Searching For Progress: Interview With Ryan Hall

Ryan Hall finished second to Meb Keflezighi at the 2012 Rock 'n' Roll San Diego Half Marathon. Photo: www.photorun.net

After this weekend’s BolderBOULDER 10K, Hall will race the Suja Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon on June 1.

U.S. Olympian Ryan Hall is a bit of an enigma. While the 31-year-old owns the unofficial fastest time for the marathon (2:04:58 at Boston in 2011), he is also someone who has struggled continually with injury and slower-than-expected races. One of these occurred at the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon two years ago, which he finished in 1:05:39 and placed second behind Meb Keflezighi (1:03:11).

Hall wants to change that this year and thinks that after his recent training camp in Ethiopia, he is well positioned to redeem himself at this year’s edition of the Suja Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half Marathon on June 1.

You’ve been racing a lot lately. How are you feeling?

I’m doing good. I came back from Ethiopia and had been training hard over there. I got myself in good shape for Boston. I didn’t quite know where I was at. And things didn’t go well for me there, but I came out of it really well, because what I learned at Boston was I went out a tad bit too quick. But you never know until you get out there. But I came out of it well. Training has continued to progress. I’m looking forward to doing more racing. I’m taking full steps in that direction and that will get me where I want to go.

You are racing at BolderBOULDER this weekend. What are you expecting to do there?

I last ran it in 2011 and I was coming off my best marathon ever at Boston. I ran around 30 [minutes] give or take and I’m going to try and shoot for that time this year. Obviously I wasn’t as great at Boston as I was in 2011, but my fitness has grown a lot since then, so it kind of gives me a benchmark rather than not knowing what you are expected to race or how fast you should go out. I have a very tangible goal right in front of me.

RELATED: Hall On Meb’s Boston Win And More

Tell me about Ethiopia. Was that an eye-opening experience for you?

Oh yeah. I learned more than I expected and I had high expectations going there. I learned so much about the culture and people and how they train. I learned about their approach to life and how tough they are. Training at 9,000 feet is extremely hard. It’s also extremely humbling. We were running out at [Kenenisa] Bekele’s track. It’s beautiful, but you are at 9,000 feet, so you are just feeling like you are flying, but you look down at your watch and you say to yourself that you can’t believe you are running this slow. It makes it tough.

You’ve trained a lot at altitude in the States, so it’s different in Ethiopia?

Yeah. It seems like once you get above 6,000 feet, every 1,000 feet you go up is an exponential increase in terms of how hard it is to train and how hard it is to run fast. Looking back at that, Ethiopia made me super strong, but it made it hard to do much marathon pace work for a substantial amount of time because you’re so high. I don’t think it’s necessarily great to be there all year, but I think being there for a month will make you as strong as an ox. But then you have to come back down to work on your speed afterwards.

Why are you running the Suja Rock ‘n’ Roll San Diego Half?

I ran it in 2012. I did not have a great race there, but did have an incredible experience. I loved the race organization. I used to live in San Diego and trained there. We actually lived downtown one summer. We just love the city. It’s not too far from Big Bear, so I’m racing it because I love the SoCal feel. I love the vibe. I love the course. I think I have the potential to run pretty well there.  I want to go back there and have a good solid run after not having a very good run a couple years back. I’m looking for progress. I don’t even know how fast I ran because I was so disappointed. It’s a sign of a good race when you can have a bad day, but still have good memories about it.

So you want to have a good overall experience this year, then?

Yes. I want to have a good, solid run. I was out for a couple years with injuries. I used to come out looking for a home run in a race; now I’m just looking for progress. Honestly, I felt better coming out of Boston than I did going into it because I had’t raced in so long.

RELATED: How Other Americans Helped Meb Win Boston

Any specific time goal you want to run for San Diego?

You know, I just want to run 4:50 [per mile] pace for as long as possible. I think I ran 4:55 pace in Boulder in 2011. If I can do that at 5,000 feet, then doing 4:50s in San Diego would be a good, realistic and tangible goal. For a while, I was setting every single race up like I was going to run out of my mind and run under an hour [for a half marathon]. If you do that you set yourself up for failure a little bit. I want to do a good job of setting my expectations right and achievable.

You’ve had a long career with lots of ups and downs. You’ve had some real challenges and you yourself alluded to performances that weren’t up to your expectations. How have you weathered these storms mentally?

It’s been tough. It’s been tough for sure. It’s not been an easy road. But what’s kept me going is being able to look at it somewhat objectively. There have been days—even weeks—where I’ve been down in the dumps because of injury. But I’ve been able to understand that this is part of my learning curve. This is part of my development. That has allowed me to have hope throughout all the injuries. It’s got me thinking that something good will come from the other side of it. I believe that my best performances are still in front of me, even though that has not looked to be the case in the last couple of years based on my circumstances and race results. I’ve learned way more in my failures than I’ve learned in my successes. I’m learning how to refine my training and to get things just right—what to work on. I’ve gone to Kenya and have learned from them. I’ve gone to Ethiopia and have learned from them.

All this stuff is just making a big bank. There have been a lot of withdrawals the last couple of years, but I feel like I’ve deposited a whole bunch of knowledge. I really believe the race times will come. But it won’t come until I can be consistent for a really long time. That was one of the reasons why I feel I didn’t need to take a huge break after Boston because I want to be really consistent this year. Honestly, I didn’t think the race [Boston] taxed me at all.

RELATED: Lessons Learned From Hall’s 2013 NYC Marathon Withdrawal

Back to Ethiopia: It’s different there. Were you ever humbled there being in the presence of tons of fast runners who probably aren’t known here in the U.S.?

Ethiopians are such a humble people in general. I think I really took that away from them. You could be a world-class runner and you would never even know it by the way they act. They are very humble and very down to earth. Everyone just works really hard. It’s the same as in Kenya. There are thousands of sub-elite guys who are doing what they can to get themselves out of poverty. They are very motivated and hard-working. I definitely took that away from the experience. I realized how blessed I am to have sponsors and do this as a full-time job.

Part of the biggest thing I took away was just how strong they are. We were just outside of Addis [Ababa], which is at 8,000 feet, I think. Every morning from the village we were staying in, we would see these women who were walking with these massive loads of firewood on their back. They were old enough to be my grandma. I don’t know why it was only women who were doing this, but I only saw one guy carrying a load of firewood. I was told that some of these women were walking 30K and carrying these ridiculous amounts of wood. They are doubled over—almost to the point where they are going to fall on their face. They are walking up this massive mountain at 9,000 feet, carrying this massive wood so they can make $5 when they get down to Addis. I will never forget seeing the look in their eyes. I felt that this was true strength. You can see it in their eyes. They are going to make it no matter what. There is no doubt in their mind about it. They will make it.

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