It began like a scary story: A dark and gloomy Saturday morning, the remnants of Hurricane Noel sending paper careening down Fifth Avenue like tumbleweed at the feet of the 134 men who were about to vie for a spot running the marathon in the Beijing Olympics.
By the end of the day, the sudden and tragic death of runner Ryan Shay, an outstanding athlete and human being, had cast a pall over the event, but three men took the foreboding morning and painted for American distance running the future that Shay would have wanted.
First, it was Ryan Hall, the 25-year-old phenom who put the world on notice when he broke the 22-year-old American half-marathon record in January in Houston, running 59:43. At the mile 17 mark, Hall was in a group of five that included Athens silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, 2004 Olympic marathoner Dan Browne, and former 10k Olympians Dathan Ritzenhein and Abdi Abdirahman. Then Hall took matters on to his own legs, dropping a 4:32 mile that put him all alone in Central Park. He would stay that way the rest of the race. "I looked up at the monitor [near the finish line]," Hall said later, "and I saw [former marathon world-record holder] Khalid Khannouchi coming, and I didn't want him around. He's a dangerous guy, so I kind of put my foot on the pedal to see how guys would respond."
All four men gave chase, but it was Hall, coming through the last mile with fists pumping and fingers pointing to the sky, who won the day with a stellar 2:09:02 over a hilly course that looped through Central Park.
Next it was Ritzenhein, the 24-year-old prodigy, whose name has been known among the national running community since his high school days in Michigan, when he won the Foot Locker national high school cross country championships twice in a row. Ritz reeled off a few sub-4:40 miles as well, with Browne drifting 10 seconds back.
During mile 21, Browne took one wobbly-legged step, as if he had put his foot in a shallow hole, and suddenly his gait was uneven, the victim of an apparent calf-cramp. He stopped and leaned on a course barrier for about two seconds for the quickest calf-stretch in history. Less than 10 minutes later, Brian Sell, 29, of the Michigan-based Hanson-Brooks Distance Project overtook Browne for the third and final qualifying spot. And that was how they finished: Hall, Ritz, Sell. No Meb, no Abdi, no Khannouchi. No one over 29.
The great news for American distance running is that Sell, a determined no name after college, was able to develop into a world-class marathoner, largely with the help of his team, one among several in a growing group-training trend. Too many athletes like Sell, with gritty determination but not a decorated background, fell into the post-collegiate running vacuum in the last two decades, a situation that culminated with only one American marathoner qualifying for the 2000 Olympics.
About 100 revelers (several of whom sported Sell-like, blond Fu Manchu Jr. mustaches), most of whom had made the trek from Michigan waited for Sell after Saturday's Olympic marathon trials at the restaurant-lounge Providence on Manhattan's West Side. Some of them were holding picket signs with cardboard Brian Sell busts on them. Sell had been answering questions at the post-race press conference when the announcement was made that Ryan Shay had passed away. He was mid-response when the news sent his train of though careening off course. His hand went to his head in disbelief, and he took a moment before he could finish his answer in a melancholy tone.
Later, at the Brooks-Hanson post-race party, even Sell had to flash a wide smile when one of his friends asked what he thought when he found out that Browne was not countering his move. "I thought he'd respond," said Sell, who had been accepted to dental school and might have attended had he not qualified. "When he didn't, I [thought], 'This is the greatest great news.'"
All three of Saturday's qualifiers hope to be serious contenders in Beijing. The marathon is a capricious master, and the three could win multiple medals, or none, but no matter what happens at the 2008 Games, they have raised the bar for U.S. marathoning. As Sell said of a dream that has been 13 years in the making, "it's one of the best days in my life, besides the birth of my daughter. The future of American distance is bright."