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Inspiration and Sadness at the Trials

Loss of Ryan Shay saddens us after inspirational triumphs of
"DyeStat Alums" Hall and Ritz, and Sell

Column by SteveU, photos by John Nepolitan

Ryan Hall wins, then accepts congrats from wife Sara.
While the triumphs and tragedy of the U.S. Olympic Trails men’s marathon yesterday took place in the world of professional athletes, they obviously touched those of us in the world of high-school running – and the DyeStat community – in their own special way.

We were thrilled to see the triumphs of Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein, who were part of that Big Three of Prep Distance running in 2000-2001 that we were so privileged to follow. We are moved by Brian Sell’s qualifying, because it shows that you don’t necessarily have to be a high-school star to make an Olympic team, as he himself acknowledged afterward.

Our overwhelming emotions, though, and those of everyone in the running world, center around the loss of Ryan Shay. Ryan’s prep success – he is the only male 4-time XC champ in Michigan state history (Class D from 1993-96) – predated DyeStat’s nationwide coverage, but the Shay family has been part of the Michigan HS running scene in many ways for many years. Ryan’s brother Case preceded him as a champ; Stephen followed him the same way. Ryan’s father, Joe, has coached champions at Central Lake HS, as well as multiple state champ/NON 2007 5k champ Marissa Treece of Maple City Glen Lake (now at Notre Dame). Ryan’s widow, the former Alicia Craig, was a great HS champion in Wyoming.

Ritz captures 2nd as wife Kalin and their child look on.
In fact, Hall, Ritz, Alicia, and Sara Hall (Ryan Hall’s wife, formerly Sara Bei) were part of the Distance Gods series on DyeStat in the spring of 2000. All of these athletes are people of great character, as well as champions, so we feel strongly about their successes and their sadness at this time.

With the mixed emotions from yesterday, one hopes today’s HS athletes can all be inspired by what these pros have done on and off the XC course, road and track. We often harp on the fact that many HS stars don’t pan out beyond their prep careers, but with the successes of Ryan Hall and Ritz, today’s champions can take heart in the fact that it’s possible to get much, much better, even if you’re great in HS. Alicia and Sara didn’t race yesterday, of course, and they had their ups and downs in college, but they have maintained their spiritual character and continue to get better as runners. Alicia, especially, has recently made a terrific comeback from injury.

On the other hand, Brian Sell proves that you don’t have to be a fantastic prep or even college runner to become an Olympian. Sell did win a few district and county titles as a prep at Northern Bedford County HS in PA in the mid-90s, and later small college conference titles, but nothing that would predict an Olympic team berth and 2:10-2:11 marathons. But as part of the Hansons-Brooks team, he has obviously improved to become one of the country’s top long distance runners.

After the race, Sell told Amby Burfoot of Runners World, “It's amazing to be up here with athletes like Ryan and Dathan. I was probably a minute slower than them for 2 miles in high school. I hope every kid who's not a state champ or district champ or whatever else will look at my race today and say: If I put the work in, I can do this."

Ryan Shay at the New Haven 20k ealier this year
But maybe we can be the most inspired by Ryan Shay. He won a total of 11 state titles in XC and track at Central Lake High School in Northern Michigan, but they were still small school titles and Ryan was not a national title contender.

He was, however, one of the hardest workers around and his improvement as a collegian at Notre Dame and beyond was a testament to that. His work ethic at every level has been legendary to those who saw him. He won an NCAA 10k track title with the Fighting Irish and then 5 national road-racing titles at different distances. "He had an incredible ability to push himself to the limit," Sara Hall told the media yesterday.

Ryan was revered even more, though, for who he was in the community of his origin.

"It's a huge loss for our school, our community," Quinn Barry, the Athletic Director at Ryan’s alma mater, told the Traverse City (MI) Record-Eagle. "He was always meticulous about doing things the right way for the right reasons. I think everyone here admired him for the dedication and time he put in to try to make himself the best athlete and person he could be. He was always really well grounded. With all the success he had, he was still always willing to give of his time. I think that's what people around here really liked about him.”

I just met Ryan once, at the NCAA meet while he was at Notre Dame, and I was struck by the same thing – how outgoing and giving he was, as well as that warrior quality.

Joe Shay was on his way to the Michigan state meet with some of his athletes when he heard the sad news and headed to New York. He would tell the media that his son had an enlarged heart and low pulse rate, but that there had been no heart problems in the family. His son had told him, however, that he had been told he might have to have a pacemaker when he was older. Whether or not that was the exact reason for what happened, is not determined yet, but there’s no doubt Ryan had a big heart in many ways.

Saturday, as I was watching the finish of the marathon on my computer just before the start of the first race at the Michigan State Meet, I learned on the message boards what happened to Ryan. I hoped it was not true, a message that could be deleted, but links to media stories bore out the story, and I was sad to break the news to many of those I came in contact with the rest of the day. There was shock, disbelief, and sadness.

With the Olympic Trials taking place, along with all of the prep action around the country, Saturday was a memorable day in the sport. But what happened with Ryan Shay reminds us of the great personal qualities of these athletes, the things that are really important in life, and how fragile our lives can be.

Remember Ryan with your running or involvement in the sport this week, and may the Shay family and all those in their circle find peace in this difficult time.

Above photo, the pack included (from left) Dan Browne, Meb Keflezighi, Dathan Ritzenhein, Abdi Abdirahman and Ryan Hall.

Lower photo - the three qualifiers: Hall, Ritz and Sell.