In ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, in what Charles Dickens terms “Book the First: Recalled to Life” he begins with one of the more famous run-on sentences of all time–a boon to the 19th-century comma industry in Britain, no doubt:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
It’s a passage I quote in full because it could just as easily apply to today. My theme here is far narrower: it’s a lot more common than many of us would like to admit for tragedy to stand beside triumph. In this case, literally so.
For those unaware of what happened at last Saturday’s U.S. Men’s Olympic Trials Marathon in New York City, here’s the short version: One man, Ryan Hall won the race. His friend and training partner, Ryan Shay, keeled over and died less than six miles into it–just over half an hour after this picture was taken around 7:30AM:
All of which brings to mind this much shorter sentence, written eighteen centuries earlier and spoken a bit before that:
Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left.
Its larger context can be found here. In the Saturday afternoon story printed in its Sunday edition, New York Times reporter Lynn Zinser writes:
Ryan Shay, a 28-year-old veteran marathoner, collapsed during the race in Central Park and was pronounced dead at Lenox Hill Hospital. It put a terrible twist on the victory by Ryan Hall, who exulted in the emotion of winning the race and capturing an Olympic berth. But he had no idea that the ambulance that had passed him on the course was carrying Shay, his good friend and occasional training partner, a man whose wedding he had helped celebrate in July…
The Olympic trials were supposed to be its triumphant prelude, and Hall’s victory in 2 hours 9 minutes 2 seconds was a spectacular performance that announced him as a leading contender for a medal in the Beijing Olympics next summer…
What the piece doesn’t capture are some far more solemn and, one might infer, humble and reverent moments just after Hall crossed the line. They were captured by my good friend Ray Britt: Hall looking above and then pointing to the heavens (a gesture reminiscent of Lance Armstrong honoring his friend and teammate Fabio Casartelli in a stage win at Limoges, two days after Casartelli’s death–a gesture Armstrong would repeat in subsequent stages and later years). Then there is Hall kneeling with head bowed right after his win, overcome by emotion, I’m told.
(all of the above five photos are copyright Ray Britt, www.runtri.com)
One might suspect that Hall is giving thanks. We can’t know. His friend, Ryan Shay had been dead for an hour at that point. I assumed by his gestures that he knew. He didn’t.
The news of Shay’s death reached Hall about an hour after he won, after he celebrated with fans near the finish line, pumping his fists and waving his arms at the crowd. His wife, Sara, had greeted him with an American flag.
The report focuses exclusively on what one might term Hall’s ‘horizontal’ actions and gestures–pumping his fists, waving to the crowd, carrying the flag, celebrating with friends. It completely ignores his ‘vertical’ ones–acknowledging (one might reasonably assume) the existence of the deity, giving thanks, showing humility.
I don’t know Ryan Hall’s religious beliefs and don’t mean, by over-interpreting a few photos to foist any on him that aren’t there. Yet the gestures remain, as does a quote I had to dig very hard to find. Here’s Hall shortly after the race:
“I’m just thrilled with the day the Lord gave me and thrilled to be part of this Olympic team.”
Remarkable. A true “muscular Christian” in the tradition of Eric Liddell (portrayed brilliantly in the non-fiction film, Chariots of Fire). (Here’s Hall’s pre-race blog/diary in which mentions of that comparison in comments are plentiful.) It’s all studiously avoided in the mainstream reports I’ve seen.
Writing in Sports Illustrated, David Epstein gives Shay’s death an obligatory one-sentence paragraph… then moves quickly on to happier things lest anyone pause to think too hard about their ultimate destiny, as if our American commitment to plurality and secular government somehow created a wall between faith and all other aspects of life.
This treatment is hardly unprecedented. The faith of many athletes and coaches gets ignored even when they go to great efforts to make it plain and public. For example, Tony Dungy went to great lengths to credit Christ as the source of his strength after the Super Bowl last February, yet the full context of Tony Dungy’s comments were almost completely filtered out in media reports.
I’m not sure whose fault all this is exactly, but we’ve come to a point in our collective social consciousness where talking about and acknowledging God–much less Jesus Christ–is now as uncomfortable to many in the public sphere as was talking about and acknowledging sex… once… long ago. Some of the best opportunities to do so center around death. Yet even there, the collective resistance seems far greater than it was even twenty years ago, as if Victorian modesty needed to be applied to all things religious but not the things modesty was invented for.
Other meaning-searching secular stories about Shay’s death include:
- Detroit Free Press (Shay was from MI): “Shay’s Death Bewilders Loved Ones”
- NPR “Death Darkens New York’s Marathon Weekend”
- NYTimes: “Still No Answer on What Caused Runner’s Death” Here’s a hint.
UPDATE I: Here’s a must-see inspirational video of Ryan Hall taken
last spring earlier in the fall, discussing his training and doing it (an absolutely killer 15-mile workout at 5-minute-per-mile pace at altitude in the spectacular terrain of Mammoth Lakes, CA, framed by the snowy Sierras that he makes look completely effortless). Hall talks about how God worked in his life through his journey to the Olympic trials, helping him to see the idolatry of his running (running as god) and instead to place God first, inviting Him into his running. Here’s Hall towards the end of the video:
“This is my vision for November third–that everything would fade away: all the accolades and awards, and everything that is at stake, and in my mind’s eye be just me out there running with my God praising Him in my sanctuary. If I can praise God with all my body mind and soul on November third, then I will walk away from the finish line satisfied, no matter what the outcome, and that will be a satisfaction that no one can take away from me.”
Wow. I hope this story gets more coverage. It’s one I can closely relate to. Too bad I’m not as fast.
More Ryan Hall video interviews here with more of a track-geek focus (no mention of Shay). Here’s the text of Hall’s post-race interview with Runners’ World in which he talks a bit about Shay.
UPDATE II: Here’s a heart-rending short post by Ryan Shay’s dad a few hours after his son’s death.