CEDAR RAPIDS – Stephan Shay envisioned a different professional running career.
One that included his late brother, Ryan, an accomplished runner. Tragedy altered Shay’s plan of practicing and competing with his older brother. During the 2007 U.S. Olympic trial marathon in New York City, Ryan Shay collapsed and died, leaving a young Brigham Young University runner to pursue a professional running career with the memory of his late brother instead of running side-by-side with him.
Shay will be among the elite runners in the field in the 26th Annual Fifth Season 8K road race Monday in Cedar Rapids. The race begins at 7 a.m., kicking off a slate of races that includes a 5K run/walk and two fun runs for youth.
One of the reasons why Shay races, aside from his love of the sport, is to honor his brother, who served as a running mentor.
“I’m going about it a different way than I planned on, but (his memory) is always going to be there,” the 25-year-old Shay said. “We would have overlapped in terms of running together. I had imagined that we would be training together.”
Ryan Shay was an All-American in track and cross country at the University of Notre Dame, earning the honor five times including three times in the 10,000 meters before claiming an NCAA title in the 10,000 in 2001. Ryan Shay continued his success, becoming a five time United States Track and Field road-race champion in events ranging from 15K (2005), 20K (2004), half-marathon (2003-04) and marathon (2003).
His impressive running career was cut short a little more than five miles into that marathon less than four years ago. He died from a heart attack caused by an enlarged heart. The event shook Shay, leaving him uncertain if he wanted to run again.
“It definitely did,” said Shay, noting part of it was due to uncertainty about whether his brother’s condition was genetic. “I was a little concerned about that.
“I also heard how he told me I had so much talent. I think after I got past the initial shock and I was able to think about it I used it more as motivation.”
The first race after his brother’s death was hard, according to Shay. Adding to the pressure of running with the memory of his brother was the trophy had been named for Ryan Shay. He finished 12th, which was his first U.S. Championships race, and Shay said he was happy with the performance that went as well as could have hoped.
“I wanted to show I was a competitor like he was,” Shay said. “I wanted to do really well in that race.”
Even though he can’t directly rely on his brother’s wisdom, Shay remains indirectly influenced by him. He mixes with those who share his brother’s perspective on running.
“I always looked to him for advice in running and training,” Shay said. “Now, I try to surround myself with people I feel share some of the same qualities. I try to feed off that a bit.”
Shay wasn’t necessarily destined to be a runner, but the genes exist. All eight Shay children, spanning 15 years from oldest to youngest, have experienced success in running. They each discovered they could run at a competitive level in high school. Each sibling competed at least one year in college. No rivalry existed between them.
“I was more using each other as a benchmark,” Shay said. “It was more I saw you do good I could do it too.
“I’d like to think that I showed I had the ability. When you have so many good runners in one family, you want to test out your ability or limits.”
Shay qualified to compete in the half-marathon World Championships in China last year, finishing in the top 10 in the U.S. Championships for the 15K and 25K races. Shay, originally from East Jordan, Mich., also has his sights set on the 2012 Olympics in London, attempting to continue his late brother’s quest to make the U.S. team in the marathon. He will compete in the Olympic trials in January at Houston, where he set his personal record in the half-marathon. His familiarity with the roads there make him optimistic, but he is also realistic when it comes to earning one of the three spots on the U.S. team.
“That would be a pretty amazing feeling,” said Shay, who was an all-Mountain West Conference and all-region runner for the Cougars after transferring there from Michigan State as a junior. “I think realistically I would have to have the race of my life to make the team.”
His first appearance in the Fifth Season race will serve as a start to the competitive season for Shay, who has been staying with his brother, Nathan, in Chicago to prepare for the heat and humidity of the Midwest summers. He was looking for a competition where he could “get a good hard effort in” and gauge his training. He doesn’t have any specific goals for the race.
“It just depends,” said Shay, who estimated his fastest 8K time at 23:56. “If it’s super hot, that might change the whole dynamics of my approach. If the weather is decent and the course isn’t super hilly I’d like to run a P.R. (personal record). Just run a good time in the race.”