Road Warrior: Interview With Ryan Hall

Photo: John Segesta

Photo: John Segesta

We sat down with America’s best marathoner this past summer in San Diego.

Interview by: Bob Babbitt and Paul Huddle for

This past summer, top American marathoner Ryan Hall came down from his altitude training in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., to San Diego to work on his speed before his next big race, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on October 10. During our interview, he put out a cool idea: He wants to team up with Michael Phelps and Lance Armstrong for charity to see how fast the three of them can get through an Ironman, relay style. How sweet would it be to see that happen?

(Editor’s Note: Hall withdrew from the 2010 Bank of America Chicago Marathon on September 28)

Competitor Radio: Ryan, the positive side of altitude training is that it makes you so strong, but can it take away your speed a little bit because you really can’t run as fast as you need to?

Ryan Hall: I think that definitely can be the case. You can mess with workouts a little bit to go shorter or break them up a bit differently than if you did it at sea level—maybe instead of doing mile repeats you do 1,000-meter repeats but with the same amount of rest that you’d normally take. I’ve done 400s at altitude before just because I couldn’t go quickly enough over Ks or miles when I’m up at altitude. So you can do some things to change it up. You can use a slightly downhill course for tempo runs.
But I’ve definitely found that it helps to spend a couple weeks before a race down at sea level beforehand just so you get a rhythm of what it feels like to run that quicker pace. Typically, if I’m going under a five-minute pace for a 10- to 15-mile tempo run up at altitude, I know that I’m ready to run a marathon at  4:50 pace, but my body’s not quite ready for it. My lungs are ready, but my legs aren’t. In preparation for Chicago, I’m going for an even quicker pace—I’ll be trying to run around 4:47 a mile—so I’ll need my legs to be able to handle that.

Do you do any cycling?

I do a little bit in the off-season. But honestly, what deters me from it is just the risk of accidents. It’s scary. My dad always says there are cyclists who have fallen and those that are going to fall. But I like the sport; I like how they grind. I’ve followed Lance Armstrong quite a bit, and I think his training is actually pretty similar except that they go so much longer. Sometimes when I feel like I have a long session—maybe when I’m doing an hour uphill run or something like that—I’ll think of Lance, in his book, talking about doing six-hour climbs, or going for six hours straight uphill. I think, “Man, an hour’s not so bad.”

Have you ever met Lance?

I did. I met him at the Boston Marathon when I was going there to preview it in 2008. He was running and I got a chance to meet him briefly before he ran. Here’s my proposition: What I’d like to do with Lance someday, and if this ever works out it’ll be just awesome, is an Ironman relay—me, Lance and Michael Phelps—and do it all for our various charities we’re all supporting. I think it would be a really cool thing. I think maybe we can put a quick time out there for the Ironman. We can spot the pros a couple hours. I think we can run them down.

I was talking to Deena Kastor and a couple of other people and they said that Chicago is a great course for you because you can just put your head down and go.

Yeah, I really get up for those types of races. I just love running quick, and it’s going to be a pleasure to get out there with pace makers again and just be able to see what my body’s capable of. I’m really excited about it already. Training has already gotten off to a good start. If I keep progressing like this, who knows what’s possible? Having these uphill races where you feel like you’re mentally engaged for the entire duration of the race, it’s real nice to be able to just tuck in and go all out. You don’t have to think about anything, just go; and you try and relax and conserve as much energy as possible.
If you’ve been driving in traffic, you’re just burned and fried. You get home and you feel exhausted. Mentally, you feel like you’ve been through the wringer. It’s the same way with paced races, or an unpaced race. In an unpaced race, you’re always looking around seeing what everyone’s up to and you’re responding to every single little move never knowing what’s going to happen. And it’s just a very unsettled mental condition that you’re in for two hours, which is hard. It affects you physically. In a paced race you’re out there and you’re just flowing; there’s no thinking. It’s just getting in your rhythm and letting your body do what you’ve trained it to do. It’s very simple, and it’s very fun too. You get to see what’s inside of you, and that’s what I’m all about when it comes to testing my physical limits.

Then when the rabbits are done—whenever it might be, at 15 miles, 20 miles—then that’s when the real racing begins.

What is the shortest distance interval that you do as part of your regular training?

I’ve done 20-meter sprints during my marathon training. I know that sounds crazy to people; but if you think about it, logically it all comes back to your foot speed. The faster miler you are, the more comfortable you’re going to be at your tempo run pace. So we’re constantly hitting the turnover and strides really hard. We like to do it the day before our interval sessions because I find that it really gets my legs firing and feeling a little bit better than they’d otherwise feel. They don’t always feel great while doing the sprints, but they usually feel a lot better the next day as a result. And I think it’s something that marathoners tend to really neglect. One of the reasons why I’ve been able to be as consistent as I’ve been in my marathons so far is because we continually go back to leg turnover and are always working on it.

Has there been a particular workout that you recall that was just sick, where you were like, “I can’t believe how fast I just went and how many of those I just did!”

I had one of those days before the ING New York City Marathon. I ran an 18-mile tempo run—it was just out and back on Green Church Road. We usually just go out on it and it’s a bit of a downhill if you just go out. But if you come back, it’s a gnarly, hard run. I remember jogging it with Meb three months earlier, and I was like, “Man, if I could run 18 miles on this, I know that I’d be in just amazing shape. Who knows, a 2:04. I’m going to be even quicker.” So I did this workout and ran a little bit under a five-minute pace for 18 miles—at 7,000 feet on a hilly course during a 140-mile week. But it actually set me up for disappointment in New York, because, having done that, I had such high expectations for how I was going to feel in New York. I expected it to feel like a breeze and to just be cruising the whole way. And, in actuality, I remember coming through the 18-mile mark and seeing my spit, thinking, “geez, I ran just a tad bit quicker than the time I ran in practice at 7,000 feet during the 140-mile week.” Having achieved that workout, it made me idealize how I thought the race was going to go. Whereas, if training hasn’t gone quite as well—if I’m coming off a tough last couple of workouts—then I’ll expect it to feel hard and anything better than that is a bonus. So you have to be careful with the great workouts because they definitely can give you confidence, but they can also make you romanticize about how things are going to go for you on race day.

Ryan, you’re running 2:06 for the marathon; but you ran 4:02 for the mile, right? And 3:42 for 1,500 meters? That is smoking!

Yeah, you’ve got to have range these days. Gebrselassie, the marathon world-record holder, I believe ran 3:33, 3:31 indoors for 1,500 meters. The guy’s got some wheels! So the marathon is no longer a slow man’s sport.

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