It's the race before the race that sticks with Ryan Hall. It wasn't supposed to be a memorable run, just a simple stroll through the park with his wife and friends before the biggest race of his life. That race, the one he'd constantly been dreaming about, was supposed to be the one etched into his memory forever, but our mind doesn't always follow our plans.
The day before the U.S. men's marathon Olympic trials in New York last month, Hall and his wife, Sarah, were running through Central Park with Ryan Shay and his wife, Alicia. The Halls and the former Alicia Craig were teammates while they were at Stanford and the couples had often trained together in California. As the Ryans and their wives ran through the park, they talked about the next day's race and how they would celebrate afterwards. They were in New York, after all, the city that never sleeps, the possibilities, much like their time together on this Earth seemed endless.
What transpired over the next 24 hours would leave Hall sleepless for days and it had nothing to do with his record-breaking win at the Trials that earned him a trip to the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
As Hall, 25, broke ahead of the pack early in the race en route to a trials record time of 2:09:02, Shay, 28, had collapsed at around the 5-mile mark. After being given CPR by bystanders he was taken to a hospital where he would be pronounced dead an hour before the end of the race.
It would be that long before Hall, who looked up and pointed to the sky as he crossed the finish line, was given the news about Shay, who was diagnosed with an enlarged heart. Suddenly his mind went blank and he felt numb. He barely had time to savor the realization of his Olympic dream before he was thrust into the nightmare of losing the friend he stood by on the start line a little over two hours ago. They were supposed to celebrate this moment together -- the Ryans and their wives, just as they had planned the day before.
"I went from the highest high to the lowest low in a matter of seconds," said Hall. "My heart just broke for Alicia. When someone close to you dies it shocks you but this was something else."
When the reality of it all finally set in, Hall told Alicia and Shay's family that he would be dedicating his run for Olympic gold to Shay. When they see him running in Beijing, they will hopefully see a little bit of Shay as well, pushing Hall just as he had done when they were training together.
"I really want Ryan to live on through me," said Hall. "He always worked really hard. He was the hardest worker I knew and very passionate about what he did and as I prepare for the games I'm going to be thinking about him a lot."
It's been over a month now since Shay's passing and Hall is once again reminded of the best and worst day of his life as he watches the final stages of his Trials win on the big screen at a banquet in San Diego. He's being inducted into the hall of fame of the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, the national championship for high school runners, but an event he never won while he was in school.
"I was surprised," said Hall, whose wife and younger brother, Chad, won the annual 5,000-meter race. "I mean they inducted a guy that didn't even win the race."
If Hall had it his way, they would recognize one of his friends. Attention is not something Hall craves. Even the perception that he might be drawing attention to himself embarrasses him.
That doesn't seem to be a problem on this chilly December day as Hall runs along the track at Balboa Park in San Diego unnoticed. There is nothing particularly exciting about watching Hall run. He makes it seem so easy. His shoulders are slightly raised, his arms are bent at the waist and his strides seem as effortless as someone going for a midday jog.
Then again, one could easily say the same thing about Tiger Woods' drives or Roger Federer's back-hands from a distance until they tried comparing it with someone else only to discover that they have no equal. It's even harder to compare Hall with his peers these days since he is usually so far ahead of the pack that the closest runner isn't even in the same camera frame.
"He is very fluid, his style is wonderful to watch," said Glenn Latimer, the manager of long distance running for USA Track and Field. "Look at his hips. His hips don't move. He has these raking strides and there's no vertical displacement. He's so smooth. He just glides over the ground."
Hall has become America's greatest long-distance runner seemingly as quickly and as easily as he glides through the muddied track at the park. His rise to prominence on the long-distance running scene in 2007 has been nothing short of legendary.
Not only did he run the fastest half-marathon ever by an American, clock the fastest marathon debut by an American, the fastest marathon ever run by an American-born citizen and won the U.S. Olympic Team Trials Marathon in record time, he did it all after never competing in a marathon up until seven months ago.
Hall never thought of himself as a marathon runner. He had specialized in races of 5,000 meters and shorter throughout his high school and college career, but in his first foray into a marathon he proved that he not only belonged but also that he was already one of the best in the world. He placed seventh in the Flora London Marathon with a time of 2:08:24, which was the fastest marathon debut by any American, and the fastest marathon ever run by an American-born citizen. His debut surpassed the record previously set by Alberto Salazar and Alan Culpepper, who said that Hall could run the marathon around the 2:05 mark, which would put him in line for the world record.
"Its funny to hear my name mentioned with those guys," said Hall. "When I think about Alberto, for example, I still think of him being so much better then myself. You don't ever feel like you're actually on the same page as those guys so I still look up to them even if I'm running faster than they did. I always see them at one level and hopefully one day getting there."
That day may come this August when Hall realizes his dream of running Olympics after his record-breaking Trials run that proved his first marathon run was no fluke. Yet as Hall prepares to become the first American to win gold in the Olympic Marathon in over 35 years he never forgets that his race towards history isn't just about him. He will be running for more than one Ryan in Beijing.
"Ryan will live on through me. In my training I always tell myself, 'Ryan would pour it out right now, Ryan would be running this work out all out,'" said Hall. "I use that to inspire me and in a way that allows Ryan to run through me because he inspires me every day."