THE LOVE STORY
Twenty-eight years ago, a strikingly beautiful woman with long dark hair and piercing blue eyes exchanged glances with a man. She didn’t know this, but he had been single for so long that his friends thought he would be that way forever. He loves telling this story.
“She said (the look) was very powerful, and all of a sudden (she) felt very uncomfortable and just kept walking. And so, being me, which probably means persistent more than anything I can think of, I just kind of followed her.”
They struck up a conversation. He asked her out. She said no.
It turns out that she, Shay Yandell Hirsch, a gal from Boise, Idaho, was in New Jersey to run her first marathon. He was George Hirsch, the publisher of Runner’s World magazine. He was also an Olympic commentator and was at the same marathon, also an Olympic trial, to watch the Olympic hopefuls.
The next morning, George dutifully noted the Olympians, who took off 15 minutes before the people’s race. Then he waded into the sea of runners — thousands of people — getting ready to run 26.2 miles. Looking for her.
“I can’t find her. The gun goes off and I wait till every single last person goes across the starting line. And then I start to jog. I’m looking to the left, I’m looking to the right, I’m trying to find her.”
Five miles into a race that he hadn’t intended to run, there she is. He comes up beside her, trying to be ever-so-cool, and says, “Hi there.” She wonders what in the world he’s doing here.
“I said, ‘Well, I’m looking for you, actually.’ We started to talk …. we keep running and talking — and soon it’s life stories.
“Finally, oh, I don’t know, 23 miles into the race, she said, ‘I’m getting tired.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re supposed to. This is a marathon.’ And we kept on going.
“Three hours, 37 minutes and 1 second later, Shay finished the New Jersey Waterfront Marathon. And the rest of the story you know: The following year we got married and so began a run that exceeded this man’s wildest imagination.”
After 25 years of marriage, when it became clear that there was nothing more to do to keep Shay’s cancer at bay, she asked George if he would tell this story at her memorial service.
After Shay died on Feb. 3, 2014, George got letters from people who knew her.
“A couple of them began, more or less, with, ‘I only met her once, but’ — and then going on as if they had known her. And they did. They got it. …
“She is truly remarkable; that I can tell you. …”
She thought of other people first, she was forgiving, tolerant — even tolerant of the intolerant, says George. She was optimistic, adventurous, kind. There’s story after story of Shay keeping her eye out for people others would overlook: She sent food to the trash collector’s family when he was injured; she made sure the son of the corner grocery store owner got a job. She took care of a 94-year-old nearly blind woman who was so cantankerous that she scared would-be friends away.
“But not Shay. (This woman) was a human being and she needed her help. It was that simple. …
“You sensed that your life was of utmost importance to (Shay), and it was. She loved to listen to your stories. She made us all feel better just being in her presence. …
“And to think that I got to spend a quarter of a century with this incredible woman. I wish I could tell you the recipe for a love story like ours, but what I can tell you is: When it happens, it’s truly magical.
“She taught us a master class, a master class in how to live a life.”
After Shay’s death, George took that quote and put it on a simple log seat in Central Park near The Boathouse restaurant — where they got married — and a cafe where runners often gather after a run. That one is “Shay’s bench.” The plaque on a second one says simply “George’s bench.”
“Someday — I hope in the very distant future — (my children) can add something. Whatever they like … (and) they could do a lot worse than saying, ‘He truly loved her.’”
Those benches, a place to come with a friend or loved one to reflect and remember, is the New York memorial for Shay.
This fall, on Oct. 30, thousands of runners will toe the starting line to run the inaugural Onward Shay! full and half-marathon. That will be Boise’s memorial to Shay.
Betsy Luce: “This is the continuation of a love story. … George loved New York; Shay loved Boise. Boise is as important to her as New York is to him. It’s a lovely story.”
Betsy and her friend Jan Bastian came up with the idea of the marathon.
Betsy: “Everybody missed her here and we were sad that she’s gone. I thought it would be really nice to do a memorial run, a nice run in Boise. … Nothing huge.”
Although that was before they called George to try out the idea.
George: “(All my family thought): Ah, perfect. That is just the ideal way to remember Shay.”
And so, because of both George’s and Shay’s connections and prominence in the running world, the race blossomed to become a nonprofit, an annual idea, a potential destination marathon, a reunion of Runner’s World runners, a gathering of the biggest names in running — like Frank Shorter and Joan Benoit Samuelson, Bill Rodgers and Nick Symmonds (to name but a few).
Betsy: “This is a huge gift in her name to Boise. … (and we need to) have a signature marathon here. … It’s for Shay — but it’s also for the city that she loved and that we love.”
The theme is the Wizard of Oz.
Betsy: “Courage and heart (which is so her). And … even though she lived in New York, she loved Boise. We thought, that’s perfect:’There’s no place like home.’”
George: “The whole thing makes me feel like it’s just an absolutely perfect tribute. …
“(Marathons) add an energy, they bring the community together, they get people moving, they involve the kids. In many of these places (like the New York City or Big Sur marathons), it often becomes the most important event in the year in that community. I hope for that here….
And on that day, George believes that Shay will be smiling.
“First, she’d say something about ‘Don’t do anything special for me.’ That would be for sure. But if something was going to be done for her, I think this would really appeal to her.”
In 2002, Shay was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and given four years to live. She lived for 12 more years.
Betsy: “She thought she only had a short time, so she was very grateful for all the time she had.”
Shay had two stem cell transplants; each of them painful and grueling. She kept a Caring Bridge blog, sharing the latest medical procedure and charting her progress with her friends.
Betsy: “Through the years of this, as it was getting rougher, she was always so positive. She came up with (her signature saying), ‘Onward!’”
When it became clear that there was nothing more medically that could be done, Shay wrote one last letter. She would die a week later.
She wrote: “… My life has been so blessed with a wonderful family and special friends. I’ve been surrounded by love, not just during this illness, but throughout my 66 years. …
“Please know that I've appreciated every kindness you’ve sent my way, every card and note, every gift, every meal and shopping trip, every prayer and good thought — just every kindness you’ve shown me. Thank you is not enough to express my gratitude, but remember that it comes from my heart.
“I couldn’t have gotten this far and (had) 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.
“Be good to him when I’m but a memory. But I know that this bond isn’t gone — it rests in both our hearts — forever. I love him so and always will.
“So this is my goodbye to all my loved ones; family, longtime friends and more recent ones. When you think of me, may it be with joy, not sadness. I’ve truly lived a full, loving, interesting life and you were a part of that. May you be so fortunate in your own lives.”
Many of Shay’s connections to Boise are through the past. But through this marathon, Shay’s spirit will continue to touch many, many more people, far beyond her death.
Betsy: “(The marathon) is for her, but it’s also for the city that she loved.”
Shay’s final salutation is still powerfully poignant.
“Onward — to the next adventure, whatever that may be.
Katherine Jones: 208-377-6414, firstname.lastname@example.org, @IDS_Photography.
Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives by what, how and why they do things. Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman. com.
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Because George traveled a lot, even after they married, Shay would commute back to Boise — to visit friends, to run, to be with her sons. Her Idaho roots run deep from growing up here. She was the daughter of Robert Yandell and Pat and Morley Nelson, who was a famed raptor conservationist; she is a 1965 graduate of Boise High School; she worked as the executive director of the Women’s and Children’s Alliance in the 1980s.
Shay had trained for her first marathon with the Y Striders, who meet early on Saturday mornings at the Downtown YMCA, covering miles and miles and miles on the Greenbelt and in the Foothills. One of Shay’s dearest friends, Betsy Luce, remembers the first time Shay showed up.
Betsy Luce: “It was me and a bunch of men; there weren’t a lot of women back in the ‘80s who were running those distances. … All the guys were really excited that she was there — she was so striking and so charming — that they all ran six- or seven-minute miles. I went, ‘You guys, we want to keep her.’ I told her, ‘They don’t always run this fast.’
“She ran with us. … She was good and strong and fast from running with them. … She got ready for that marathon in New Jersey where she met George.
“It started in Boise.”