Friday, November 9, 2007

Long May You Run

For some, distance running is more than sport. It is perspective. It's clarity. It's peace. It's where we take risks and crave a kind of pain that reminds us that we're alive. Running is liberation from sadness, a bad job, unkind words, and hurtful people. It's a celebration of friendships, teammates, and a choice to not idly let our years slip by.

It teaches us discipline, dedication, and passion that filter into every other aspect of our lives.

Last weekend I traveled to New York for the ING New York City Marathon 2007 and the men's Olympic Marathon Trials. Driving into the city on Thursday afternoon, I was full of anticipation and excitement for my own runner's paradise: the culmination of the inaugural season of Race with Purpose, working out with my teammates, the rare opportunity to watch America's fastest marathoners vie for three spots on the 2008 Olympic team, and coaching our runners through their race on Marathon Sunday.

On Thursday night we gathered near the marathon finish line for a tempo run. I was genuinely happy, drinking in the chance to run among my friends as we moved through the darkness of Central Park at a speed I rarely achieve by myself, but seemed natural and comfortable in the company of my team. We laughed and celebrated and toasted our first season at a dinner on Friday night -- an evening that, deep down, I may have doubted would ever arrive a few times over the last 11 months.

In the chilly, windy, pre-dawn hours of Saturday morning, my friend and teammate Avi and I once again ran through the darkness of Central Park. We've run hundreds of miles there over the years, but as we cruised onto the West Drive, there was something undeniably different and electrifying about it. The white aluminum barricades flanked both sides of the road and American flags lined the street leading up to the finish line of the Olympic trials course.

As we rounded the full six-mile loop of the park, watching volunteers lay the timing mats, hang the mile markers, and place each Olympic hopeful's prepared fuel bottles on numbered tables, we couldn't stop marveling that in just a couple of hours, history would be made by the country's elite distance runners on the very ground we were running. There were 130 guys roughly our age (and younger) who woke up that morning ready to make a life-long, unfathomable dream come true.

As we completed our own run, we headed over to the east side just south of the Boathouse near the 72nd Transverse, where we'd stand for the duration of the race. The runners would pass by this spot at miles 6, 15, 20, and 25. I'd never seen so many people so completely in love with the sport of running gathered in one place, sprinting from one side of Central Park to the other in order to double the number of times they'd be able to see the competitors, who would make five loops to complete the distance.

Not long after the runners cleared the 10K point, an ambulance blazed toward us from 72nd Street. The barricades made it difficult for it to clear the left-hand turn north, so we rushed to move them back, to allow it to proceed.

It didn't take long for the pace car to make its way past us four more times, each time with the runners more spread out behind it than the last, flying by just inches away from where we stood, cheered, and felt incredible inspiration. As Ryan Hall made his way past mile 25 with the race in the bag, we screamed. He smiled and pumped his arm in the air, enjoying every remaining second of his 2:09 marathon that would lead him to Beijing. Then came Dathan Ritzenhein and Brian Sell to round out the team. Each of them looked as though there were wings attached to their shoes, but Hall's stride was so relaxed, his body just gliding toward the finish, his race plan executed perfectly.

I was in awe. I haven't felt so motivated to run, and run well, in years. But as everybody knows by now, the "runner's high" of the morning quickly turned into shock and sadness as the news spread of Ryan Shay's sudden death at mile 5.5. Talk about unfathomable. As it turned out, the ambulance we moved the barricades for was for Shay. How a 28-year-old elite American athlete simply dies in the middle of the race of his life is probably a question that will never be answered to full satisfaction.

Was it his enlarged heart? Another undetected heart condition? As his wife of just four months, Alicia (Craig) Shay (also an elite distance runner), said in a newspaper article, it doesn't really matter--an answer won't bring him back. What is undeniable is the mark he's left on the running community--from the elite to the recreational to everybody somewhere in between. Just one glance at the outpouring of grief, tributes, and reflection at tells the story far better than I could, but his intensity, work ethic, and sheer will to conquer any obstacles in his way are pervasive.

And as 38,000 more runners toed the starting line of the New York City Marathon the following day, including 40 of my Race with Purpose teammates, that will to conquer lived on. As I ran up and down Fifth Avenue with one teammate at a time for more than 6 hours, I thought a lot about how lucky I am to be part of a sport and a community that never stops teaching me to be grateful, and even more so in times when personal stability is hard to come by and the fragility of life is amplified--grateful for the serenity and discipline it has taught me, the deep friendships it has afforded me, the health it has brought me, the refuge it has given me.

Onward to Philadelphia...


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