Over the past three years, Alicia Shay has prayed her will to run would subside. She wanted her passion for the sport to simply disappear. A professional runner with unshakable faith, she asked God to lead her in another direction -- one that wouldn't cause so much heartbreak in the aftermath of her husband Ryan's death.
Her prayer was never answered. Instead, Shay slips on her running shoes every day and traces the maze of trails through the pine forests near her Flagstaff, Ariz., home. In sports terms, it might be called a comeback. For Shay, a former NCAA 10,000-meter record holder and U.S. 20K champion, it's honoring a gift and an instinct to move forward despite having every reason to stop.
"Three years ago, I lost everything," she said. "My husband, my best friend, my health. I was at ground zero."
It was November 2007, and her husband of four months was a strong contender going into the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in New York. A little more than five miles into the race, he collapsed and died of what was later determined to be complications from an enlarged heart. In an instant that day in Central Park, Alicia Shay went from a newlywed professional runner with Olympic dreams of her own to a 25-year-old widow facing unfathomable grief.
"I know a lot of people say that things get better with time, but that's not true," Shay said. "This isn't a gash that heals. This is your leg being cut off. It's gone forever, but you learn how to deal with it in a more balanced way."
At first, Shay sought comfort in the familiar: running. If anything was a constant in the life she shared with her husband, it was that. They first met at a gathering in a midtown Irish pub after the 2005 ING New York City Marathon, but their relationship bloomed while both lived in California to train with Team Running USA. After getting married and settling in Flagstaff, the duo simultaneously focused on their Olympic trials goals.
Shay said that although she and Ryan lived the professional running life together, it was the values, developed and shared through the sport, that made their relationship work. So she pressed on with plans to compete at the 2008 Olympic track and field trials, associating victory with validation that she had "made it" through the trauma of losing Ryan. The more stress she shouldered, the harder she trained and the less she slept, until her body was on the verge of a breakdown. One day, while chasing her dog down the driveway, something finally snapped. Technically, it was a muscle in her abdomen, but at that point, it could have been anything. For Shay, it wound up being a blessing.
"There were so many strong symptoms leading up to that day; my body was just waiting to break somewhere," Shay said. "My sleep cycle was messed up; even the coordination in my legs was off. My fight-or-flight response was out of whack, and my body would startle for no reason. Finally, I could barely get out of bed."
It was June 2008, and she withdrew from the trials, moved to a new house and began an ongoing process of emotional and physical healing. Diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, as well as celiac disease, Shay researched the former, discovering that complete recovery could take as long as two years.
"Somewhere inside, I have always known that I wanted to continue running, but this opened me up to understanding that my life couldn't be just that," Shay said. "I don't want it to be the same. It can't be. I realized that, even in the midst of tragedy and trial, God was working good in me."
Removing gluten from Shay's diet allowed absorption of nutrients such as fat, calcium, iron and folate, which in turn helped her regain strength. Shay decided to share her knowledge. Using her Stanford University degree in human biology and nutrition, she began offering nutrition counseling. Eventually, she also offered coaching for runners of all abilities through the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project, an online, private-coaching service. At church, she became involved in a rehabilitation program for troubled teenage boys, hoping to find some comfort in helping others through their own challenging times.
"I am thankful for the various ways in which I learned to take my eyes off myself," Shay said.
Retraining her body to run has proved difficult, however. Injuries, including torn cartilage in her hip, have riddled Shay's form. Inflammation brought on by emotional distress has further slowed her body's ability to recover and heal. The combination has made Shay's return to the rigors of consistent training physically challenging. Over the past two years, when one problem subsided, another would kick in, even as she fought through ongoing fatigue. Until recently, Shay's attempts at building mileage have added up to a series of false starts, she said.
"The trauma of it all had me running through a mountain of complicated injuries," Shay said. "One day, about a year ago, I made it about 10 minutes into a run, walked home and said I was done. I felt like I shouldn't even bother trying to run anymore."
Not long after, fate stepped in with a helping hand. While driving a local runner to Phoenix for an appointment, Shay met John Ball, a chiropractor who specializes in treating athletic injuries with active release and Graston Technique (therapy that manipulates and applies pressure to damaged muscles to improve mobility and range of motion). Ball evaluated Shay, asking her to run some strides outside the office. What he saw wasn't pretty.
"He said I looked dysfunctional, like a wannabe, not an elite athlete," she recalled. "I was still coming out of my illness, and he said it would take awhile but that he'd help me get healthy."
After a year of near-weekly appointments, Shay credited Ball with her currently pain-free running: "He gave me my first glimmer of hope and my first relief," she said.
Now under the coaching guidance of Michael Smith, a 2008 Olympic marathon trials qualifier and a fellow Run S.M.A.R.T Project coach, Shay is easing her way back into a training routine. Neither Smith nor Shay will put a timeline on a comeback.
"The calendar or competitive seasons can't be what determine decisions," said Smith, who was also a friend of Ryan's. "She is finally healthy, which is the first part. Where we go from here is an exploration."
The last time Shay raced was 2007, when she won the U.S. 20K Championship in New Haven, Conn. Smith, who also raced that day, with Ryan, remembers it well. As soon as Ryan crossed the finish line, still in his racing flats and singlet, he turned to his wife, screaming in excitement as she closed in on the victory.
"Ryan wanted Alicia to succeed as much as he wanted it for himself," Smith said.
Ultimately, Shay hopes to return to the roads to compete in the marathon distance. No longer praying for running to be taken out of the equation, she's moving on with a perspective few other athletes will ever acquire.
"All my chips are on the table. I've already been through the worst, so if [running] doesn't work out, I'm going to be OK," she said. "I've always had a desire to run, and it's what hasn't allowed me to give up, even when I thought couldn't do it. Ryan would be so proud of that."