The 2:04:58 marathoner is looking to bounce back in a big way after a tough two-year stretch.
Even though Ryan Hall is a California kid born and bred, he has a special affinity for the Boston Marathon, which he’ll race for the fourth time on Monday. That’s understandable, since Hall has enjoyed perhaps his best racing success here, recording a third and two fourth places between 2009 and 2011, the last year an incredible wind-aided 2:04:58, the fastest time ever run by an American.
The intervening years haven’t been quite so kind to Hall, as a DNF in the London Olympics the following year began a string of abortive attempts to reach the starting line of several major marathons, leading many to say the former bright star of American marathoning was washed up.
“I don’t pay attention to any media stuff,” he said at the elite athlete press conference on Friday. “As an athlete you can’t be paying attention to that. It doesn’t help me. Was I struggling? Absolutely. But I knew that, I didn’t need other people to tell me.
“But that’s part of the process,” he continued. “I wouldn’t trade 2012, to know it’s going to be the most important part of my career. I’m going to see the fruit of those years in years to come. I don’t think I’d get to where I’m going to get to if I hadn’t gone through those two years. It wasn’t fun, I don’t want to go back and relive it, but I’m grateful for them.”
Hall, who has been self-coached for much of that time, has also gained notoriety for changing up his training, frequently attributing it to divine direction but also sometimes on a whim.
His buildup for Monday certainly qualifies on that account; in early March, he and his wife Sara abruptly moved from their Flagstaff, Arizona training base to a small Ethiopian village outside of Addis Abiba.
“It was very spur of moment,” he recalled. “We were sitting in Flag watching a little clip Julia Bleasdale put together, and thinking ‘Oh that looks so great, I wish we could go there and train.’ And I was like ‘why not?’ There were no races holding us back, and maybe the extra altitude could make the difference. I pulled out my phone, went on Kayak, the tickets were right price, and I booked them that night.”
Changing up his training is nothing new for Hall, who spent a month training at 9,000 feet in his final preparation for Boston. “I’m not happy with getting the same results over and over, but if you don’t press on, change things up, that’s what you get.”
Hall didn’t train with any group of Ethiopian runners for his hard workouts although “every single easy workout I ran with a group of local guys.
“Being so close to marathon I had some very specific things I needed to work on, so I didn’t feel the freedom to just join a group and do what they’re doing,” he said.
Because of the altitude and often windy conditions, it was hard to run as fast as he normally does, but he felt the effort was the same. And he quickly noticed the difference between 7,000 and 9,000 feet of altitude was “massive.”
“I did a long run at 6,800 feet and it felt like sea level,” he said.
Hall’s training regimen consisted of three hard workouts a week. Tuesdays and Thursdays he’d hit the track for fartlek workouts, running continuous repetitions of 400 meters hard with a 200-meter float for 50 minutes the first day, then longer repeats of 1,000m or a mile on the other.
The third key workout was long tempo runs. “Usually my longest marathon effort had been 15 miles,” said Hall. “This time around I felt I needed to do that longer. I felt I needed to experience the marathon pain over and over again, I felt like I needed to push my body way past 75 minutes of hard running in a training session.
“This time I didn’t do any traditional long runs where you just go out for two hours. I was basically running marathon effort for 90 minutes one week, two hours the next, an hour and 45 the next. I would never go that long in the buildup for previous races. I feel really strong, we’ll see how it goes in the race.”
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Without a completed marathon on his résumé since the 2012 Olympic Trials, Hall knows that his performance Monday will be key in re-establishing his credentials as one of America’s top marathoners. “I come into it with humble expectations,” he admitted. “The first goal is to get to finish line. But the obvious goal is to win the race. I’m not coming here just to get top 10, I’m going to be like other African guys and stick your nose in.
“That said, you have to run your own race. I’m very good at that having done it so many times, knowing what moves to cover, what moves to let go. I can work myself back into the race if my fitness allows. I’m not going to commit suicide out there but I’m going to take a risk to win, not just sit back and be comfortable.
“I’ve trained on this course for ages, I even have a treadmill that mimics it,” he continued. “I feel that’s a huge advantage over guys who haven’t run it as much since it’s so technical.
“I feel it suits me really well, especially downhills. I think I’m really good on those. One of my earliest running memories was cutting wood, we’d drive way up in the mountains, cut wood all day, then we’d love to run down the mountain. My brothers and sisters and I would be just bombing down the mountains, as fast as our little legs could turn over. There’s parts of this course where it’s the exact same sensation where you’ve got to just let go. I learned to run downhills super well growing up in Big Bear.”
But technique and training mean nothing at Boston without a huge dose of confidence, and Hall gained that vicariously when his wife ran 52:54 at the Credit Union Cherry Blossom 10 Miler on April 6. “When I saw her run out of her mind, probably the best race of her life, that gave me a huge shot of adrenaline and confidence. It’s hard to judge your training at 9,000 feet because your times are slower, but that kind of shows how much it’s helped.
“I liken Boston to training for the Olympics,” Hall concluded. “It’s a special event. But if you’re not careful it can put too much pressure on you and you can overdo it. But I think I’ve found a good balance this time.”