Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 12, 2007

Saying Goodbye: Central lake mourns star runner Shay


CENTRAL LAKE -- Ryan Shay ran countless hours along the roads of Antrim County in pursuit of his Olympic dream.

On Sunday, eight days after Shay's sudden death, hundreds of mourners followed one of Shay's favorite training routes to reach Dunsmore Cemetery near Central Lake, where he was buried as darkness fell.

The 28-year-old Shay, diagnosed with an enlarged heart as a teenager, collapsed and died 51/2 miles into the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City on Nov. 3. The cause of death remains undetermined.

"Ryan loved northern Michigan," Shay's father, Joe, said in the days leading up to Sunday's funeral. "The first thing he did with the money he won as a professional was buy property here, just down the road from us.

"His dream was to come back and build a house, raise a family. He was doing what he had to do to become a better runner (by training in Flagstaff, Ariz.), but he always talked about coming home."

An estimated 500 mourners, wearing blue-and-gold lapel ribbons embossed with the logo of Notre Dame, Shay's alma mater, attended Sunday's memorial at the Harvest Barn Church in East Jordan. Shay and his wife, Alicia, who were married on July 7, attended services at the church whenever they visited northern Michigan.

Among those in attendance were Mary Wittenberg, chief executive of the New York Road Runners, which hosted the Olympic Trials; Abdi Abdirahman, a two-time Olympian who lived with the Shays in Flagstaff; Brian Sell, who finished third in the trials and will compete in the 2008 Summer Games at Beijing; and dozens of former college teammates, competitors and running officials -- "a virtual who's who of running," Wittenberg said.

"Ryan touched everyone," Wittenberg said. "A loss like this affects an entire community, and Ryan was very much at the front and center of our community.

"It's hard to process how he could be gone and why he's gone. You just have to believe that somehow it was meant to be."

Abdirahman, who met Shay in 1997 while the two were still in high school, said Shay "was like a brother."

"This past week was one of the hardest weeks of my life," Abdirahman said. "I'll miss him, but we all know he's in a better place."

During a nearly-three hour service, friends and family remembered Shay's faith, courage, passion and commitment.

State Rep. Kevin Elsenheimer read a proclamation and a U.S. Olympic Team representative presented the Shay family with an Olympic flag.

Alicia Shay read a passage from the Bible that she said Shay read on the morning of his final race. The passage, from the book of Ephesians, focused on gaining "strength through the Holy Spirit."

"I just wanted you to know what was in Ryan's heart when he left Saturday morning," Alicia said.

Certainly Alicia was in Shay's thoughts, as well.

"For all of his success, he would have considered himself a failure had he not met Alicia," said Nathan Shay, Ryan's brother.

Ryan was the fifth of Joe and Susan Shay's eight children, and all eight became runners. The Shays used the sport as a way to teach their kids about healthy living, goal setting, discipline and focus, and Ryan couldn't seem to get enough of it.

Central Lake athletic director Quinn Barry said Shay's brothers even debated about which had more miles, "Ryan's running shoes or the car they used to drive around on the back roads of Central Lake."

Shay won 11 state high school track and cross country championships and later became a nine-time All-American at Notre Dame. In 2001, he won the NCAA 10,000 meters to become the school's first-ever individual national champion.

Professionally, Shay won five USA Track and Field road racing national championships and was among a handful of contenders to win a spot on the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team.

Friends said Shay found solace outdoors, fishing and playing his guitar.

Barry said Shay was a role model to students at Central Lake and always visited the school when he was in town.

He said Shay's message was a simple one: "Set your mind and heart to be the best that you can be."

Shay often spoke about the "three Joes" who influenced his running career -- his father, Notre Dame coach Joe Piane and professional coach Joe Vigil (pronounced Vehill). All three spoke at the memorial.

Joe Shay, whose voice was barely above a whisper, read an essay about conquering fear that his son wrote for his application to Notre Dame.

He also said Ryan was a prankster who was both tenacious and tender-hearted.

Joe Shay said his son continuously read marathon biographies, looking for secrets that would help him gain an edge. After Ryan read a book about Steve Prefontaine, an accomplished runner who also died prematurely, he told his father that he felt connected to the former University of Oregon star.

"He said, 'Finally, somebody who understands me,' " Joe Shay said.

Shay said his son was "now in heaven" and had "a new training partner."

Piane and Vigil both said their relationship with Ryan Shay was more like a father and son than a coach and an athlete.

"We talked about everything," Piane said.

Piane said three words come to mind when he thinks of Shay: "focus, discipline and sacrifice."

He said between Shay's freshman and senior years at Notre Dame, he "went from being a kid who wanted to run fast to a steadfast teammate."

"Ryan was a great teacher," Piane said. "... The most subtle teacher I've ever known."

Vigil, who began coaching Shay after he graduated from Notre Dame six years ago, said Shay's determination to be the best was impressive.

Vigil said that once, during a training session in the mountains, Shay became lost, and hours passed before Shay showed up at the designated meeting point.

Vigil said Shay was noticeably angry, having walked 31 miles in addition to running 15. Vigil offered to give him the following day off.

Shay refused.

"Coach, I came here to be a champion," Vigil quoted Shay as saying.

"We're all born ordinary. Only a few of us become extraordinary," Vigil said. "Ryan was just such an individual."

Said Piane: "If my son turns out to be half the man that Ryan was, I'll be a happy dad."