Commentary

Stephan Shay is never running alone

Updated: March 23, 2011, 3:14 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Stephan Shay felt plenty fit two days before the New York City Half-Marathon, the race he had earmarked as a last tune-up before he debuts at the full marathon distance next month in London.

He had one more bit of preparation to do. He needed to run past the spot on the east side of the Central Park loop where his older brother Ryan collapsed and died, stricken by a heart ailment in November 2007 on the day of the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

Stephan had visited the spot once before when his college team came to the city for an indoor track meet. There were still flowers marking the spot then, and runners had scratched Ryan's name into a flat rock next to the curb. Now there's a memorial plaque installed on the closest bench.

He arrived in New York last Thursday, weaved his way to the park through the St. Patrick's Day revelers massed in the streets of midtown Manhattan and deliberately ran by the spot. The next day, he took another easy run and passed it again. He thought about how to integrate his feelings with his pace.

[+] EnlargeStephan Shay
Victah/New York Road Runners Stephan Shay finished 25th overall in the New York City Half-Marathon (1:04:39) -- more than two minutes slower than the 1:02:26 he logged in Houston last year.

"Any other time I would go by, I'd stop and I'd think about him," Stephan said. "But I think in terms of getting through the race in a way where my emotions don't get the best of me, I have to look at it like, this is where he fell. It doesn't represent anything other than that. It's not where he lived. It's not where he is right now."

Sunday dawned unseasonably cold, with temperatures in the 30s. Stephan never did get himself limbered up, and he let the lead pack go up the road. After about six miles, he found himself running alone, isolated in what athletes call "no man's land," without anyone to tuck in behind or work with to blunt the wind.

Stephan finished in 25th place with a time of 1 hour, 4 minutes, 39 seconds. That was more than two minutes slower than the 1:02:26 he logged over the same distance in Houston last year -- a breakthrough performance in ideal conditions that qualified him for next year's Olympic Marathon Trials.

He looked spent but not exhausted after last Sunday's race, and he had already moved on mentally.

"I'm not super happy, but I'm not bummed out either," Stephan said, pulling on warmer clothing over black shorts, black arm-wraps and a neon-orange Saucony jersey. "I'm definitely still in shape to do a 2:14 or a 2:13 in London. Every race can't be a PR."

In a larger sense, he never runs alone. Stephan (pronounced Steffen) grew up as the youngest of eight in the small northern Michigan town of Central Lake. The kids ran. The parents coached. He is the last one left competing on the elite level, and the Shays haven't allowed the permanent pain of losing Ryan to poison the sport for them.

"He knows that all he has to do is run, and he'll honor Ryan," said Nathan Shay, who ran at Notre Dame with his late brother. "When people see him, they think of Ryan, and that's important to him, keeping our name out there."

Family trait

Joe Shay, patriarch of an athletically gifted clan, says his youngest might be the best of all of them.

Stephan learned to hold his own early at home -- dinnertime, Joe recalled, was "like eating in a den of piranhas." He also was imbued with a charming, impish, fearless yet tender personality that led the Shays to dub him "Puppy." In junior high school, he once succeeded in offloading a case of protein bars with a somewhat gritty texture on his classmates, making a tidy profit on each one. "I'm actually surprised I didn't get told on," Stephan said.

By contrast, Ryan, seven years older than Stephan, was nicknamed "Workhorse." Stephan adored him, yet seemed unfazed at the prospect of nipping at his heels and broke all but one of his high school records. The summer before Stephan went off to Michigan State University, he trained with his brother's elite group in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. There, he observed Ryan's ferocious drive first-hand, and began to understand that he wasn't built to emulate it.

"I mean, people were afraid to train with him," Stephan said. "He ran so hard."

Ryan had a bigger frame, more muscle mass and a greater margin for error, while Stephan, although strong in his own right, was lighter and slightly bow-legged. As he got older, he learned he'd race better if he didn't beat himself up daily in training. He found it hard to believe that he'd be able to outrun someone of his brother's caliber if he didn't outwork him, but Ryan set him straight.

Shay
Shay Family'When people see [Stephan, left], they think of Ryan [right], and that's important to him, keeping our name out there.'

"He would always tell me, 'You have more talent than I do,'" Stephan said. "I gained a lot of confidence from him telling me that."

Stephan transferred to Brigham Young University after his sophomore year, attracted by the credentials of head track coach Ed Eyestone, a former Olympic marathoner. On the day Ryan died, Stephan was in Utah and Eyestone was on the course in New York as a television commentator, riding on the lead motorcycle. When the coach reached the younger brother on the phone, "there were several minutes where we just wept," Eyestone said.

No one may have been better qualified to help Stephan through the emotional fog of the ensuing months than Eyestone, who lost a brother and a running buddy in quick succession when he was Stephan's age. The coach also saw to it that Stephan got a thorough medical screening to ensure he didn't have a heart defect.

Then Eyestone went about trying to help Stephan improve. He is convinced Stephan will continue to mature into a top-shelf distance runner.

"I never felt there was a race long enough for him at the NCAA level," Eyestone said. "He has a light frame and a big engine. He also has that mindset of grinding it out. When he has a goal and is working towards it, no one is more pleased when he gets it, and no one is harder on himself when he doesn't."

Nathan, who works for GE Capital in Chicago, has become Stephan's primary running confidant in the family. Joe found he needed to take a step back from the sport and the constant, if well-meaning, torrent of sympathy he and his wife Susan encountered. He still coaches part-time and mentors athletes in Central Lake, including top national basketball recruit Jasmine Hines, who runs track and throws the shotput in the spring.

"I try to understand the pressure on Stephan," Joe Shay said. "But I don't talk to him much about his running. I'm too afraid of saying something that would discourage him. I try to be as neutral as I can.

"He seems to have done extremely well with the adversity of Ryan's passing. He's a very moral, fine, upstanding man, and I'd be proud of him even if he never ran."

Nonetheless, Joe's not shy about making a prediction for Stephan: "I think he'll run a 2:09 marathon on a tough course." That would be five minutes faster than Ryan's personal best.

Stephan said he regards his brother's times as benchmarks, not barriers to break. "He ran this at this time at this age, I'm running this, if I'm close to that or a little better, I at least know I have the potential to do it," Stephan said. "I respected him and his hard work too much to assume that I could beat all his records." The half-marathon in Houston last year made him realize that he might be coming into his own.

On his own course

Stephan has a few non-blood brothers in the sport, like Meb Keflezighi, the 2004 Olympic marathon silver medalist who broke a 32-year drought for U.S. men in the event.

Keflezighi trained with Ryan in California and took his death extremely hard. When he came back from injury to win the 2009 New York City Marathon, he took every opportunity to pay tribute to Ryan. Before the start Sunday, he gave Stephan a fond punch in the shoulder.

"He doesn't have to prove he's better than [Ryan] every time out," said Keflezighi, whose brother Hawi is Stephan's manager. "I tell him, 'Be yourself, and honor him every time you run, just like I do.'"

Stephan has also built his own support network and is one of very few men in any elite sport coached by a woman: Polish-born Magdalena Lewy-Boulet, a marathoner and 2008 U.S. Olympian. Lewy-Boulet, a former assistant coach at the University of California-Berkeley and co-founder of the Bay Area Track Club, also is planning to run the London Marathon.

"She's really passionate, and that's one of the qualities my brother had," Stephan said. "She believes in me, too, which is huge."

It took some fortitude to get through a bizarre setback last fall. Stephan's performance in Houston qualified him for the world half-marathon championships in China last October. He began feeling mysteriously fatigued about three weeks before. The symptoms worsened, but Stephan decided to race anyway, logged a ponderous 1:10 and felt feverish.

Shortly afterwards, Stephan felt something odd inside his mouth. "I thought I had a gnarly canker sore," he said, but upon further exploration, he realized differently. Last April, about to start a training run in Arizona, Stephan had emerged from a car without looking and whacked his head into a cactus. A needle had embedded itself in his face and gradually worked its way to the other side, causing an energy-sapping abscess.

That literal thorn in his side removed, Stephan went back to work. He built up his mileage and did a few cross-country races this winter. The marathon will be his focus, but he's realistic: "The Olympics are a long shot."

Stephan isn't the only Shay to have run in Central Park since Ryan's passing. Brother Case, an English teacher in South Korea, ran the 2008 New York City Marathon with some Notre Dame alums. Sister Sarah was to have run it last year and raised $27,000 in pledges for wounded veterans, then had to have an emergency appendectomy on the eve of the race.

But Stephan is the first in the family to run through that charged space with a greater athletic goal. He had enough to contend with last Sunday without dwelling on what happened there. "I tried to block it out and suck it up and I did a pretty good job keeping my composure," he said. "It was more of a reminder to stay focused on what I could do."

And -- easier said than done -- to keep moving.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.