Ryan’s Choice

Many in the running community are skeptical of Ryan Hall’s decision to replace his coach with prayer to guide his training. I’m not.

Written by: Matt Fitzgerald

It was the running equivalent of a train wreck. First Ryan Hall backed out of some planned summer track races with injury concerns. Then he ran poorly in his one tune-up race ahead of the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, finishing 13th in September’s ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon with a time of 1:03:55.

Ten days later, Hall officially withdrew from the Chicago Marathon. Three weeks after that, he announced that he had split from his coach and left the Mammoth Track Club, with which he had trained most of his career.

It was a shocking fall to earth from the dizzying heights Hall had reached in smashing the American half marathon record in 2007 (59:43) and running the fastest marathon ever by an American-born runner in 2008 (2:06:17). But what really left people scratching their heads were Hall’s explanations of why he left his coach and training group and the direction in which he planned to take his running career.

“I will be using some different sources to shape my training,” he wrote in one blog post. “Over the past 14 years of running I have developed a keen body awareness, which I will use on a daily basis, as well as advice from various experts, and prayer to ultimately shape my training. I believe that operating in this manner will allow me to run with a new level of faith and excitement.”

In a subsequent post Hall added, “In the past I have found it very difficult… to make deviations from my training plan once I have one written, so now I don’t have a plan in ink, making it easier for me to hear and obey God. With that said, God has a plan and sometimes He shows me one day, sometimes, a week, and sometimes the type of running I need to be doing in my current season.”

Predictably, such remarks inspired the formation of a letsrun.com forum thread entitled, “Has Ryan Hall officially lost his mind?” as well as many similar discussions online and off. Some of the comments in the letsrun.com thread expressed support for Hall, but most of these came from a religious perspective and did not necessarily argue that Hall was making a smart move for his running. Those who believed it was a dumb move dominated the thread. There is never a typical point of view in a forum discussion encompassing such varied opinions, but the following remark fell pretty close to the median in this case:

“I understand Ryan’s faith and theology and his deep desire to integrate his faith into all aspects of his life as much as possible. Based on his public explanation, I also believe he is extremely, almost dangerously, misguided.”

I respectfully disagree. While my spirituality is somewhat different from Hall’s, as a “running expert” I believe that the new direction of his running will bear great fruit. I say this because I see Hall doing exactly what I advise all runners to do in my book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. The premise of the book is that, because each runner is unique, and because each runner is a human being, not merely a running machine, the best way to improve as a runner is not to train in strict conformity to a general training philosophy, coaches’ prescriptions, or by-the-book training plans, but instead to allow accumulated knowledge of one’s body, enjoyment, and intuition guide one’s course in training and racing.

This is not an ideologically-based premise; it is evidence based. In my experience, one of the key factors that separates the best runners in the world from the rest of us is a special ability and willingness to do it their own way. RUN is full of concrete examples of great runners achieving success by defying standard practice and conventional wisdom, from Joan Benoit Samuelson’s decision early in her career to continue training alone in Maine instead of moving to Beaverton, Ore., to train with the Nike enclave to Steve Jones’ insistence on running 70 hard miles per week in marathon training instead of 120 mostly easy miles like every else because he knew what worked for him.

Benoit Samuelson never used training plans. She trained “by the seat of my pants,” as she put it. In other words, she let intuition instruct her regarding the right workout to do each day instead of a coach or calendar. I think Ryan Hall’s choice will probably make more sense to those who are less deeply spiritual than him if they substitute “God” with “intuition” in his explanations.

I would like to believe that RUN is among of the “resources” that Hall will use to guide his future training. I know he’s read the book and liked it. In a June blog post he wrote, “If you are looking for a book that gets to what the heart of what running should be all about I highly recommend this read. I couldn’t agree more with Matt’s artistic view of training and the primary catalyst for improvement being the pure enjoyment of training.”

I’m probably flattering myself. But even if Hall has since given the book away and forgotten he ever read it, I believe that he has more or less begun to practice “the mind-body method of running by feel” in his own way. And I believe it’s going to lead him to big things. Mark my words.


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