When Sarah Shay runs the Austin Marathon on Feb. 14, she'll be thinking of her brother.
Ryan Shay collapsed and died Nov. 3, 2007, at mile 5.5 of the U.S. Men's Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City. An elite athlete, he was just 28 years old and newly married, but he had an undiagnosed enlarged heart and an irregular heartbeat.
Now Sarah Shay wants to honor his memory and help injured military veterans. Since September, the 33-year-old single mom has been logging miles around Lady Bird Lake in preparation for the 26.2-mile race.
She's been running by herself, but she hasn't been alone. Ryan's spirit is carrying her.
"After my brother died, it was a dark time," says Shay, who served in the U.S. Army for a year. Besides coping with her brother's death, her marriage was ending.
She moved to Austin to clean the slate. It was time to get in shape, and running, she knew, could help relieve stress. She'd been a runner in high school in Michigan but hadn't run much since.
She trained for and ran the Austin Half Marathon in 2009 and loved it. But when she developed a rash on her face and was diagnosed a few months later with lupus, an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks its own cells, she quit running.
That's when her brother, a nine-time NCAA All-American and one of the most decorated athletes in Notre Dame University history, came to her in a dream.
"I was running and Ryan was there. I wasn't getting anywhere, and he grinned at me," Shay says. He told her to keep running, that she would eventually get where she was going.
The next day, she made the decision to enter her first full marathon. Then she expanded her dream. She thought of soldiers she'd seen at Walter Reed Medical Center.
She set a goal of raising $10,000 for the Wounded Warriors Project, a nonprofit agency headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla., that helps injured veterans readjust to life at home. It provides health care advocacy, counseling, mentoring and motivational activities like group bicycle rides.
As someone who was once married to a soldier, Shay says she understand the sacrifice military families make while their loved ones serve. So far she's raised more than $7,000 for Wounded Warriors.
She says she thinks of Ryan when she runs over Lady Bird Lake and looks down on the sparkling water, and when she hears "Forever Young" on her iPod. And she thinks of him laughing at her when she gets discouraged after a difficult run.
Her father, Joe Shay, says Ryan's spirit has helped him, too. He says watching his daughter train for her first marathon reminds him of a quote by Ryan that's now engraved on a bench in Central Park, where he fell. It says, "It is necessary to dig deep within oneself to discover that hidden grain of steel called will."
"Throughout this whole process, Sarah has demonstrated she has also discovered that hidden grain of steel called will," Joe Shay said by e-mail from his home in Michigan. "Her resolve to make these sacrifices is a tribute to my son, her brother and to the Wounded Warriors, whom both she and Ryan respected so much."
Sarah Shay doesn't consider herself an athlete, but thanks to Ryan, she's determined not to fail. She knows he wasn't the most naturally gifted athlete but reached his goals because he trained harder and longer than most.
The marathon will be uncharted territory for Shay. Her longest run to date has been 22 miles, and she's not as speedy as her brother. Her goal is to finish the marathon in less than five hours.
She's not in a running group, but San Antonio running coach Gary Brimmer has guided her training via an Internet schedule and phone advice.
"I know that her brother Ryan is looking down on her with a huge smile on his face and is proud of her efforts," Brimmer says.
An Austin company, Sente Mortgage, has created a running team of about 15 people to support Shay's effort and run the marathon in Ryan's name. Employee Andrew Smith knew another of Shay's brothers and wanted to pitch in.
Brian Hurd, Sente's business development manager, joined the team after hearing Sarah and Ryan Shay's story and learning about Wounded Warriors. "These are people who are giving us so much of their lives every day," Hurd says of military veterans. "It's more or less our duty to help these people out."
The Notre Dame Club of Austin has donated uniforms for the group.
The training hasn't been easy for Shay, who works full time at a real estate management company and is raising her 4-year-old son, Max. Friends and family have taken turns watching Max while she runs. She manages her lupus by taking prescription vitamins, avoiding certain foods and limiting sun exposure by training during the winter months.
Most of her motivation, though, comes from her brother. She thinks about him every day.
She realizes loved ones can leave in the blink of an eye. Soldiers, too, can be gone in an instant.
She doesn't want people to forget either.
"I'm not rich, and I'm not a Hollywood star," she says. "This is a way to show that the average American can do something. If you're just dedicated enough, you can reach out to others who need it."
For more information or to donate to Wounded Warriors in Ryan Shay's name, go to www.runningforryan.com . For more information about the Wounded Warrior Project, go to www.woundedwarriorproject.org . For more information about Sunday's marathon, go to www.youraustinmarathon.com .