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Grieving Shay's absence from Olympic Trials a blessing in disguise


Among the who's-who of American running, jumping, throwing and vaulting that has descended on America's one true track Mecca -- Eugene, Ore. -- for the Olympic Track and Field Trials, one athlete who has been entirely absent from the new polyurethane at Hayward Field has nonetheless been much on the minds of many competing for Beijing berths.

Midway through last month, right around her 26th birthday, Alicia Shay, widow of Ryan Shay, who died 5 ½ miles into the Olympic Marathon Trials in November, decided to let go, temporarily, of a dream that was unraveling with each passing interval session. Her coach, Jack Daniels, announced that Shay would scratch from the 10,000-meters at the trials, partly due to a freak stomach injury she suffered in May while chasing her new pug, Cody, to keep her out of the street.

But even before young Cody's wayward trip down the driveway, Alicia Shay could feel her body giving up on her; choosing a different path from her mind. For elite distance-runners, who tend to live like clocks, who often choose what to eat and when to sleep only insofar as it gets them from line-to-line more quickly, any disruption to their pattern is unwelcome. So, it could hardly be expected that Alicia Shay should make a serious play to compete at the Trials. After all, she essentially stopped running, cold-turkey, for two months after Ryan died suddenly of heart failure. In addition to being without her loving spouse, Ryan was the biggest booster of Alicia's running career. In a sport that requires rigid adherence to often inconvenient habits, spousal support, as any Hall, Goucher, or Slattery might attest, can be of critical importance. Shay lost a partner in life and training literally in the blink of an eye.

So while other athletes were laying down long runs in January, Shay was just beginning to jog again. And even then, there were signs. No sooner had she started running than she immediately got sick. Twenty-something's should have a right to feel invincible, and Shay could not have anticipated how the stress of a traumatic event so far outside the range of conventional experience would affect her body. "When I first started training again," she says, "I felt like I'd run a marathon every day for a month."

But still, she forged ahead, pursuing a dream that Ryan had helped keep alive a year-and-a-half ago, by insisting his wife visit physical therapist Phil Wharton, a mechanic of a man with a gift for keeping runners on the run. Despite winning the NCAA 10K championships in 2003 and '04, Alicia Shay's career had deteriorated as the result of a 2004 dorm-room fall that left her with chronic head and neck pain. Within weeks of visiting Wharton, Shay was back on track, and last year, she was the U.S. 20K champion and took fourth outdoors at nationals in the 10K.

That was all because of Ryan, and Ryan had wanted to see her run the trials, so how could she stop now? Despite all the stress, the funeral, the interviews, the regular tide of memories, in April, Shay started, again, to workout like the U.S. 20K champ. For a moment, it seemed that, despite the odds, she could actually compete for a spot on the Olympic team. At one of those April workouts in Flagstaff, Ariz., Shay ran two repeats of three miles, the first in 15:58 and the second in 15:33. "I can't remember ever having run that fast at altitude," Shay says. "I was on the right track, for sure. Weightlifting, taking ice baths. It seemed to be going according to plan."

Every successful distance runner knows the drill: you have to conserve your emotional energy for racing by pushing outside stressors aside, and finding solace in the routine of training and the cathartic ticking off of miles. And so Alicia tried. When her mind drifted to Ryan, and to sadness, she would do her best to pull the reins and yank it back to course, to focus on the training day at hand. She would push hot things aside, but they always reemerged.

"Maybe I'd be doing OK, and then drive past Ryan and mine's favorite coffee shop, and I do that every day, but that day it would just be really hard," she says. "There were days when I might get upset at the smallest thing, like an old couple walking together holding hands."

There were physical signs, too. Despite an outpouring of support and regular visits from friends, nighttime, when her eyelids would drop, and she was alone in her own head, remained unsettling. Her sleep was erratic. She'd wake up with aches all over her body. Soon she was so tired she would stare blankly at someone speaking to her, having trouble formulating her thoughts. Every time she stood up, she'd feel dizzy. "My body really started to shut down," Shay says. "I felt like I'd run into a brick wall." And, in a manner of speaking, she had. Doctors told Shay that there would be no pushing through the fatigue this time. Rest is the only prescription.

And so, today, Alicia Shay is giving her legs a rest so that her mind might eventually follow.

"As inconvenient as this is right now, to not be in the trials, it really is a blessing," she says. "I need to rest and take in some of the hard things and just deal with them as they come and not put them in a box and push them away. I mean, running is important, but this is far more important. This is the week Ryan and I got married. This is the best week of my life last year. When I wake up, that's what's difficult for me -- not that I'm not racing. I'm confident I'll be a great athlete again."

Perhaps a recent change of scenery will help speed the recovery process. At first, after Ryan passed away, Alicia was adamant about staying in the couple's house in Flagstaff, where every dish and chair was coated with the memory of Ryan. But, slowly, the constant reminders, rather than providing comfort, "just got lonely and difficult," Shay says. So she moved to the city's outskirts, where she can sit in her living room, near the southwestern edge of the Colorado Plateau, and let her eyes meander over the contours of the San Francisco Peaks. "The change of scenery came at a perfect time," she says, "when I realized I wasn't going to be able to go to the Trials."

A little part of the Trials, however, will soon be coming to her, in the form of Olympic 10K hopeful and Tucson-native Abdi Abdirahman. Abdirahman (who has become exceedingly fond of the "Black Cactus" nickname he was given by Flotrack) lived with the Shays in the months before the marathon trials and appears to be set for a return trip after Eugene. "He told me he'd come back to Flagstaff in August," Shay recalls, "and he said, 'And that's when I'll be living with you.' That's Abdi's way of asking." So while Shay's new digs might not be as jam-packed with memories as her old house, it won't lack for unconventional décor. "I guess I'll have a black cactus in my house," she says. And when she says it, somehow, you can already hear the healing.