Drugs Killed Ryan Shay

This morning as I was groggily driving to get my car serviced, only a few sips into my morning coffee, I glanced over to make eye contact with a handsome, square-jawed young man who was merging into my lane. The Beatles song, Blackbird, was playing and I looked into this man’s eyes the way you do sometimes with strangers, and thought, “It’s Ryan Shay. He’s not dead. He’s alive and driving on I-40.” But, of course, he is dead. I was there, in New York, at the Olympic Trials – coaching from my Central Park northern post in Harlem; I participated in the terrifying game of telephone as fans up and down the race course passed the message that someone went down at mile 5, that an ambulance has whisked away one of our own. None of us in our intimate, extended running family wanted to believe it. This can’t have happened, not to someone as strong and brave and all-American as Ryan Shay. Ryan was our everyman, our steadfast soldier , the midwesterner with the big heart (oh, God, I realize how sad that is) whose workload and ability to take pain was as fabled as a Paul Bunyan tall tale.

I met Ryan Shay only once. I was in Morocco on my last world cross-country team and he was on his first. This college freshman may have been baby-faced, but he was no boy. He ran like a man. Feminists like me shouldn’t say things like, “He ran like a man,” (or “throws like a girl”- ugh!), but there was something about the way Shay carried himself that was different from the other boys.

I didn’t learn of his 140-mile training weeks at altitude until after his death. I didn’t know he believed this marathon trials was his last chance to make an Olympic team. So, when I read all about this everyman hero who burst his heart in effort, I – like so many runners throughout the world – became obsessed with “Why?!” Like Shay’s father, who demanded an autopsy to dispel any rumors of performance-enhancing drug use, I felt an urgency to uncover the truth. I spent countless hours Googling and reading stories on LetsRun. I tried to read between the lines when they spoke of “enlarged heart” and “adrenal fatigue;” was this code for EPO and HGH? I didn’t sleep well all week; I was foggy in my work as a mom and coach. I was so sad and I didn’t know why.

But then, this morning, I saw that guy on the highway – Ryan – and it hit me. Performance-enhancing drugs killed Ryan Shay … not because he used them … God, NO!, he wasn’t dirty. He would never, could never, have cheated – not this hard-working, salt-of-the-earth, Bunyan-esque HERO. Oh, yes, Ryan Shay was clean clean clean clean clean … but he was competing on a dirty playing field. Don’t you see?!?!?? Drugs killed Ryan Shay because he broke his heart trying to catch up. He set out to prove that sheer, honest, brutal hard work was enough. He ran himself into the ground, into adrenal failure and eventual heart failure because he believed – Jesus, we ALL believed – that a clean athlete still has a chance in this f__cked up, drug-sucking, running world. But he didn’t have a chance. Drug cheats toe the starting line of every final in Olympic and World Championship events. We all know this but we turn a blind eye because, why?!, no harm done.

But HARM WAS DONE, PEOPLE!! Ryan Shay is dead. I have been crying all morning over this.
Alicia Craig Shay will cry every morning for the rest of her life over this.

Drugs killed Ryan Shay … and every single distance runner throughout the world who has ever injected himself or herself with EPO, who has ever taken one single gram of HGH or testosterone or whatever the latest untestable magic potion is; all you cheats who think, “I’m only hurting myself,” well, think again. YOU killed Ryan Shay.

At least Ryan Shay is free to fly and RUN in heaven on a clean playing field.

by, The Beatles

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Black bird singing in the dead of night
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
all your life
you were only waiting for this moment to be free

Blackbird fly, Blackbird fly
Into the light of the dark black night.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise,oh
You were only waiting for this moment to arise, oh
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

ryan shay

43 thoughts on “Drugs Killed Ryan Shay

  1. Carsten S

    Dear Joan,

    I understand your grieve, and I sympathize with feelings towards doping. However, I think that your argument here does not hold. For most runners, whatever they do will never be enough to reach some of their goals, simply because there are others who are more talented. If they try anyways, can it be said that the others’ talent is killing them?

    Best regards,


  2. Pingback: Ryan Shay was killed by drugs @ Run to Win

  3. Joan Post author

    Thank you for your comment, but I am wondering if you read my whole post(?). I’m not talking about more talented people beating Ryan Shay (and other CLEAN athletes); I’m talking about drug cheats who have drastically changed the entire milieu of professional running. Obviously, I was exaggerating to prove a point. The cheaters didn’t literally kill Ryan Shay. But we all need to wake up to this devastation and danger of PED’s – both physically and psychologically. Clean up this sport we all love!! Leave the drugs to home-run hitters.

  4. Carsten S


    I think I did understand your post, but apparently I did not express my point clearly enough. Does it make a difference in this context why someone else’s performance is out of reach? If drugs kill those who don’t take them, then so does talent kill those who don’t have it. Of course I do not want to equate the two morally.

    But I find it very interesting to hear your view from inside of elite running. (I am a male runner with PBs which are, except for the marathon, considerably slower than yours.) How pervasive do you think is drug use there? And the tough question: We all see the new boom in US elite running with awe. How clean is it? I am German, and I have to say that I would not trust any US sprinter. Should I extend this suspicion to runners? I would like to believe that their success is due to a returning believe in hard training. How naive is this?



  5. Joan Post author

    Thank you for your close reading. I just assumed Shay was Catholic because he went to Notre Dame (and b/c he comes from a big family with lots of kids :)). I’ll try to find out but will delete it from my post in the meantime.

  6. thronedoggie

    Be careful, Joan :)

    When we were getting ready to buy our sailboat, Ethel became obsessed. She was online shopping of sailboats; reading reviews of sailboats, comparing features, safety ratings, all of that sort of thing.

    Nothing wrong with any of that – but it seemed to be a bit pervasive. I’d say something about my training plans, and she’d talk about how that might impact our sailing plans. I’d mention our budget, and she’d discuss how that would affect which boat we were going to buy and whether we’d have it in dry-storage or a wet slip. I’d try to derail this obsession by saying “Let’s watch a movie” and she’d put in _Master and Commander_ :)

    If you’re starting to see everything in terms of how it relates to PEDs in distance running, you might want to be careful :)

    jim p.

  7. BK

    Silly post. Nothing but a defective heart killed Shay, lets not get all melodramatic over this. He didnt “burst his heart” chasing the druggies. Sad to say, he probably would have died if there was no such thing as EPO, or HGH. Notice how not a whle lot of runners are dropping dead chasing drug cheats?

    Druggies must be caught and banned for life. But until then real runners like Shay will continue to train and race to the best of their abilities. I believe that distance running, unlike cycling, has clean athletes at the very top.

  8. Joan Post author

    Yeah, you’re right, BK. And there IS a Santa Claus, too! Could you please give me the name of your opthamologist? Obviously, I need a new prescription for ROSE-COLORED glasses. rose glasses

  9. Carsten S

    Joan, if your are not willing to discuss your views, but instead react as in #9, you maybe should keep them to yourself in the first place. Or at least disable comments here, so that one knows that one need not bother to answer.

  10. Hieronymus

    I, for one, LIKED your post–and like your unabashed (and eloquent) responses to things.

    Oh, and I believe my hero PAULA to be clean!

  11. mc

    fortunately we won’t have to just “believe” that shay was clean. and we won’t have to just “doubt” that he was dirty.

    we were promised results to prove the matter.

    weren’t those tests finished weeks ago?

    what were the results?

  12. charles lyons

    does anyone know what the autopsy turned up? i know the first was inconclusive– but what about subsequent ones? i haven’t read anything on this since the tragic day…

  13. Scooter

    I started reading your post and was angry at the implication. Then, as I got further into it, it became clear that your view was quite different from what I first believed. I do find myself agreeing with Carsten, who says, “Who cares what the cause of not winning is?” Still, I think there is some kernel of truth in what you said, though the revelation that Shay had a heart issue may cast his death in a different light. My instinct is that though it sounds trite, “He went out doing something he loved.” That should be enough. It’s a sad thing, but none of us can change it.

  14. Amby Burfoot

    Joan: Amazing. I just minutes ago finished proofreading a very long Runner’s World story on Ryan that I wrote for the February issue (out around Jan. 1; shameless promotion). Then found his 10 passed drug tests on the USADA site. Then came to your blog after noticing that you are entered in Club Champs this weekend in Ohio. You be there? Would be nice to say hello and catch up a little. We went to our deadline asking for the Ryan Shay autopsy and toxicology tests, but they aren’t finished yet. Possibly within a week. The early heart tests were inconclusive and it’s not certain that more advanced tests and tissue samples will yield more information. The tox screen wouldn’t be sensitive to EPO I don’t imagine, but I’m certainly with you in believing that Ryan was not on drugs. I hope we’re right. Hope to see you in Ohio. Amby Burfoot

  15. crowther

    Joan, I have to agree with Carsten (and BK).

    Ryan Shay’s death was a tragedy. The prevalence of drugs in athletics is a tragedy. The two are unrelated.

  16. charles lyons

    any new news on the autopsy? it certainly has been a while?
    –charlie lyons

  17. Matt

    I have to agree with Carsten, too. In a way, you’re slamming Ryan for implying he wouldn’t have trained/worked/run as hard if the only ones ahead of him were the more talented and not the cheats.

  18. Joan Post author

    Gosh, Mike, I would NEVER want to slam Ryan Shay. Quite the contrary. I merely wanted people to consider the milieu of drugs in professional athletics (specifically in distance running) and how it can warp a person’s thinking. How many pro baseball players were just busted, for instance? (86, to be exact). If you turn over enough rocks you will surely find the maggots.

  19. Diane

    While I agree with your view – that it is impossible now to compete at the top level because the drug cheats have raised the bar too high – I worry about your underlying implication: although you believe Ryan Shay was clean, what are you saying about our new US Olympic men’s marathon team?

  20. Joan Post author

    I am not saying anything about the U.S. men’s marathon team.
    Are you?

  21. Doug

    Joan I understand both the spirit of your post and the underlying emotional context. If you had asked Ryan about the issue while he was alive, I wonder if he would have gone that route. From a distance, he seemed like a driven, committed athlete his entire career – even at the early stages when he wouldn’t have been chasing drug cheats but better runners. He was always going to push too hard, wasn’t he. An inspirations athlete. Thanks for your views.

  22. joan

    I love your line, “He was always going to push too hard, wasn’t he.”

    thank you for that.
    It, sadly, makes me think of those high school English class definitions of “tragic flaw.”

  23. Shawn A

    All runners need to get an echo from a cardiologist and look at the chamber size of the right side of your heart (ventricle) it should be under 26 cm ,ask the doctor what the size is, and also get the test and look for yourself the doctors often overlook or dismiss enlargment in fit athletes , get you actual echo report and look at the size numbers for your self.
    european countries are requireing echos for all young athletes now. (echocardiagram) its not expensive and is the best test. The right side of your heart pumps to the lungs and that is the side that gets too big when running its called runners heart, it expands then the pressure inside the chamber becomes too high and it cant pump corectly anymore. Less often the left side of the heart becomes enlarged and has the same effect.(left ventricle)

    Its most likely that if your heart is enlarged the cardiologist will not tell you, because of your healthy fit appearance. you must look for yourself, request your medical records after the visit and you will get the actual test results, the numbers of normal sizes are listed next to your heart chamber sizes, and your aorta size should be looked at also. I found out too late and have lost most of my cardio abillity, I wish someone would have told me earlier. Shawn

  24. William Farnquist

    There is a tragic beauty in dying while doing something you love.

    Hey everybody, let’s just keep on running.

  25. Robert

    Joan, another unstated assumption in your post is that his hard work is what killed him. That isn’t true. It was his heart problem. He would have worked hard on it even if there were no dopers. Even if his best competition were a 2:08 or 2:09. (Which isn’t to say that the best clean runners are not faster than that.)

  26. Steve

    I think it is a shame to use Ryan’s hard work and death to take shots at dopers. Clearly the man was a great runner because he worked hard. Someone with that kind of determination does not concern himself with what other athletes are doing. They just go out and give it all they came, all the time.

  27. runnergirl

    Joan-comments to your comments to our comments:

    1) It’s spelled ophthalmologist.
    2) yes, you are insinuating in your cryptic writing that Ryan Shay literally burst his heart trying to make the olympic team, and trying too hard to keep up with his competitors who were cheating. So, in essence, you are implicating those who beat him (ie – the new men’s team)

    3) Yeah, don’t get so defensive. If you are going to put yourself out there, be prepared for other people with a thought and a brain to counter your arguments. That’s what a blog is all about.

  28. Joan

    This is going to be my last comment on the Ryan Shay post. I almost pulled this post off of my blog because people were reading all sorts of things in to my “cryptic” writing. My intention was not to point an accusing finger at any specific athlete but to look at what the atmosphere of drug-usage (actual or accused) has done to our sport. It has changed the way people train. It has changed the way people think. It has changed the way people feel about a sport that used to be pure. What could be more pure that lining up and shouting, “G0!” to see who is the fastest animal from point A to point B? All I’m saying is that PED’s are now a variable in the equation. If before the equation read: Force X Distance = Work … it now reads Force X Distance + PED’s = Work+

    The “plus” is scientifically significant.
    It is Pollyanna to ignore it.

  29. Chris

    It’s January 30, 2008. Has there been any other news released regarding Ryan Shay’s exact cause of death? Supposedly the final results were suppose to be released some time in December. I don’t understand why nothing more was ever said. Atleast I can’t find any reports since the 1st inconclusive autopsy.

  30. Joan Post author

    Yeah, I know … what’s the hold-up? I’ve been checking Letsrun.com and googling for “Ryan Shay toxicology report” periodically and nothing comes up.

  31. Chris

    Its weird because there is also a featured article about his death in Feb. 2008 issue of Runners Mag. And they don’t give any conclusive info in that article either. I’m just concerned because often when these things aren’t released it means there’s info they don’t want us to know…

  32. charles lyons

    Agreed it is weird. I would think the NYRR would be more activist in owning this story– but they don’t appear to be at all. In fact, I have a gut feeling that they have tried to keep themselves at a distance from the tragedy, as though it can somehow reflect badly on the organization. I could be wrong about this but I somehow feel that Fred Lebow would have leveraged the NYRRC and given regular updates about a tragedy of this nature. Under Mary Wittenberg, the organization feels closed and careful and calculating, as though everything is about public image and profit (very antithetical to the running community in NY I loved). It’s a different vibe. Am I the only one who feels this?
    –Charlie Lyons

  33. Shalouse

    Do you mean to suggest runners like Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein , and Brian Sell (top 3 at trials) are guilty of doping! I’d have to say that is a gross misstatement. As tragic as Ryan Shay’s death was 140 miles per week is about the standard of elite distance runners. Further more, no one ever dies of overtraining. Ryan Shay’s death is much more likely due to a heart related problem, that quite possibly has more to do with his family tree than fellow athletes using performance enhancing drugs.

  34. Bob

    Joan, if your opinion of drugs in athletics is so strong how are we to believe that you have not taken drugs and that no matter what you say we shall from now on perceive you to have taken drugs to have achieved your results or else we shall simply be wearing rose tinted glasses to believe anything other?

    Thank you for enlightening us to YOUR world of running

  35. Greg

    I think that maybe the reason you are so gung-ho about this matter is that you are using drugs as a scape-goat reason as to why other runners are able to perform better than you, or Shay. There is an incredible amount of natural talent in elite runners and If Shay died trying too hard to beat other elites that means that either you think he was not talented enough to compete at that level and thus overtrained or that any athlete with a time faster than him has doped.

  36. Joan Post author

    NO, Greg, I am not using drugs as an excuse for my slow”er” performances. I am 46 years old and have 3 amazing daughters to give my life meaning. If anything, I am writing about Ryan Shay as I would a SON; it broke/breaks my heart that his heart burst in pure, honest effort. My own running days are run and I really don’t care who was or is faster than me. I would, however, like to know .. in heaven, maybe, … where I actually ranked (when all the drug cheats are pulled out of the list) in the world. I just want to know the true score, the drug-free score. Why does this make you accuse me of sour grapes?

  37. simpleman

    run for the love of running and compete solely within yourself.

    there is only one race.

  38. Misty

    Loved this very insightful article, sometimes you have to see the gray area in order to understand black and white. I appreciate your words and am happy there is someone like you in the world, and working as a coach in this highly competitive sport.

  39. runfast

    Wow, Joan. You are most definitely wrong. While your article is well written, it seems to be a pretty immature response to a mature subject, of which you don’t fully understand. I appreciate your sympathy and concern for Ryan Shay and his family, but you just don’t get it. Comments like those of Carsten, Bk, and Shalouse are exactly right. I’m a competitive runner, and I understand what they’re talking about. I’m afraid you don’t.

  40. alex

    Hi I’m a highschool runner and Ryan was and still is a big inspiration to me. Reading ur thoughts on how his heart burst with running on a dirty playing field I totally agree. When you work so hard for something and train honestly then have it taken away from you by someone you know is cheating his way to the top would depress you. I think that people like that are responsible for his death, but I am also not talking about seine with more talent beating you. Because you know who those people are and it only makes you repect them more and makes you want to train harder to someday be as good as them.

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