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!”