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Catching Up with the Fastest Couple in America

Talking with Ryan and Sara Hall about running, the Olympics and what it will take to be the fastest marathoning couple in the world.

<> on February 15, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
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The LA Marathon runs from Dodger Stadium, past Frank Gehry’s bellowing, stainless steel Concert Hall, blows through Hollywood and the Grauman’s Chinese Theater, then wanders through WeHo, Beverly Hills, Westwood, Brentwood, and ends at the beach in Santa Monica. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the race, and it will be, in usual Tinseltown fashion, studded with star talent. Big names include David Kiyeng (Kenya), Bekana Daba (Ethiopia), and Gezahagn Beyene (Ethiopia) — not the household names of the Walk of Fame, but in the running world, they’re notable contenders. And out among the Africans, there’ll be a lanky white guy with a mop of blonde hair, mixing it up. He hails from a nearby mountain, and he’s the fastest guy America’s got.

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Ryan Hall grew up in Big Bear Lake, CA, which sits directly east of L.A. Hall proved himself an early talent in high school, winning the cross country state championship as a junior. He continued on to Stanford, where he earned an individual NCAA Championship in 2005 by winning the 5000 meters. In 2007, Hall won the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon with a 59:43, a record that still stands as the fastest half-marathon run by an American. Later that year, he launched his marathoning career with a 2:08:24 — the fastest marathon debut by any American, and the fastest marathon ever run by an American-born citizen. He then became the unofficial fastest marathoner in America with a 2:04:58 in Boston in 2011 (because of point-to-point nature and elevation drop, Boston doesn’t qualify for world records — a small but significant technicality). Hall ran in the Beijing Olympics in 2008 (finished tenth) and London Olympics in 2012 (did not finish), and after nagging injuries slowed him in the past few years, he’s looking to reclaim his former speed.

Alongside him in L.A. will be a special woman having her marathon debut. Sara Hall, Ryan’s wife, ran at Stanford and then went on to compete as an American athlete in the World Indoor Track and Field Championships and the World Cross Country Championship. She won gold at the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2011 Pan American Games. The pair, both Asics elite athletes, will be competing for PRs in L.A., which — unlike for you and me — means just a few ticks past two hours. If all goes well, they’ll be the fastest marathoning couple in the world (by a long shot). We talked with them before they headed off to Ethiopia for some pre-race fine tuning.

Q. What’s the hardest race you’ve ever run?
A. Ryan: Boy, that’s a good question. I think for me the hardest run I’ve ever done was in 2008 — the London Marathon. I ran a 2:06:17. That was definitely the most pain I’ve ever been in, and now that I look back and see the pictures of me crossing the finish line, my eyes are all glossed over, and I just remember being in an incredible amount of pain. I have done some pretty hard runs, like up mountains and crazy adventure runs — stuff like that, but that was definitely the hardest race I have ever run in. I definitely went to the well on that one.

We all get like little nicks and knacks and niggles that pop up in our training, and I’d say that 75 percent of that you can just kind of run through it.

Q. With those kinds of situations, how do you work past saying, “You know what, I am just going throw in the towel?” How do you know you can, like you said, dig into the well and push through?
A. Ryan: Yeah, I find that when you’re in that much pain that even your thought process has to be really simple. So I try to make it simple as I can. I will always repeat stuff in my head. Like, I’ll just tell myself you’re doing great. You’re doing great. I’ll just say that over and over again in my head. I try to do things where I’m reaffirming how well I’m doing. Because sometimes, it feels just like everything is falling apart. So you just remind yourself that you’re actually running really well.

Q. What’s something you think amateur runners are usually doing wrong?
A. Sara: There’s a lot, but I would say that one of the ones I am most surprised about is what people eat for breakfast before they run. They are not realizing that food is a limiting factor in long runs.

Q. Have you ever overtrained? Do you see that with new runners?
A. Ryan: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I ran a lot when I was in high school and I am very passionate about what I do and pursuing my goals. I had a tendency to convince my coaches against their better judgment to let me run a lot more than I should have been running. In high school, my dad was my coach and some weeks he’d let me run 100 miles a week, and all that really did was, it made me really tired. Eventually, he had to step in and take some extreme measures to make me to rest. And then it was kind of the same deal at Stanford. For a while I talked my coaches into letting me do three a day, and it was totally not their idea. It was actually really interesting because I saw that the guys at Stanford trained less hard than I was training in high school. And I saw that as being lazy, you know? But at the same time they were running better than I was and outperforming me, with a lot less training. They had a lot more snap in their legs. So we decided to work on 800 meters, then 1,500 meters, to work on my feet a little more — so I ended up running a lot less. I had to find a balance between training aggressively, but making sure I build rest into my program. It’s kind of how they tell you to drink before you get thirsty. You should build rest in your training, so that you never get to the point that you have overtrained and you have to take a big rest — because by then it’s already too late.

Q. In the London Olympics, Ryan, you had to drop out of the marathon. What did that feel like?
A. Ryan: It was really tough and very surreal when it happened and even afterwards. I remember waking up the next day and hoping that that was my worst dream ever. But how I judge when I have to stop is by measuring what pain is okay to run through. You know, we all get like little nicks and knacks and niggles that pop up in our training, and I’d say that 75 percent of that you can just kind of run through it.

They don’t think of white people as being good runners. So it’s fun to get a little bit of respect with the African guys.

But my rule of thumb is if the pain is sharp in nature, and if it’s getting worse as I am running, then I pull the plug, and I don’t run through it. I never had any injury like that in a race before. I have never dropped out of a race. So to have that happen to me in the Olympics was a real bummer. Like, you know, that’s the one day of your life that you hope that — athletically speaking — you are totally on. You want to get 100 percent out of yourself. And I was so far from that. It was really frustrating. But I find for me the best way to move past that is to look forward to future goals. You know, you fall down, get up, dust yourself off and start moving forward, rather than looking back at it and being upset all the time.

Q. Do you guys feel any responsibility for representing American runners in a good light?
A. Ryan: I think for the most part it all kind of goes back to when I was first getting into the sport. I was confident that one day I would run with the best guys in the world. I’ve always believed that about myself. I never saw myself as any different from the African guys. And I think that’s reflective in the way that I run. I am not afraid to go mix it up with those guys, because I feel like I really do belong with them. I think a lot of American guys, they get intimidated in the parking lot when they look over and see that someone is from Africa. And I think the first thing that has to go if you’re going to be able to run and compete against the best guys in the world, is that you have to feel like you belong there. So I’ve always felt that way, and I’ve believed that since I was 13 years old and got into the sport. But it is kind of fun to break some of those stereotypes. When we were over in Kenya and Ethiopia and I’d tell people how fast one of my runs was and then I’d get a reaction — because they don’t think of white people as being good runners. So it’s fun to get a little bit of respect with the African guys.

Q. Sara, how are you feeling coming up to the LA Marathon? Is there any intimidation there?
A. Sara: I am excited. I definitely have a respect for the marathon, and I have seen enough now to know that Ryan just made it look easy. In his first one he was the second-fastest American in history, and then he had another good one after that. So I kind of paid more attention to other people and their first ones, and they are all over the map.

Q. My first marathon I bonked at mile 18 and limped across the line an hour and a half later.
A. Sara: Sara: Oh no! You have to be more the norm, for sure.

Q. What would you say is the accomplishment you’re most proud of?

I can handle not winning races, not getting medals and stuff. To me, it’s all about maximizing my potential.

A. Ryan: A big reason why I run is so I get all of the talent that got God put in me out of me. I can handle not winning races, not getting medals and stuff. To me, it’s all about maximizing my potential. I’m not comparing my accomplishments to anyone else. I just want to get everything out. And I feel at the moment the couple races where that’s happened the most was the half marathon when I ran under an hour. I ran a 59:43. Really, that was a true reflection of the potential that God has put in me, and that’s what I go back to when I am going through hard times and feel like stopping. But I am like, man, if I hit a day like that day, especially on a marathon day, then who knows what’s possible. So that’s a moment that keeps me going.

Q. Favorite place to train?
A. Ryan: It’d actually be where we’re going, back to Ethiopia. It’s just so peaceful and you get in such a rhythm of running there and it is so inspiring to be there with all the other great Ethiopian runners running through these huge eucalyptus forests and these massive fields. It’s just very surreal and a great place to train. I love the people, and the culture, and everything about it. I am lucky that we get to go back there all the time and train and prepare.

Q. So you guys are heading to Ethiopia this weekend and then training there for a while?
A. Ryan: Yeah, we’ll go straight from Ethiopia to L.A. to the marathon. It’s such a massive advantage going down to 9,000 feet and then race right away. A lot of guys I will be racing against will be coming from Ethiopia and racing right off the plane.

Q. What’s a data metric that you follow closely? Is it pace? Time splits? Is it something else that I am not even aware of?
A. Ryan: For me, it all comes back to body awareness and being aware of my energy levels, how to spend my energy. Ideally you would want to like spend your energy perfectly, where you have nothing left at the end. So rather than, like, repeat how I run on splits for speed or any of those things, I base it purely on how my body is feeling and the lines that I’ve learned through my training about how to spend my energy for the amount of time I am going to be running. So, I think so much of running is keeping in touch with your body and how it is going to be running — with proper form and relaxation.

Q. Ryan, you’ve had a couple of years plagued by injuries. Do you feel like this year is a comeback year?
A. Ryan: I am definitely hoping for a solid year. I think last year I was starting to have a good year. Boston didn’t go well for me, but I was definitely coming back into form. But this year I really want to have a consistent building year, and I have already started looking towards the trials in L.A. and saying like, “Okay, that’s my main goal to be healthy. I want to be 100 percent for that.”

Q. Sara, this might be a good question for you. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Sara: Oh, wow! [laughs] That’s a change of direction. Like, as it pertains to running?

Q. No, just generally, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
A. Sara: Say sorry and own up to your stuff.

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