They call themselves the “Sunrise Striders,” a group started about 14 years ago by their running friend Mike Shafai.
Thursday morning’s run was much different than any before. These runners, local folks, came to support and love each another in a time of great loss.
Shafai, a husband to Stephanie, a father to Alexandra, 18, and Benjamin, 15, and a friend to every runner who has tied a lace, passed away of unknown causes at his Manitou Springs home on Tuesday evening. He was 47.
Memorial services will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday, Oct. 26, at Shove Memorial Chapel on the Colorado College Campus, 1010 N. Nevada Ave. The day will begin with a run at 6 a.m. starting at Memorial Park in Manitou Springs. There will also be a celebration gathering at 5 p.m. at The Plaza of the Rockies 111 S. Tejon St., Suite 200. In lieu of flowers, Mike's family is encouraging donations to the Pikes Peak Road Runners, earmarked for the Clubhouse fund. To donate, go to this RunSignUp page and click the donate button.
He would have been there in the first light on Thursday, running along in his own unique gait, telling jokes, poking fun at anyone within earshot … and somehow striking a spark in everyone he met. An accomplished athlete and community guy, he helped multiple nonprofits and served on the Pikes Peak Road Runners’ board of directors for years. His accomplishments were many. But his work with the running community will long be remembered.
Two of Shafai’s closest friends, John Gardner and Tim Steffens, ran up the hill. They’d been by Shafai's side – or behind him, because Mike could run fast – since the first Striders’ runs. Gardner and Shafai worked as partners at The Pikes Peak Group at Morgan Stanley. They formed the perfect team for 10 years as co-race directors of the Winter Series runs.
“I clicked in with Mike in my early stages of being sober,” Steffens says. “He and John are a big part of my sobriety because of the examples they set. Mike trained me through my first marathon. He showed me how to live right, helped me to be a better person.”
His close friends say they learned the simple – but most important – lessons from Mike.
“He said to me once, there is only one thing you can control, and that’s your attitude,” Gardner says. “He always had a positive attitude. And I look at things now and think, he’s right.”
Shafai married Stephanie Wurtz on June 16, 2014. A perfect couple, they dared to live life, traveling, racing, training together. One was never far from the other. And anyone who has experienced the heart-thumping beat of love could see Mike’s absolute devotion to his wife.
Stephanie, who currently serves as president of the Pikes Peak Road Runners, claimed a Leadwoman title - a stunning feat of pure guts that mixed miles of running and mountain biking at high altitudes - and set the overall record of 43 hours, 17 minutes in 2016. Mike paced her through the night on the final leg of the series, the crushing Leadville 100.
He had finished multiple Ironman triathlons, and most recently ran the Pikes Peak Ascent and American Discovery Trail Half Marathon. The couple embodied the spirit of a healthful and active lifestyle.
Tonia Smith, a longtime local runner, wrote in a Facebook post: “He was so joyously in love with her and so proud of her achievements. It was a beautiful thing to see.”
His death has rattled the run community. Gardner learned of his passing late Tuesday night. He called Steffens at 6 a.m. Wednesday. Those who knew quietly passed along the sad news.
Thursday's eastern sky opened the drapes to bright streaks of yellow and orange. Shafai’s friends kicked the gravel trail and their chatter increased with the light. Everyone there had a story to tell about Mike. Surrounded by familiar faces, Gardner shook his head in wonder.
“It has been a tremendous outpouring (of support),” he says. “He touched so many lives. I know so many people who would thank him for turning their lives around.”
John Sudduth found running at age 63. Then he found Mike Shafai and the Sunrise Striders.
“When I started running a few years ago, Mike and the Sunrise Striders were a real encouragement to me personally,” Sudduth says. “Mike and Stephanie among others would often cheer me on to keep it up during our runs together as well as the races. It met a lot to me as a new runner and still does. Mike's contagious, friendly demeanor encouraged all of us to do our best.”
John Keller watched Shafai work his magic over the years.
“It was how welcoming he was to everyone especially newcomers,” he says. “He made a point to introduce them and get them connected to the community. He always knew everyone by name right away. That’s a big deal for people new to the area, people who don’t know anyone. He’s such a great role model for the compassion he had for others. He genuinely loved people. And he was so full of life all the time.”
Richard Bennet fell in with the Striders, and changed his life.
“Little did I know, that my world would end up revolving around Mike Shafai and the world that he created,” Bennet writes. “All of my best friends and social circle have emerged from Mike and the Striders.”
There was never a situation in which Shafai passed up a joke. He wrote a hilarious training column in the Pikes Peak Road Runners’ newsletter “The Long Run,” creating the character “Coach Carmine.” His video productions following the Winter Series were funny and sometimes off the wall, with one including the throwing of food. At the start of the memorial run at Plaza of the Rockies, Gardner reminded everyone that Mike would want to see them laugh.
“I told them that I couldn’t believe what a big crowd had showed up, and that I could hear Mike saying, ‘yeah, you all show up on the easy day,’” Gardner said.
Tears fell and hugs were shared atop the hill in Bear Creek Park. As the sun nipped the horizon, the runners began to work their way back to the start. Their community had absorbed a crushing blow. It had lost a friend, perhaps its best friend. But the light poured in on what promised to be a gorgeous Colorado fall day. And the time for reaching out had begun. Reaching out to feel the spark that Mike Shafai had left for them.
Reactions from the community
"Always a smile and encouragement no matter what. Michael and I had a few heated conversations about business and the running community. But we always parted with smiles and the promise to have some adult beverages. He loved his running community! He did whatever it took to make it better. He took the Pikes Peak Road Runners into the 21st century. He will be missed by many. But I know he is giving Woody Noleen a bunch of grief in the afterlife." - John O'Neill, The Colorado Running Company
"While running the Pikes Peak Ascent two months ago (today), Shafai was right behind me at the on the fourth switchback above Ruxton. It's a switchback that has had some work done on it and most people follow along the outer edge of the work where the path is pretty well defined. I was just ahead of Mike as we approached the turn. I went running through the rocks because I like hitting the tangents, and Mike yells out at me "I'm telling the race director you're cutting the course. You're gonna get DQ'd Everson." Even just two miles into the race, it's painful. Then I hear this and we just laugh. I don't think I ever saw this guy without a smile on his face." - Mike Everson
"Mike was so genuinely good and generous. I was never the fasted runner at Sunrise Striders back when I ran with them, but Mike always made me feel welcome and made me feel as though I absolutely had reason to be there, even as a back of the pack runner. Speed didn't matter to him. Being out there mattered to him. Encouraging others to work hard, show up. Truly an inclusive, kind human being. The community has lost a gem. And although I haven't seen him since I left Colorado Springs 4 years ago, I was so deeply saddened yesterday when I heard the news. Thank you for honoring him with your words." - Jessica Robb
"I first met Mike 11 years ago at the garden training runs. For the next 2 years, I ran with the fast trail group a couple of times in the summer. The following year, I broke my humorous and while pacing the halls of the hospital, I swore to myself that I would start running again consistently and join the Sunrise Striders. For the past nine years, I have joined Mike and our clan every Tuesday and Thursday in the rain, cold, snow, hail, wind and anything else nature could throw at us.
Little did I know, that my world would end up revolving around Mike Shafai and the world that he created. All of my best friends and social circle have emerged from Mike and the Striders. I have attended Rocktoberfest several times, countless other outings in the mountains, and now organize an annual hut trip similar to Rocktoberfest with fellow Striders. When I have interviewed prospective employers, I always tell them that I must be allowed to be a little late to work on Tuesdays and Thursdays because of the running group. I even realized last night that Mike occupies my bedroom when my wife got into bed wearing “the election” shirt that he made for Jenn Osler and Jeff Mohrmann taking over the Winter Series. Mike even taught me how to cook meat properly by checking firmness.
I even earned the nickname of “wrong way Richard” from Mike. I thought it was a little ridiculous at first, but I kept earning it by going the wrong damn way.
If you go into the Starbucks downtown and ask for a “runner’s coffee,” they will give you a grande in a venti cup drip coffee. Years ago, Mike coaxed them to accept the term “runners coffee” instead of the full description.
Mike’s influence on my life is immense. I struggle to put it in words." - Richard Bennet
"It is a sad day...Mike Shafai will be missed by everyone. I knew him from all the wonderful Winter Series, the banquets and awards, etc. I was always looking forward to read his FB comments about the state of the trails the days prior to the race, he had such a witty and intelligent sense of humor! My deepest condolences to Mike's friends, family and the entire running community. Thank you Mike Shafai. You, your sense of humor and your dedication will be greatly missed. I dedicate you my next 47 miles running, one for every year you made a difference in this planet!" - Marisa Bcn