NEW YORK -- It was supposed to be a showcase for the best this taxing event can coax from top endurance athletes. Instead, the U.S. Olympic trials held Saturday to select the men's marathon team layered a nightmare over dreams realized.
Youth trumped experience in the race results. Three runners under 30 took charge on the course and will compete in Beijing next summer. But moments after crossing the finish line, Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein and Brian Sell got the most shocking news imaginable for young athletes.
One of their contemporaries, 28-year-old Ryan Shay of Flagstaff, Ariz., collapsed behind them less than half an hour into the race, on the first loop through Central Park, and died shortly after being transported to Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. An autopsy to determine the cause of death was scheduled for Sunday.
Race organizers asked the athletes to keep what had happened to themselves, although the 25-year-old Hall, whose winning journey of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 2 seconds was a stunningly smooth one given the tough, undulating course, opened his victory remarks by saying Shay's family was in his thoughts.
Questions about the competition continued until a reporter inquired about Shay. New York Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg, whose organization bid to stage the race the day before the annual New York City Marathon, stepped to the podium, pale and trembling. "We have absolutely tragic news confirmed," she said, her voice breaking, and delivered the official word.
Bizarrely, the next question, posed to Sell, returned to the subject of the race. The 29-year-old Michigan native politely stumbled through an answer, his face flushed and his jaw working, before indicating he didn't want to continue.
The distance running community is small as sports villages go. All three men knew Shay; Hall, a long-legged, ethereal whiz kid who trains in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. and looks like he came from a "Chariots of Fire" casting call, knew him the best. They have trained together, and he and his wife Sara knew Shay's wife Alicia, who is also a competitive runner, at Stanford University. When the Shays were married just three months ago, Sara was one of Alicia's bridesmaids.
How do you reconcile having the best day of your athletic life on the worst possible day for another family? What is it like to speak in the past tense about a buddy you just saw raring to go at the start line?
The openly devout Hall was doubtlessly struggling with some internal contradictions, but when reporters surrounded him after the press conference mercifully broke up, he handled the moment with the same composure he exhibited on the course.
"Guy's a workhorse, had a lot of passion," Hall said. "I'll be thinking about him when I'm out there training. He went out and trained his butt off every day. He was real inspiring to be around. He just had a great heart too."
The race followed a somewhat unpredictable path from the very beginning. Blustery weather predicted as a by-product of the Hurricane Noel weather system held off and the top runners felt comfortable making an early move rather than tucking in together to stave off the wind.
No one pushed the pace until after the six-mile mark, when five men, including Hall, Ritzenhein, 2004 Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi and a couple of other leading contenders went off the front and logged the first sub-5-minute mile.
At nine miles, they were joined by 2004 Olympian Dan Browne of Beaverton, Ore., who was running strongly despite having taken a two-year break from marathoning following surgeries on both knees.
That lead pack stayed intact until Hall decided to lower the hammer after about 17 miles and took off, covering the next mile in a scorching 4:32. He was unchallenged the rest of the way as was Ritzenhein, 24, of Eugene, Ore., who couldn't match Hall's pace but managed to go it alone and finished 2:05 shy of him.
Browne looked as if he had third place well in hand until he grimaced and pulled up with a cramp in one calf at about 20 miles. He actually stopped briefly, leaning against a course barrier to try to stretch it out, but was clearly hampered the rest of the way, looking heavy-legged and listing to his right.
Sell, who faded to 12th place in the 2004 trials after leading the race most of the way, charged out of the back and overtook Browne with about four miles to go. Browne gutted out the remaining miles to finish sixth.
Former world-record holder Khalid Khannouchi, 35, who had tried unsuccessfully to bridge up to the lead pack midway through the race, put in a late kick to pass Browne as well, and finished fourth. Khannouchi would be the first alternate on the team if any of the three men who qualified drops out in the nine months between now and the Beijing Games.
The native of Morocco received his U.S. citizenship in 2000, too late to compete in the Summer Games that year, and injuries kept him from competing for a slot in Athens four years ago.
Hall has now run two brilliant marathons in his first two cracks at the event, including a 2:08:24 in London last spring that was the fastest ever for a U.S. man's debut. He waved cheerily at the crowd as he approached the finish line, not knowing the terrible news that awaited him, and thrust his gloved fists skyward as he crossed under the arch with the digital timer.
Shay, a University of Notre Dame graduate who won five U.S. road racing titles including the 2003 marathon, was a self-confident, outspoken athlete intent on bettering an injury-marred run in the 2004 trials.
His personal-best time in a marathon was just over 2 hours, 14 minutes, and he knew he would have to go faster than that to compete for an Olympic slot. During an October 24 conference call with reporters, Shay spoke with an almost defiant tone about his expectations.
"I know it's going to be difficult," he said. "You just hope that you have the perfect day. What else can I do, sit home? You go out there to race. If you have the qualifying mark, you've got to go out there.
"You can't think about 'what if I fail,' because it will cause negative thoughts, so instead you have to turn the energy around and feed off that energy. All these people are cheering for you. They don't know you, they just want you to do well."
Shay died trying to do his best, and there's little question that he will be the fourth member of the U.S. men's marathon team in Beijing -- absent but present in every stride his friends and former rivals take.
Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.