Thank you for this day.
These 5 simple words typically start every one of my runs. In the early morning, even before the sun may be up, I’ll look up at the sky and whisper these words. It’s a small prayer, a mantra, a habit, my talisman of good luck. It is my verbal charm, my small something to remind myself in the busy swirl of this life, how lucky I am to be standing there, at that moment.
This past Saturday morning was a lazy day, and as I drank my coffee before I was to run, I got caught up in watching the US Men’s marathon trials live on my laptop. Those runners were something to see, the grace, the effort, the speed. As they sped throught the miles, it was Ryan Hall who awed us all with the apparent ease in which he conquered not only the unforgiveable distance and the hills of Central Park, but a field as deep in talent as this country has ever assembled. I got caught up in the battle for 3rd place, and alternately cheered for the dark horse Brian Sell - whose mustache and sideburns made him look hauntingly like a blond Steve Prefontaine – and Dan Browne, who would muster challenge after challenge before succumbing to cramps and the spirit of Sell to fall out of contention. It was exhilarating to watch, inspiring, wonderful. They were something to see. You can’t help but breathe deep and exhale, and feel the energy of possibility. It again reminded me of the lesson that if you do the work and believe in yourself, you can do the extraordinary. I took this and the images of those valiant runners with me as I went out on my familiar 8.1 mile loop.
Upon my return, I hopped back on the laptop to check the results of all the finishers and was stunned to read the news that Ryan Shay had died. How could this be? How could one as young and fit as Shay DIE? IN A RACE? Every year there is always a story of someone dying at the end of a marathon – the rigors of the race provoke weaknesses in the body which have – until that moment – gone unnoticed. But Shay was a proven product, someone who pushed his body to the limits of its endurance, a world-class athlete. Suddenly, Hall’s triumph was muted by the tragedy. And runners around the world struggled to make sense of his death.
The thing about running is that it makes you feel so alive. You feel good, you feel bad, you sweat, you’re hot, you're cold, you feel like you could run forever, you want to stop NOW. You ache, you fly, you want to do this forever, you wish you were doing anything but this. It is an impossibility to fit Shay’s square-pegged death in the round-holed life affirmation that is the marathon trails. I can’t believe it…How many times did we hear this repeated? I thought of his wife of only 3 months, had they even finished writing thank-you notes for their wedding gifts?
He was young, seemingly healthy, infinitely talented. Overlay death on this description and you have the essence of tragedy. It’s not a new scenario: it happens, every day. Killed in a car accident… In a roadside bombing… from cancer. We’ve become immune to the descriptions. We all feel a palpable sense of loss when we read of someone’s child, snatched from this earth too soon. But typically we’re far enough removed where that the sense of loss is – for better or worse – fleeting. Those of us who run felt more than just a momentary jolt when we read of Shay. He was ‘one of us’, a fellow runner. I couldn’t help but wonder what his last moments were like, as he stepped off the course and staggered toward the boathouse in Central Park. Was he confused or disoriented? Was he afraid? Did he know something terrible was happening? Did he look to the sky and wonder if this was real? Was his heart pounding wildly and did he somehow think be still my beating heart without fully understanding the devastating precision with which his prayer would be answered?
The running forums were jammed with threads of disbelief. A petition was started for Shay to be on the cover of a prominent running magazine. I thought about this: What do we celebrate here? Hall’s triumph? Shay’s death? Shay’s life? I’m pretty sure a cover on a magazine will not be adequate homage to a young man of such gift and talent, but in our effort to assuage our own sense of grief and loss, it is the best we can muster. The cover of this running magazine may well be our idea of Elysium for him. We will wonder if his equally talented widow will be able to train while carrying the burden of such heavy loss on her heart. And our own sorrow will pass like smoke in the wind; We will leave the true grieving to those who loved and knew him best.
We may not acknowledge it, but Shay’s death reminds us of how lucky we are in comparison to those whose lives are cut short. From a dusty road in the middle east to a 26 mile swath of pavement in Manhattan - and all the places in between -we need to memorialize the loss of all those whose middle age is their teens. Lofty thoughts, for sure. It begs the question how do you reconcile these deaths, these lives? The best you can: by lacing up your shoes, looking to the place where your soul finds meaning, and humbly giving thanks for the simple ability to participate in the endurance sport of life.