George and Shay in Kenya in 2000.
Running brings people together. You hear that from time to time, at big races or after six-figure charity fund-raisers. But running can bring people together in small ways, too. It just may take a little more effort.
In 1988, George Hirsch was the worldwide publisher of Runner's World and an Olympic commentator. He had run 15 marathons, including a 2:38 PR he set at age 44 in Boston, running most of the way with Joan Benoit. He had helped Fred Lebow start the New York City Marathon in 1976 and launched The Runner magazine two years later. A decade before, he'd been the founding publisher of New York and New Times magazines. George would tell you that he's been successful in business because he is smart and persuasive, and that he achieved so much in running by being enthusiastic, even dogged. He would also tell you that the best thing that ever happened in his life required him to be all of those things at once -- as well as something he normally isn't: patient.
A few months before the '88 Games in Seoul, George attended the Olympic Trials being held at the New Jersey Waterfront Marathon to take notes and spend time with Ed Eyestone, Pete Pfitzinger, and the other runners who might make the team. He was in the Runner's World expo booth when Shay Scrivner, a pretty first-time marathoner from Boise, Idaho, walked by. They looked at each other and both felt something that Shay later said "was so palpable I felt uncomfortable." She kept going. George, of course, followed her.
She said, "Are you George Hirsch?" It turned out a mutual friend had asked George to send a training plan to Shay. George had never met its recipient. He asked her what her goal was.
George and Shay at the New Jersey Waterfront Marathon in 1988.
"Just to finish," she said. "But I'd like to run New York and qualify for Boston." George asked what she needed.
"I'm 40," she said, "so a 3:40." George, who was 53, made a mental note and asked if she'd like to have dinner that night.
"No," she said.
As she started to walk away again, George stretched out the conversation and, seeing that it was raining, generously offered to walk her to her car. Then he graciously asked if she could drive him back to the expo. It got him a few more minutes.
The next morning, George stood near the starting line to watch the Olympic hopefuls take off, 15 minutes ahead of the rest of the field. But mostly he was there to look for Shay. He was dressed in running gear but had no plans to run the race himself. Although he was fit, he hadn't run a marathon in five years. He watched a few thousand runners go by, looking everywhere for Shay. He never saw her, so when the last runner passed by he started jogging. After a few miles, he spotted a friend among the spectators and asked him to take his jacket and sweatpants back to the hotel. At about the five-mile mark, he finally found her. She was wearing headphones, which added to her sense of alarm when George sidled up next to her and said hello.
"What are you doing here?" she asked.
"Well, to be honest," he replied, "I'm looking for you."
It was a damp, gusty day. They ran together along the Hudson River making small talk. "How are you going to get back?" she asked at one point.
Figuring he would step off the course eventually, George said, "I can always hitchhike."
The miles sped by, and soon they were spilling their life stories. He was divorced. They both had two sons. Then at the 20-mile mark, Shay said, "I'm really tired."
"Well, that's the point," George said. "It is a marathon."
Conversation was sparse the rest of the way. Near the finish, George finally stepped off the course, and Shay crossed the line in 3:37. George congratulated her on her BQ and got a ride back to the hotel. By the time he arrived, the Olympic contingent was gone. He hadn't done a single interview.
Back in Boise that summer, Shay and her sons turned on the Olympic broadcast from South Korea. She ran out to get a pizza, and when she returned the marathon had begun. One of her boys said, "Hey, Mom, isn't this the guy you met at your marathon?" Eight time zones away, George was still striding up next to her during a race.
When Shay, too, got divorced, they got in touch again and soon began a long-distance relationship. After a year she moved to New York and they got married in Central Park. Guests arrived at a pre-ceremony brunch in running clothes, and everyone did a few miles together and got T-shirts that read I RAN WITH SHAY & GEORGE ON THEIR WEDDING DAY.
George and Shay at their wedding in 1989.
Over the next 25 years, George and Shay spent countless more miles together. They traveled often as Runner's World expanded into new markets, and they'd get to know Rome or Stockholm or Cape Town while running. "It's just the best way to see a place," George says. Shay sat in on all the meetings, and when she and George were back home, they hosted an epic party at their townhouse on New York City Marathon weekend. Shay finally ran Boston in 1993, plus seven other marathons, with a PR of 3:24. George did another 25 marathons, running his last in 2009 at age 75. In 2005, he became chairman of New York Road Runners, which organizes the marathon he had helped launch 29 years earlier. "My work connected the whole running community," George says, "and Shay was a part of it."
Several hundred people in that community gathered in New York for Shay's memorial in March. She had died February 3, at age 66, after living with cancer for 11 years. In the last year, she and George had spent more than 100 nights in the hospital, so neither of them had run much. On the morning of her memorial, which George planned and presided over, he went out for 20 minutes in Central Park. "I just thought it would be a good thing to do," he said. "It would make me feel better. Running can do that."
On her CaringBridge blog, Shay had said goodbye to her friends and family, writing, "I couldn't have gotten this far and with this much support without the one person who has been by my side for 25 years. That is my beloved George. There is simply no one like him in my world. But I know that this bond isn't gone -- it rests in both our hearts forever."
Running brings people together in ways both big and small. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
David Willey is the editor-in-chief of Runner's World. Follow him on Twitter @dwilleyRW.