Marathon

Editor's Note: This essay orginally appeared as a column on page A1 of the November 7, 2007 edition of the Antrim County News following the death of Ryan Shay.

In 490 BC, a Greek soldier named Pheidippides ran the nearly 26 miles from the battlefield outside the town of Marathon, where the Greeks had just vanquished the Persians, all the way to Athens. “We are victorious!” he shouted, just before collapsing to the ground, dead.

When you consider the story of Pheidippides and his mythical run, it seems like he was just fulfilling his own destiny.

When you consider the extraordinary life of another marathoner, Ryan Shay, the same appears true.

Ryan’s life seemed to be plotted toward one ultimate design: qualifying for the Olympics.

At the Olympic Trials on Saturday, Ryan died trying valiantly, as he had done his entire life, to fulfill that destiny.

On Sunday evening, I had the chance to sit down with Joe Shay, Ryan’s father, and he tried to summarize Ryan’s commitment to running by telling me a story.

“Sometimes I would get people calling me,” he recalled, “and they would ask ‘Do you know your son is out running in a snow storm? Why does he do that?’”

Here Joe paused and turned his head to look me in the eyes — “It’s who he is,” he said.

“For Ryan, the moment he woke up, running came first.

“It was a singular passion.”

If you talk to the people who knew Ryan best, they describe a person with the ambition to set lofty goals and the work ethic, determination, and willingness to make the sacrifices needed to achieve them.

“If he had a goal, he was going to get it,” Eric Shooks, Ryan’s friend and former teammate, said. “The commitment he had to running was unbelievable.”

Current Central Lake Athletic Director Quinn Barry was a teacher and the varsity basketball coach during Ryan’s high school days.

“Ryan was one of those kids who from early on you could tell always had an intense desire,” Barry said. “You can’t compare his work ethic (to anyone else’s).

“I convinced him to play basketball because I told him it would improve his fast motor movements for track.

“I remember, we’d have what I thought were grueling two-hour basketball practices, and after they were over, Ryan would put on his sweatpants and hat and go for a 12-mile run.”

Making the Olympics in distance running, especially the marathon, is probably the hardest thing to accomplish in all of sports.

There are 360 very well-paid professional basketball players in the NBA, many of whom never even play in a game.

There are even more professional football and baseball players in the NFL and MLB, respectively.

But only three — three — marathoners make the Olympic team every four years, and you only get one chance on one day to do it.

It was a challenge that Ryan had devoted his life to overcome.

“He was second to none in his drive to compete,” Notre Dame head cross country and track coach Joe Piane said. “He wasn’t as gifted (as other runners), but he made up for it with his work ethic.”

Ryan may not have achieved his goal of qualifying for the Olympics, but in dying on the course on Saturday, he fulfilled a different plan he had for himself.

“Ryan used to say that he’d ‘rather wear out than rust out,’” Joe Shay said.

“If he could script the end of his life, I don’t think he could have wanted it any better.

“Not many people get to end their life doing the things they love, and he did.”

The story of Pheidippides was resurrected in the late 19th century by the English poet Robert Browning, who writes, “Run, Pheidippides, one race more! … He flung down his shield / Ran like fire once more … Joy in his blood bursting his heart, — the bliss!”

Monday, May 21, 2007

Rate of Exchange

This one is culled from my journal from Egypt (which I happened to be looking through tonight, the fact that we got back almost exactly a year from today pure coincidence). Anyway, I found this gem under the title "Things I don't want to forget." But first, a little backstory is required.

So we're about 3/4 of the way through the trip and we're already quite weary of all the Egyptian vendors clamoring for bakshish (tips) and trying to sell us any number of cheap trinkets, but Dad has been looking for a t-shirt that a lot of the people on the trip had been buying, including the Aussie Dennis, Dad's new-found BFF (best friend forever in teen lingo). So he'd been shopping pretty hard, but...uh...the price was just never right.

And then it happened. Outside of one of the temples we visited, a local entrepreneur was selling the exact t-shirt that Dad wanted for the price of only five pounds (Egypt's currency is called "pounds" just like in England). Five Egyptian pounds is only about 80 cents. Oh, you should have seen the look of ecstasy that came over Dad's face at that moment. It was like he'd just been divined the answer to every single final Jeapordy question to the end of time. He thought he had the steal of the century. His countenance did not betray even a hint of guilt as he pulled out an Egyptian five pound note; in fact, his excitement was only intensified by the knowledge that our fellow travelers had paid over 10x as much for theirs. You could tell he was already forming a triumphant narrative in his mind to tell at the buffet line that night, especially to Dennis, who had been consistently one-upping us with all his tales of adventure.

But then the unthinkable happened. As the vendor saw that the five pounds Dad had pulled out of his man-purse was, in fact, the Egyptian variety, he shook his head violently and exclaimed: "No no no no no. Five ENGLISH pounds" (over $10 American). Such a switch of emotion has probably never been witnessed before or after that moment in the whole history of human civilization. Dad's head flushed harder than an industrial toilet as he shoved the five pounds back into his extra-security traveler's man-purse and then--with a gesture that, in any language, could only mean "this relationship is over"--he put the man-purse back under an extra layer of security, his Eddie Bauer traveler's polo, made with super sweat-wicking material.

But the local gentleman would not be so easily dissuaded from his sales venture. Wherever Dad went, the persistent gentleman followed right on his hip, offering final price after final price. Dad tried to say "No thanks" in the most disingenuous way possible, but that didn't work. He tried to ignore him, but that didn't work. He tried to pretend that he was browsing at a different store front, but that only increased the attention he was receiving from the local vendors. Dad sensed that his only refuge would be the bus. But as he made his way back to the parking area, he was horrified to see that a long line had already formed, and he would now have to either cut in line or showcase his negotiating tactics in front of our entire party.

Clearly, there was really only one choice here, the man's choice. So as he stood in line, his head still imitating a ripe Roma, he kept offering the man refusals, only now his tone had changed from deeply patronizing to patronizing with an awkward attempt at being humorous as he realized that everyone in our group was staring at him. Not wanting to come off as a cold, cheap tourist or as being extremely naive (in fact, our tour guide had warned us all that day of the "switcheroo" ploy as a staple in the Egyptian vendor's repertoire), Dad finally relented and bought the t-shirt, which our fellow travelers then forced him to display.

At this point readers, your souls are no doubt already deeply saddened by these tragic events. That is why with a heavy heart I must warn you that the worst is yet to come.

Tim and I spent the whole ride back to the ship reassuring Dad that he had made a good buy, that all was not lost. That he could still show his face in Cadillac upon our return. We stroked his ego like one would a trembling house cat. But then we got back to the ship and Dad finally had time to thoroughly examine his newly acquired t-shirt. As I saw his face crinkle with dismay I knew something was wrong. He called me over to him and asked if he could see the identical t-shirt that I had also bought that day.

With all the foreboding in the world I complied. He noticed right off that his was made of an inferior fabric. This realization was a severe blow, causing him to speak words that are not fit to repeat here.

But it was not the knock-out punch. Oh no. This came when I noticed his face reach a level of despair more dramatic than Caesar's looking into the eyes of Brutus. I could see his mind race back to that eager Egyptian vendor thinking, "Et tu, Abu?" I asked him what was wrong and, now rendered speechless by the shock, he simply turned the t-shirt around to reveal a long brown streak down the front of it that made it look like the salesman had just finished with it in the bathroom before selling it to Dad.

It is at this moment when Dad exclaimed this week's Quote of the Week. As he defiantly threw the t-shirt down on his bed he yelled "I'm not giving one more dime to those bastards!!!" Of course, only a day later he would be persuaded to buy this: