Sept. 4, 2011
STANFORD, Calif. - Ryan Hall '05 is the fastest marathoner in U.S. history and holds American records in the half-marathon and 30K. His goal is to win the Olympic marathon gold medal, a feat no American has accomplished since Frank Shorter at the 1972 Munich Games. Hall's hopes were buoyed by his 2:04:58 on April 11, 2011 at the Boston Marathon. Though Hall was fourth behind three Africans, he recorded the fastest time ever by an American under any conditions.
The race took place during a period in which he and his wife, Sara (Bei) Hall '05, returned to Stanford for extended sea-level training, which complemented the high-altitude work they put in from their home base of Flagstaff, Ariz. The Halls will continue to work out on occasion at Stanford where Sara trains under her college coach, Dena Evans, but have since shifted their sea-level training to Redding, Calif.
Ryan Hall, who is preparing for the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 9, recently talked with gostanford.com about his chances for London in 2012 and about his early struggles at Stanford - he never qualified for the NCAA track meet until his senior year when he won the 5,000 - and how that experience helped shape the runner and person he is today.
Q: Your 2:04 at Boston was amazing, but you still finished fourth. Do you feel as though you have to take your training to an even higher level?
A: Yes. Now, with the way these races play out there's so much surging, you might be running in the middle of a marathon and all of a sudden these guys take off in a 4:20-mile pace. Maybe it's only 400 meters, but you've got to have that basic footspeed to be able to cover that move. I worked on that a lot leading up to Boston. It certainly helped.
Q: What is the advantage of being at a place like Stanford for sea-level training, compared to high altitude?
A: The beauty of being at sea level is the ability to do faster workouts. So, my overall volume is much lower than when I doing my marathon training, but my intensity is much higher. I try to do as much speed work as I can, because in the marathon these days, you're trying to average 4:45 per mile, so you've got to have some speed. That's probably not my strength. The marathon training - long runs, long tempo runs - that comes pretty naturally to me. But the speed stuff is more of a challenge and takes more time to develop.
I was better at Boston than I'd been for a long time. I was able to respond more to those surges and be in the lead later than I'd ever been in that race before. It was an improvement, but something I need to continue to work on. That's another thing about being here. It's not just about speed development and all that, but also you get to recover so much better at sea level. That's something I want to integrate more in my training rather than these really long sessions at altitude, where you're there for three months straight. You show up on the starting line and you're already tired from all the training you've done. I want to integrate more sea-level training, so when I come down here, it's literally a breath of fresh air. Your body just recovers better down here.
Q: Do you still like to run solo?
A: I do. I prefer it. I grew up doing it in high school (Big Bear) and it really took me until my third or fourth year at Stanford to get used to training with people for workouts and not be competitive. I'd say I learned that lesson here at Stanford. It just gets very difficult to be excited about your workouts when guys are hammering it out in front of you, whereas if I'm doing a workout on my own and I'm not feeling that great, I can back off and finish a workout and still feel good about it, because I'm not comparing it to anyone else.
When you're on a professional team sometimes, even if you're smart and back off, and don't go as hard in the workout, you've still got to mentally deal with these guys who are beating you by 10 seconds per interval in a mile repeat or something like that. It's very mentally challenging sometimes.
Q: Were you the guy who was doing the pounding?
A: I was at Stanford. I wasn't professionally. I'd go really hard in my workout days, but I learned to save it for the race a little bit. At Stanford, every single day I was trying to prove myself, to my teammates, to myself. I was always trying to prove my fitness. When I was finally able to relax, and learn how to train with people, that's when I started to be successful.
Q: Is there anything you took out of your Stanford experience that you use today?
A: Something that I've recently come back to in my training is this component of rest. I'll never forget when I first showed up on campus in the summer time of my freshman year, reporting for training camp. At that time I took it as laziness. Man, these guys are lazy, I train way harder than them. But now that I'm a little older and a little more seasoned, I see this ability to rest, and to be confident in resting.
People that overtrain, and I know this from my personal experience, do it out of a lack of self confidence. That's one of the reasons, at least for me. I had to prove to myself that no one was training harder than me. I had to prove to myself that I was going to earn this. Now, I'm learning to rest and allow my body to absorb the training I'm doing and not see it as a weakness, or a lack of wanting it, or a lack of motivation. For example, I take one day off a week now, which I had never done before in my entire career before. I find that I really feel good off of that. I space out my workouts more, so I'm not trying to cram everything in a seven-day week.
At Stanford, I saw it as laziness. Now, my perspective on that has changed. That was part of the key to our success, looking back on it. We had really talented athletes, but our coach (Vin Lananna) did a really good job of holding back the reins. I remember so many times finishing up a workout and saying, `Coach, I want to do one more interval,' or one more repeat. And he'd say, `No, you're done.' He'd never let us do it, or very rarely, at least. He was very good at erring on the side of undertraining rather than overtraining.
Q: How long did it take you to buy in?
A: I don't think I really bought in until ... I don't know if you know this or not, but I left school for a quarter of my sophomore year, the winter quarter. I was really struggling because I was successful in high school and had huge dreams of coming to Stanford about what I could do, and I wasn't seeing it at all. I was struggling with my academics as well. I'd say that was probably the most depressed I've ever been in my life, after going through these struggles for a year and a half. So, I actually left school for a quarter.
I thought going home would somehow help, but I just got even more depressed. And then when I came back, I finally bought into it. For my first year and a half, I was always contemplating the idea of, Should I have gone to a different school? Would things be different? I was always questioning whether I made the right decision. After I left, I committed myself. I'm going to finish at Stanford, I'm going to buy into this. And my mindset really changed at that point. There was no more questioning whether I was at the right place or not.
Q: So, when you left, you weren't sure you were coming back to Stanford?
A: I wasn't sure what I was going to do. I had no idea.
Q: What was the turning point in your decision to return?
A: I had a conversation with my pastor. He said, `What's the last thing that you know for sure that God told you to do?' And, being a Christian, I had prayed a lot about my decision to come to Stanford. I wasn't really sure of it until I was sitting at Memorial Church praying and I felt really strongly that I was supposed to come here, probably as strongly as I felt about anything. So when he said that, that allowed me to realize that I needed to go back to Stanford and be committed there. That was a big turning point.
Q: Was part of it your relationship with your teammates, from being so competitive?
A: Yeah, I needed to learn to work with guys and not race guys all the time. I needed to let go of my pride and ego and needing to prove myself. I had to just relax and work together, and learn that every practice is not a race. Actually, (teammate and fellow future Olympian) Ian Dobson was huge. Yesterday, Sara and I were running and talking about all the stuff we were thankful for. I said, "I'm thankful for Ian, because if I didn't have him for a teammate my senior year in college, I don't know if I'd be running professionally at all."
We had to learn to work together. He said, "Yeah, dude, it's OK if you want to run faster in workouts, just tell me. If you're doing a workout with a guy, and he says, `I'm feeling really good. I'm going to go a little faster on this.' That's a lot different than if you just take off. If you take off, other guys are, like, what's his deal? Why is he doing that? Does he just want to break me? Whereas, if you say something, you communicate, then it's OK. He's going to go a little faster. It's nothing personal."
That really diffused some of the competitiveness there. It kind of clicked for me. Oh yeah, I should tell guys. It's OK to do it, but you've got to do it in a certain way.
Q: How did you feed off Ian?
A: All of our workouts were together. We were helping each other in workouts run faster than we could otherwise run. Then, I also vividly remember - I mean, I'd never been to NCAA's in track until my senior year in college - I was really piggybacking off his confidence. He was running really well, basically his whole time at Stanford, and improving every single year.
I remember at one point early on in the season, we were running the Mt. SAC Relays. I was running the 5K and he and I had been training together the whole time. I knew I should be able to run with Ian. I remember staring at his back and thinking I know I could stay with him. I was hurting bad and starting to fall off, so I immediately started to think negative thoughts. When you've had a tough career, it's very difficult to get back on the horse. It's very easy to fall back into that same way of thinking, even if you're physically in a different place. So, I remember looking at his back and feeling like, it's just like practice. Let's treat this like practice. Go with Ian. And that helped me to relax and think differently about my racing than I'd thought in a long time. That just continued to happen throughout the season.
Q: In your NCAA race, it was the two of you, right?
A: We got so good at working together that all I wanted for NCAA's was for us to go one-two. When that race was unfolding and we were pulling away from everyone, just the two of us, we came to that bell. I still didn't realize we were going to pull it off until 100 meters to go. I was like, dang, we're going to win this thing. It wasn't like I'm going to win.
Honestly, I had no inkling of sprinting that last 100 meters. I didn't really care who got first or second. Ian was in first at the time, and we come off the final turn and he kind of slides into the outside of lane one. I realize, oh, he's kind of competing. It kind of woke me up. Then, it was, I'll give it everything I have in this last 100 and we'll see how the cards fall. I finished a couple of steps in front of him. It was pretty funny. I honestly wasn't even thinking about who was going to win the race at that point. I was, like, mission accomplished. But Ian still had a little bit of competitiveness.
Q: I saw on your Twitter that you ran up Tunitas Creek Road (near Half Moon Bay).
A: I've actually done Old La Honda, too. Six days after Boston, on Easter Sunday, I rode my Trek bike out there and said, I'm going to time-trial this, because I thought I could just kill it, you know. I've done a little bit of cycling, but not a lot at all. I was a little overconfident going out there, and I got my butt kicked.
It's a beautiful run. The middle three miles are killer, though. The first three aren't bad and the last three aren't too bad, but the middle three are super hard. I thought, I bet I can run faster than I can cycle it, and I went back there and ran it, and I wasn't too far off.
I love doing uphill runs and uphill climbs. They build power and speed. It's kind of like doing weights without having to do weights. So, I heard about Tunitas from my massage lady, so I wanted to do that. I love racing bikers up there. I guess there's one day a week on Old La Honda where people time-trial it on a bike. So, I want to go up there during that time and see if I can rope myself into a little race with some cyclists.
Q: I know in the places you've lived and trained, you've always had a mountain element. I remember the team used to run Huddart Park on Sundays.
A: Every Sunday. I don't even know the names of the trails, but I know we used to do one every Sunday that we called Lollipop. I just love running on campus. Oak Creek, running on that single track along there. Huddart is a big one. Actually, in college, I used to run a lot on Page Mill.
Q: Do you do The Dish?
A: I do not do The Dish. No, I did it a little bit in college, but not that much - once they paved all those roads. We like to go somewhere where we can at least stay on the dirt a little bit. We used to sneak onto Backside all the time. That's the part that runs along 280. We had to go through some guy's property and stuff like that. It was pretty illegal. We didn't go underneath 280, we'd go right along side of it, heading north, and you'd pop out. There were all kinds of crazy stories about Gabe Jennings running from the police and stuff like that. I think he got caught and told the police his name was some famous runner like Roger Bannister or something. Gabe was a character.
Q: What do you think you got the most out of from your experience at Stanford?
A: It's funny. When Sara looks back on her Stanford days, she gets all these good emotions and feelings, you know. When I look back at them, I had a rough time here for the most part. There were some very sweet moments, and I loved being on campus. I got to the point where during my fourth year, I was really enjoying school and the whole college lifestyle and everything, but it really did take me four years.
Honestly, I don't know if I'd want to go back and relive college necessarily, but it was very key in my development, as a person and as a runner. I learned how to go through all those tough times. I learned how to fail and I learned how to be OK with failure. I think that is key.
Now, when I'm out there running, I'm not afraid to fail because I've failed so much, and I know I can deal with that. I know that as a person I'm OK and that doesn't send me into depression any more like it did when I was at Stanford. I've been able to move on. It's funny, when you're not afraid to fail, it frees you up to succeed. Now, I think I've reaped a lot from my time at Stanford. But the reaping has been more in the professional realm.
I had the best last three months of school probably more than any guy in the history of Stanford. Within three months, I won an NCAA title after never even being in an NCAA championship in track before, and then I qualified for the world championships, and got engaged and got married. That was all from June to September.
Q: How did you propose?
A: That's also a good story. I made this reservation for a hot-air balloon ride. Sara's wanted to do it, but had never done it before. The day before, I get a call from the pilot. He says, the weather's not good, we're going to have to cancel your trip. I was going to propose on the hot air balloon. Luckily, my roommate, his uncle is one of the big donors at the lighthouse in Santa Cruz and he has a key. So, we go there, and set up the lighthouse with pictures of Sara and I, and roses and candles and everything. We had dinner at the Crow's Nest. After dinner, we took a walk out to the lighthouse and opened it up and I went in there and lit all the candles. I was waiting at the top of the lighthouse and proposed to her up there. It ended up being way better probably than the balloon ride would have been anyways. My roommate totally saved me.
Q: I assume you met at Stanford. Was it a relationship that developed over time?
A: We started dating the first week of my freshman year. We dated all four years and got married the September after we graduated. Our preseason camp was in Mammoth, so we got to know each other a little bit there. I was noticing all the guys were going after her. She was the hot commodity, so I had to act quickly.
Q: You have the Steps Foundation now, and I was wondering about your sense of social justice and how this fits into your running. Will this be an even bigger part of your life when your running starts to taper down?
A: We've always had a heart for the poor and development work, and we've gotten an opportunity to go to Africa and see water projects and things like that. Actually, Sara wasn't even sure she wanted to run professionally when she came to Stanford. She had applied for Teach for America and was really considering doing that and not even running anymore. We've kind of learned that we can have a great impact through running.
Q: Is there a particular focus where you can really make an impact?
A: No, not yet. We're still in a little bit of an exploration period right now. A big emphasis early on was clean water because that's such a huge part of development work. But this year, we were hoping to get more into health and wellness for all. Here in the States, that could look like bringing nutritious food to the underserved communities and giving them the opportunity to eat healthy; because it's expensive to eat healthy here in the U.S. Abroad it could mean bringing food to places that don't have food, and sustainable agriculture. Right now, we're dabbling in a lot of different things so we could figure out if there is one thing we need to be totally devoted to. Or, should it be purposefully broad so that a lot of people who have a heart for all aspects of poverty can get involved?
Q: You're coaching yourself. Is that something you will continue to do?
A: The main reason why I chose to do that is because I wanted to implement my faith on a more daily basis. Praying about my training more, just trying to be more in tune with the body that God gave me, and being able to plan workouts accordingly. A lot of that is just listening to my body. Like I said, I don't try to cram everything into a seven-day period now. Rest more. And that seems to be working really well.
I'm still making mistakes, doing stupid workouts I shouldn't do and being blasted as a result of it. But for the most part, I'm having fun. Running is such an overall wellness activity that for me to have fun in my workouts is a huge part of my success. So, after years and years of doing the same workouts over and over again, it's been really fun to revisit some of the workouts I've done in college, do some completely new workouts, and do some of the same workouts I've been doing for years. Just mix it up. I've been really enjoying it. And, as a result, I've been running a little better.
Q: Was there a workout heading into Boston that really tested your fitness?
A: You talk about places where magical workouts happened or where you go to get your confidence, and actually for me as a marathoner, tempo runs where you just run 6-15 miles hard are a huge part of my training. I went over to Sawyer Camp 10 days before the race (Boston) and did a 6-mile tempo run out there and averaged 4:37 or something like that. That's when I finally started to realize, I'm feeling good and things are really clicking.
My training had not been the best over the winter, so I was dealing with all these health issues, where my thyroid was super low probably as result of overtraining. I had a parasite I was trying to get rid of so my gut was constantly a mess. So, I really wasn't sure where I was at. I had run a half-marathon a month before the race that didn't go well at all and I didn't understand why. So, that was a huge confidence booster, to go out there and have a good tempo. It felt really good. That was huge for me going into Boston.
Q: I know you've been asked this 100 times, but should the Boston race count as a record? I know there are rules and there was wind and it was point-to-point, but in your heart, was that a record?
A: This might not be a direct answer to your question, but I honestly believe that if that performance had been in, say, Berlin, it would have been a world record. What would the time have been? Your guess is as good as mine. But that was a world record performance. Should it be an actual world record? I think not. That's why they have rules about courses. When we show up on the Boston starting line, I know that course is not certified for a record. With that said, (Kenya's Geoffrey Mutai) is still a 2:03 marathoner. I'm still a 2:04 marathoner. I mean, Boston is a very difficult course. We did have a favorable wind that day. It would have been very interesting to see how that race would have played out on a flat course. But we'll never know.
Q: When you were able to come back to the lead pack in Boston, it appeared as if that was different than the way you usually run, which is from the front. Was that a reflection of your training?
A: I'm still figuring out how to best race these guys, and every time out, I learn a ton. So, I'm learning what works for me and how does that fit into the African way of running, with all the surging and stuff. I certainly thrive in the front. That's where I get excited. It actually helps to go back and watch these races. I actually just watched the Beijing Olympics for the first time (Hall finished 10th). I had never seen it before, because I was kind of hurt and scarred from the whole experience. But I'm finally able to move on now. I really learned a lot from watching it, even just watching my face and my energy level. It's not the same when I'm not in the front and in the lead group.
I'm realizing more and more how important it is for me to maintain contact. That's something I did well at Boston this year, where guys would get away from me. I don't think it's smart to do all this surging. I can run better if I don't do all this surging, but with that said, I have to be excited. And if I'm excited to be in the front, I've got to be close enough to close that gap when things open up. There's that part of it and then I need to build off that.
That's how I stay in the front, but how do I win the race? That's a whole different question. That's what I'm starting to address now. But in order to even be able to answer these questions, you have to be able to bring into this race an incredible fitness level. I don't care what your tactics are, if you're not in incredible shape, you're not going to be able to do anything against these guys. So, that's the No. 1 thing, to get as fit as possible. That opens up the doors to what your options are. You're not as limited. If you're going into that race in 2:02 shape and everyone else is in 2:04 shape, you can win that race a lot of different ways. Whereas, if you're in 2:04 shape and there's a whole handful of guys in 2:03 shape, that race has to play into your cards for you to be able to win. Fitness is always the No. 1 thing that you've got to bring to the starting line.
Q: Can an American win an Olympic marathon gold? Can the Africans be beaten?
A: It's certainly possible. I wouldn't be out there running if I didn't think it was possible. At Boston, two Kenyan guys and one Ethiopian guy beat me, but there were 30 or 40 other Africans behind me. They have such a big crop of talent that the chances of one of those guys surviving that crazy base is much greater than if there's one American running with 40 Africans. Just the odds alone, and the marathon being such a hit or miss type of event ... It's going to take a number of tries before you hit that magical day where everything clicks. That's why I don't put a ton of pressure on myself to think: This is the race.
I just try to control everything I can, but you've got to hit the right day and the right conditions and the race has to unfold in the right way. I really do believe that day will come.
Forever Cardinal is a regular series profiling former student-athletes and highlighting their careers beyond Stanford.
-- David Kiefer, Stanford Athletics