A Boise runner dies, and a nonprofit marathon is born

Onward Shay! marathon organizers Betsy Luce and Jan Bastian, left, apply photos race namesake Shay Hirsch to sandwich board mile markers. The women said they didn’t realize planning the race would absorb their lives. “The details are endless,” Bastian said.
Onward Shay! marathon organizers Betsy Luce and Jan Bastian, left, apply photos race namesake Shay Hirsch to sandwich board mile markers. The women said they didn’t realize planning the race would absorb their lives. “The details are endless,” Bastian said.

On Sunday, a 26.2-mile course will pop up in Boise, coursing through the North End and Downtown, then up the Greenbelt to Garden City, back down along the river to ParkCenter Boulevard and returning Downtown.

But the 1,000 runners and 1,000 volunteers, the street closures and everything else making the Onward Shay! marathon possible did not happen overnight. The planning started 20 months ago, when Boiseans Jan Bastian and Betsy Luce decided to honor Shay Hirsch, their friend and fellow runner who lost an 11-year fight with cancer in 2014.

Hirsch was 66 when she died. She had been friends with Luce for 30 years and Bastian for 28. The trio ran together during a time when fewer women ran long distances and male runners were a little less inviting, Bastian said.

Betsy Luce remembers her dear friend, Shay Hirsch, who died of cancer in 2014, by helping to organize a marathon in Boise in her memory. Although Shay lived in New York, her Boise roots run deep — and so did her passion for running.

As Hirsch battled cancer, she sent email updates to her friends about her struggles through multiple chemotherapy and stem cell treatments, Luce said. “She’d always end, saying: Onward! She was exuberant,” Luce said.

Bastian and Luce knew nothing about event organizing. They did not know the marathon would become a full-time job.

“We were completely ignorant about what was going to happen,” Bastian said.


Running was a life centerpiece for Hirsch, a Boise native, and her husband, George Hirsch, Now 82, he is the former publisher of Runner’s World magazine and chairs the New York Road Runners, a nonprofit that organizes the New York City Marathon and other running events each year.

Shay and George Hirsch met 28 years ago at a marathon in New Jersey. She caught his eye at an expo the day before the race. He asked her out. She declined. The next day, he looked for Shay in the throng at the start of the race. He didn’t see her, so he started running too. He caught up with her and ran with her for the remainder of the course.

They married the next year.

Bastian and Luce called him early in 2015 to pitch their idea of a race in Boise honoring his wife.

George Hirsch, founder of New York City Marathon, met his future wife before, of course, a marathon. She was running; he wasn't. Or at least wasn't planning to — but that was the only way to find her again. Onward Shay! Boise Marathon is in honor

He invited them to the New York Road Runners office. They accepted, not understanding the meeting was with the top executives of an organization with 175 full-time employees and nearly as many part-timers.

“They had information on everything, how to do a race in 1,000 pages,” Luce said. “We were shell-shocked.”

Bastian said she couldn’t look at Luce during the meeting.

“I was just horrified what we’d gotten ourselves into,” Bastian said. “When we walked out, I told her, ‘There’s no way we can do this.’ She said, ‘There’s no way we can’t.’ 


The flat course and mild Boise climate make the Onward Shay! marathon ideal for runners wanting to log personal records and qualify for the Boston Marathon, George Hirsch said.

Luce, 61, closed her Boise interior design business to focus on race planning. Bastian, 60, said she cut in half her usual volume as an agent at Windermere Real Estate in Boise but still worked mostly 12-hour days as she split duties between work and race organizing.

The women recruited 30 sponsors, who contributed $150,000 in all toward the race’s $250,000 price tag.

What it takes for the inaugural marathon to be successful "has already happened," says George Hirsch, founder of the New York City Marathon. And he expects it to just get better. The race is in honor of his wife, Shay Hirsch.

Payette Brewing, whose new Downtown taphouse serves as the start and finish line for the marathon, produced a special edition Onward Shay! Ruby Red IPA to assist with marketing. Gardner Co. agreed to pay for entrance, transportation and food bags for child participants, including those referred from the Women’s & Children’s Alliance, Racing for Orphans with Down Syndrome and the International Rescue Committee.

George Hirsch said Bastian and Luce struck gold by landing six show and apparel sponsors: New Balance, Saucony, Brooks, Asics, Adidas and Mizuno. Usually, those brands demand exclusivity before plunking money down, Hirsch said.

“That’s something I’ve never seen in all my years involved in races,” he said.

Bastian and Luce hired Keith Hughes, a Boisean who has organized more than 200 races across the country, as the marathon’s director.

George Hirsch, founder of the New York City Marathon, remembers his wife of 28 years, Shay Hirsch, who died in 2014. Onward Shay! Boise Marathon has been organized by two of Shay's Boise friends — with advice from Hirsch — in honor of Shay. Hirsch

The Run Toto Run Kid’s Race for runners age 2 to 12 will be held Saturday at 9 a.m. at the Boise High School Track. An expo and packet pickup will be held Downtown that day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. featuring vendors and guest speakers in the fifth floor of Jack’s Urban Market Place.

Images from “The Wizard of Oz,” a favorite Shay Hirsch movie, adorn race materials.


Hughes said his Boise company, Vertical Endurance, organizes 15 races a year. He said Onward Shay! has taken most of his time in recent months as he has secured permits and coordinated with Boise city departments — including police, parks and the clerk’s office — as well as the Ada County Highway District.

Hughes said the the city’s special events process helped him secure the long list of permits for things such as hauling trash and serving food.

44 Number of Boise police officers who will work traffic control, and man the start and finish line and the control center during the marathon

“The city of Boise makes it really easy,” he said. “I’ve done events in other cities where they leave it all up to you to track everything down. It makes a huge difference.”

The event will help hotels, restaurants, shops and other businesses that will see an uptick in foot traffic, said Lynn Hightower, executive director of the Downtown Boise Association.

Hughes said Onward Shay! will have twice as many participants as other local marathons, including the City of Trees Marathon, Famous Idaho Potato Marathon, Lake Lowell Marathon and Freakin Fast Marathon. The Race to Robie Creek, a half marathon, had 2,300 runners this year.

More than 1,000 adults have already registered, and Hughes expects the race to draw nearly the 1,200 participants it needs to break even. He said that is better than average: Races typically lose money for at least a year and need five years to recoup losses of early years. Organizers hope to build the race into a 5,000-runner event.

Any profits from the nonprofit race will go to charities.

The race events start Sunday with packet pickup at 10 a.m. at Payette Brewing and a noon start.

Hirsch said he and the New York Road Runners are committed to bringing the race back next year. Bastian and Luce said they will stay involved.

“We don’t expect to break even this year,” Luce said. “If we do, we’ll be thrilled.”

Onward Shay! figures

Total cost: $225,000

Marketing (offset by a grant for online ad buys): $100,000

Traffic control: $30,000

Police security: $20,000

Runner gear, including T-shirts and medals: $20,000

Digital race time tracking system: $10,000

Sponsor contributions: $150,000

Out-of-pocket costs borne by organizers Betsy Luce and Jan Bastian: More than $10,000 apiece

Cost to register now: $160 for full marathon, $100 for half-marathon, $10 for children’s race.

Break-even enrollment: 1,200 racers