Warm welcome at 'Shay Hostel'

Alicia Shay stands at the Grand Canyon after a training run. She opened her Flagstaff, Ariz., home to fellow elite runners who want to train at elevation and, in doing so, created a community of support when she needed one most. Courtesy of Alicia Shay

When the Shays were making their bids for the 2008 Beijing Olympics -- Alicia in the 10,000-meter run and Ryan in the marathon -- they would welcome fellow athletes (friends and friends of friends) to stay with them and train at elevation in Flagstaff, Ariz.

It wasn't about making money (they didn't think to ask for any) or turning their home into a training camp. The young couple just saw an opportunity to contribute to a worthy cause. "When Ryan and I let people in, we wanted to help them in their pursuit to making the 2008 Olympic team," Alicia said.

Beyond the 2008 trials, they hadn't discussed plans to keep inviting people to stay. They never got the chance.

On Nov. 3, 2007, at the Olympic marathon trials in New York City's Central Park, Ryan collapsed 5 ½ miles into the 26.2-mile race while Alicia, his wife of four months, waited for him along the course. Forty minutes later, he was pronounced dead at Lenox Hill Hospital. Ryan, 28, had experienced a cardiac arrhythmia caused by an enlarged heart.

Alicia returned to the couple's home in Flagstaff. She continued to log 100-mile weeks leading up to the 2008 U.S. track trials in June, seven months after Ryan's death. "I went full-on, but that was compounded with grieving. I wouldn't sleep, I'd be a mess and then I'd go and pound miles out until I was numb," she said. Running was part of her healing process, but at that rate and intensity, it started to wear her down.

"Running really helped me with the emotional turmoil I was dealing with the other 22 hours of the day, but your body can only handle so much stress. I just mentally and physically crashed," Alicia said. "Once I broke, I broke really hard."

Two days before the trials, reoccurring injuries flared up -- an abdominal tear and a labral tear in her hip. She had no choice but to drop out. She was devastated. Less than a year before, she had had a serious shot at contending in Beijing, having won the 20-kilometer women's national championship in 2007. Now, she was watching the Olympic trials from her couch. "I had hit rock bottom in November 2007," she said, "and then I hit a new low in June 2008."

It would take Alicia two years to fully recover from the injuries and fatigue and another four years to return to competition. All the while, she stayed in Flagstaff with her friends and the running community that had given her and Ryan so much joy.

"It was important to stay around young people and mutual friends of ours who were doing a lot of positive things in their lives," she said. "I needed to have that energy around me at a time when I just wanted to curl up in a ball. It helped me get out the door more so than going home to my family in Wyoming, where everyone would have just felt sad for me."

At first, it was comforting to be surrounded by Ryan's things and the memories they shared together there, but then it became too much. She knew she would need to eventually move. And that's when she started toying with the idea of finding a bigger space where she could house even more guests from her running circles.

"After discussing it with my family, I decided it would be best for me to buy a large house, using money Ryan and I had saved up, and open my doors to athletes who were training in Flagstaff," she said. "It seemed like a natural outlet for me to turn my focus towards the care of other people. My parents had instilled in me this nurturing quality very early on. And I just really liked interacting with others all day and every day."

After selling a piece of property she owned in Michigan and clearing out her and Ryan's savings -- they had put away a good amount for his plans to eventually attend law school -- she had enough money to put the down payment on a two-level home with seven bedrooms and a big backyard in University Heights (a suburb of Flagstaff) in February 2009. She figured she'd have enough athletes coming to stay who could help with the bill.

"About three-fourths of my guests pay $500 per month, which covers a good portion of the mortgage, but nothing beyond that," said Alicia, who's grateful to be breaking even on an investment she never intended to make profitable. "And the remaining fourth stay for free because they are either a close friend or can't afford it. I really just use my judgment with that; it's totally informal."

With a bargain like that, it's no wonder the 4,000-square-foot house, which is now affectionately called the Shay Hostel, has been completely booked since day one. She had friends stay with her the day she moved into her new home, which came with most of the furniture from the previous owners.

"On paper, I know investing in this house didn't make financial sense, but I just felt that this is what would pull me through this rough patch," she said.

Her biggest struggle has been finding room to accommodate all of her visitors and finding the energy to help them get settled in: "Showing people around and having different personalities in your house can be exhausting, but I felt like that tradeoff was worth it because I needed to a healthy distraction."

Word of mouth keeps folks coming (about 30 a year), though Shay has the final say on who stays and for how long. And, of course, the Shay Hostel has its regulars, including good friends like American pro distance runner Sara Hall, who has counted Shay as a friend since college and "a huge support person" in her life. She and her husband, Ryan Hall, a U.S. Olympic marathoner, have stayed at Shay's twice.

"Training and living with other athletes in a training environment is invaluable for any athlete," said Marilyn Arsenault, who holds the Canadian 45-49 marathon record of 2:40:19 and the 10,000-meter 45-49 record of 34:22, both set after Flagstaff visits. "Doing a training stint at Alicia's goes beyond the physiological adaptation gains that can come from training at altitude. Focus and discipline are heightened while there, not just in terms of training, but also with regards to eating and sleeping habits."

And because the Shay Hostel attracts runners from all over, guests are exposed to different perspectives on training, racing, nutrition and recovery. "Just by just sitting and listening to conversations during group runs or communal meals you can learn a lot," said Arsenault, who always looks forward to dinnertime at Alicia's.

"The activity in the kitchen during meal preparation is quite the wild dance of fridges [there are two] and oven door openings and closings. There's a fury of chopping on many cutting boards, mad searches in drawers and cupboards for pots and pans, utensils and spices. Somehow, we all manage to coordinate ... all the while, chatting about our day of training. We form friendships quickly, which is easy to do when you have similar goals and dreams and a common love of running."

Matthew Llano, an American world champion half marathoner who stayed with Shay for a year and a half, said his fondest memories of his time there were the large dinner parties. "We often invited people over for holidays as well and reveled in the camaraderie," he said. "The running community in Flagstaff is fantastic."

Shay juggles maintaining the house with training as part of the elite Nike trail team. Her first competition as a pro trail runner will be this June. It will also be her first race since Ryan's death.

"The trails are a totally different environment and I love it. It makes me eager to get out there and compete again in my own way without having this heaviness hanging over me. When I'm in the mountains, it's a rejoicing feeling," said Alicia, who admitted she no longer likes going to the track, especially ones she shared with Ryan.

"When I see mutual friends and acquaintances of ours on the track and I can feel their sadness for Ryan's passing," she said, "all of a sudden the focus of me being there isn't running, but rather rehashing all of these emotions. Before I know it, I don't want to race anymore. I just want to go in my room and cry. The track is just a reminder that Ryan isn't here, so I don't enjoy it anymore. I'm a different person now."

Her new life as a trail runner and the community she built in her home were recently featured in one of Dick's Sporting Goods' popular "What Do You Run For?" Web video series. Her three-and-a-half-minute clip has already collected more than 116,000 views. "An overwhelming amount of people from all over -- locally, nationally and internationally -- have reached out to encourage me to continue forward in my journey and struggles," she said. "It's been extremely humbling, eye-opening and encouraging to keep going.

"Everyone needs to feel a purpose in their life. I feel like this may be mine."

Running isn't the only thing she's let back into her life. A year and a half ago, she started dating a fellow elite trail runner after he stayed at the Shay Hostel.

"I wasn't looking for it at all. But it just hit me one morning while skinning up a mountain in Flagstaff. When it comes to having someone else in my life, it's not that they've replaced what I feel for Ryan. I finally feel like my heart has the capacity to love someone in a different way. It didn't have to be one or the other," she said.

"It's been a big turning point in my life to let someone in again."