From Trials to Trails: A Q&A with Alicia Shay

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After a long and difficult absence from competitive running, Alicia Shay is back, finding healing and victory on the trails.

Photo by Wes Walker/
A two-time NCAA Division I collegiate 10K champion (2003 and 2004) from Stanford University, Alicia Shay showed nothing but promise after she graduated in 2005. She went on to become the U.S. 20K champion in 2007, with a time of 1:06:56.

Mere months after the tragic death of her husband, Ryan Shay, during the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials in New York, she withdrew from the 10,000-meter trials and, then, disappeared from racing altogether. Ryan, an accomplished long-distance runner collapsed 5.5 miles into the marathon, suffering a massive and extremely unexpected heart attack. A domino-like series of obstacles overwhelmed Shay as she struggled to cope with grief, while enduring chronic fatigue and illnesses (later diagnosed as Celiac disease), an abdomen injury and, finally, a labral tear in her hip.

After five years, diet changes and sheer determination, Alicia Shay, 30, of Flagstaff, Arizona, is back, and not just as a road and track racer. This past June, she burst onto the trail-running scene with a definitive win at the GORE-TEX TransRockies RUN3, a stage race covering 58.4 miles through the Colorado Rockies. Along with a return to racing, she is a coach with the Run S.M.A.R.T project, which provides personalized programs for runners of all levels, including training plans, private coaching, nutritional advice and running retreats. Shay offers detailed nutritional analysis and advice to her client-athletes. Despite her busy schedule, we caught up with Shay to discuss her recent successes both on and off the trail.

Your  return to competitive running comes after a long and trying emotional and physical recovery. Does it feel to you like a comeback or, rather, a natural progression?

My desire has always been really strong but it has been difficult physically to get healthy again. All my stress and grieving had a major impact on my physical health and it has taken a while to heal.

People often describe running as a therapeutic or cathartic endeavor. In your experience, has that been true? How has trail running been therapeutic?

Running is definitely therapeutic for me. I love having uninterrupted quiet time to think or not think, process, pray, cry or rejoice. Sometimes I end up doing all of those things in one run!

My favorite way to spend my free time is exploring one of the many beautiful trails surrounding Flagstaff. The only time I touch pavement is when I choose to do a workout on the roads or track. Trail running keeps me curious and engaged in my surroundings. Rather than just looking at a beautiful landscape, I get to be a part of it and experience nature in an extremely satisfying way.

What about running has changed in the years since Ryan
s death?
My motivation to run has changed. Before, my main drive was to compete. Now, running is simply an expression of gratitude. I feel incredibly blessed. … Everything that God has done for me, the friends that have supported me, the doctors and therapist that have helped me get healthy again. … I am so thankful and I don’t know how else to express it other than to pour out my gratitude through doing what comes natural to me—running and competing.

What has motivated through illness and injury?

After Ryan passed away, my whole world fell apart. I wasn’t sure where to turn. From the beginning I felt very strongly that I should continue running.  However, I felt completely broken and destroyed. I didn’t know how to make it through the next minute let alone the next day, week, month or year. It was during this time that all I could do was ask God for help and strength. Eventually I found myself not just surviving each day, but also actually having hope and peace about the future.

I was also surrounded by friends and family to encourage and support me. The final thing that kept me motivated was that I just really love running and believed that it would be worth all the effort and frustration to be able to compete again. I feel like something is missing from my life when I can’t escape into the trails and run until I am satisfied. So every time I hit what seemed to be a dead end, something inside of me just kept fighting back and urging me to keep trying and keep pushing.

Walk us through a typical day for you, nutritionally.

I eat a wide variety of vegetables and fruit, wild game, eggs, a variety of grains and starches and healthy fats. I have celiac disease so I avoid all grains and packaged products that contain gluten. This has led me to making a lot of my own baked goods and breads using a variety of different grains (teff, quinoa, millet, sorghum, oat, buckwheat, etc.) rather than just relying on wheat for carbohydrates.

A typical day:

Breakfast: gluten-free oatmeal with chia seeds or almond butter, brown-rice protein powder, berries and coffee with almond milk

Post-run snack: a smoothie or bar and apple or gluten-free muffin with almond butter

Lunch: omelet with vegetables and gluten-free toast or potatoes/sweet potatoes OR a wrap with vegetables, meat and hummus or guacamole

Afternoon snack: homemade gluten-free scone or muffin with some sort of nut butter and a piece of fruit

Dinner: a salad with a variety of cooked and/or raw vegetables, red meat (buffalo, elk or venison), some sort of carbohydrate (sweet potato fries, quinoa, rice, winter squash, lentils or beans, etc.) and some sort of healthy fats (avocado, hummus, coconut oil, olive oil, etc.) and some chocolate for dessert.

Evening snack: pancakes or gluten-free cereal or popcorn or homemade cobbler.

Photo by Wes Walker/

You said in a recent Q&A during a Run S.M.A.R.T. retreat,
We know so much from science but we forget to listen to our bodies. How do you find and maintain this balance?

I am a research junkie. I love reading the latest studies, articles and books. The downside of all this information is that is can lead to detachment from the pure simplicity of running. A fine balance exists between applying what we know from science to training by staying in touch with your own body.

I do not believe that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to training will be successful. It is important for coaches and athletes to listen to their bodies, as well as their mental states, and to adjust training accordingly.

Do you seek some sort of balance between roads and trails?

If left to my own devices, I would run every single step on forest-service roads and trails. I just love trail running and my body seems to respond much better to soft surfaces than pavement or the track. However, since I do love racing on the roads, I have to at least do harder workouts on the road to get my legs used to the extra pounding of pavement.

Competing in the Transrockies RUN3 was a spontaneous decision for you. What inspired it?

This past summer I really wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to continue running. I had tried to get in shape for track season, but every time I worked out on the track I could barely run for a few weeks afterward. I finally decided to stop training and get some testing done on my biomechanics per Dr. Ball’s recommendation. The testing was incredibly helpful and revealed that the orthotics I was wearing were creating a slight rotation of my femur and in turn creating tension in my hip. So I tossed out my orthotics and added in strength exercises for a few weeks. During that time I could only jog really easy to allow for my hip to heal. I decided that since I couldn’t run fast or work out, I might as well head to higher altitudes and get some sort of cardiovascular benefit while I eased up on training.

The first week of August everything seemed to come together. My stride felt normal and the pain in my hip dissipated. It was incredible! It was like someone flipped a switch in my body . I was running with my coach, Mike Smith, one day about a week before TransRockies, and I jokingly suggested that I should have signed up for the race because the only training I had done for a couple months was easy trail running at high altitudes.

He took my joke and ran with it. Before I knew it I was entered in the race! I was nervous because I still wasn’t sure if my hip was 100-percent healthy, I hadn’t raced in over four yeas, I had never done a trail race or a race at altitude or a stage race or run over 21 miles or done a workout in months. There were a lot of unknowns, but thankfully I felt great throughout the race.

Any non-trail races?

I have a handful of road races that I would like to do including a few half marathons, some shorter road races and a marathon. At this point, after so many years away from racing, I simply need to get into as many races as possible and work on competing again.

Youve said running the New York City Marathon would be your dream. Is that because New York is a kind of symbolic competition for you? Do you feel it would bring some kind of closure to your healing process?

The NYC Marathon is several things to me: Racing there would certainly put me face to face with so many different and difficult emotions, but I am ready to face them? For several years, the thought of New York—the race, the streets, the smells and sounds—it all made me tremble inside. I just couldn’t tolerate more than a few seconds of those memories before I was spiraling downward. However, something has changed in the past few months and what used to crush me is now something that gives me resolve and excitement.

I do not think that racing in NYC will give me closure because I am not sure that I will ever completely heal from the loss of Ryan, but I do think that it will be my own personal victory at the end of a tumultuous several years. In a way, it is my testament of what God can do with a totally broken heart.  Similar to the reason I run, racing in NYC would be an expression of gratitude for making it through the darkest period of my life … a celebration of the life that Ryan lived and a celebration of the life that I still have ahead of me.

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