American marathoner Ryan Hall surprised the running world last Friday when he announced his retirement, citing massive fatigue brought on by chronically low testosterone levels.
We caught up with the 33-year-old this week from his home in Redding, Calif., and talked to him about retirement, coaching, what he would have done differently in his career, whether or not he’ll ever return to competition, and a lot more.
Last Friday you announced your retirement from professional running. Now that you’ve had a few days for the dust to settle, how are you feeling?
I feel good, more energized than I’ve been in a while. There have been some sad moments but I have a lot to be thankful for and happy about in my life. It’s nice to just stop the struggle, you know? The constant frustration and massive fatigue, they wear on you. It was time to take a good, honest look over the last four years. I tried a lot of things and my body just wasn’t responding to any of it. It was this cycle of getting reasonably fit, followed by injuries and episodes of massive fatigue. I’ve stopped trying and now I’m just focused on trying to be a good dad and a good husband and coach to Sara.
You were primarily self-coached for the last five years of your career. Talk about coaching for a bit and how you see yourself fitting into that role.
Yeah, I’ve had a lot of great coaches and mentors over the years and have learned a lot experimenting with my own training. It’s been a lot of fun helping Sara get ready for the Trials and I want to continue to pass along what I’ve learned to other runners. I’ve learned so much and I have a lot to give back to people. I want to help others maximize their potential and see the best versions of themselves.
With Sara, I know the Trials so well and the marathon so well, that with the kids and scheduling, it just made sense for me to help her out. She’s getting really fit and raced well at Houston [half marathon] last weekend and that’s been exciting. We’re not reinventing the wheel. I make adjustments based on what I’m seeing, and now that I’m not training myself I can see a lot more when she’s out there.
What performances in your career are most memorable and why?
I think there are different categories. Like if you asked me which race I had my very best stuff and I was the fittest I’d ever been in my life, I’d probably tell you the half marathon in Houston [Hall ran 59:43, still a U.S. record]. I wish that I was running a marathon that day. It would have been really interesting to see what I could have done. That was probably the best I’ve ever felt in my life and it just lined up perfect with Houston. That was probably my best performance. But I’m really proud of my 2:04 in Boston because I was coming off such a bad half marathon in New York and to turn it around like I did for Boston, regardless of the time, I was fourth at Boston and there were a lot of good guys in that race. So I was really proud of that run and I think that best exemplified who I am as a runner, always going to the front and pushing as hard as I can for as long as I can and going to battle. But I think that one best showed the personality of what makes me tick. And then the Trials in 2007. I had dreamed my whole life what it would be like to qualify for the Olympics and I had to go through a lot of downs to get there, so when you hit it, it makes it really, really sweet. And I had gone through a lot of downs before that race and to turn it around and hit a good day and to finally know that you’re going to the Olympics is a pretty amazing feeling. That was definitely the most emotional I’ve been and then it turned into an emotional day all around, obviously, after hearing about Ryan (Shay, who died during the race).
PHOTOS: Ryan Hall Career Highlights
You’ve always run races your own way, and as you said, you liked to push hard from the front and just battle, trying to see how quickly you could make the clock stop. But when you raced, starting in high school and through college and into your professional career, was there ever anyone that you feared competing against? Or maybe not feared, but you knew they were going to push you to get everything out of yourself that day? Or were you just so focused on your own goals that it didn’t matter who was in the race?
That’s a good question. Definitely when you’re lining up against guys like Gebrselassie, Felix Limo, Martin Lel and all those guys, I kind of think back to that era and a couple of my first London Marathons and first Olympics and stuff, like Sammy Wanjiru, when you’re lining up against those guys, you know you’re going to be taking it to the well. So those are some of the names I most remember being a little intimidated by when I was on the starting line. Paul Tergat, all those guys, it was an honor to get to race against those guys but I knew when I was lining up against them that it was going to be a tough day.
And in training, did you ever think about competition, or how you might respond to moves, or were you just thinking about the time you wanted to run in those races?
I was always just trying to get as fit as I could. I think sometimes we make running super complicated, but when really it’s like, if you’re supremely fit, you can win the race a number of different ways, whereas if you’re not fit, it doesn’t matter. If I’m maxed out running 2:04 pace or whatever and someone surges, I’m not going to be able to respond to the surge no matter how much I’ve practiced surging. So I never got too caught up in other people’s race strategies and trying to prepare to beat someone else. I was always just trying to get as fit as I could because I knew the fitter I got, the more cards I had to work with.
Touching on the training aspect of things, and you had alluded to this in your retirement announcement last week, you’ve been training and racing at a high level for most of your life. Do you believe that as runners our bodies only have so much to give?
Definitely. Everyone slows down eventually and there’s a lot of factors that contribute to when that’s going to be for each person, but eventually everyone does and will slow down and get to the point where I am—not necessarily extreme fatigue, but not being able to perform at the level they once did. I kind of look at how I trained in my running career as pretty similar to a lot of the camps I observed when I was in Kenya, where you get a lot of young runners who have been running for a lot of years just training super hard and running a lot of high volume, a lot of high intensity and that does kind of burn your candle a little quicker than if you take a more mellow approach to training and gradually build up and all that. But that’s not who I am, you know? I was always into exploring the extremes for myself and I’m actually kind of amazed I got as many years as I did out of my body. And I’m thankful for those years because I feel like I pushed really, really hard for a long time, so I’m actually kind of grateful to my body for what it did do for me.
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You were training really hard in high school, sometimes logging 100-mile weeks and doing crazy workouts. Taking a shot in the dark, what do you think you could have run for a marathon as a teenager?
That’s a good question (laughing). Well, I could do 10-mile tempo runs at 5-minute pace at sea level when I was a senior in high school, so when I was training for the last Olympic Trials I was training at sea level and I was running 15-mile tempos at like 4:50, 4:55 pace, so if I kind of extrapolate from there, I don’t know, just a complete guess, I probably would have just fallen apart at mile 20 is what would have happened. I probably would have been on 2:15 pace or something like that and completely blown up and been wrecked the last 10K. I do think I could have run a really good half [marathon]. That would have been some interesting data. I think I could have run 63, 64 minutes maybe because I definitely was pretty strong in high school.
Looking back at your career, would you have done anything differently?
There’s always stuff you can do better, you know? I wouldn’t have changed anything just because I’m so happy with how life’s went and how I got going and where I’m at now, but I think I could have done things better with the knowledge that I have now. I think a lot of that would have come back to doing a better job listening to my body and realizing, especially early on in high school, that it’s not about the mileage. I think I could have gotten away with a lot less mileage and probably would have been feeling a lot better, a lot fresher had I not been as concerned with the miles. I was almost running more miles in high school out of trying to prove something to myself and for confidence’s sake. And I think a lot of runners are like that, where they think, “Oh, if I run 80 miles a week I’m going to improve this much and if I run 90 miles a week I’m going to improve that much more” and it’s a confidence issue. Where like now, I’m working with Sara, I have not asked her one time what her weekly volume is because I honestly do not care what her weekly volume is—all I care about is hitting the workouts. And if we’re getting the results we want from the workouts, we’re going to see it on the race course and I’d rather see her running one-a-days and recovering really well and nailing the workouts than running a ton of volume and having a little less snap in her workouts. So, if I could go back and do it again I would have put a lot more value on quality rather than quantity. I know there is a value for aerobic running and putting time on your feet, but I needed to be less married to the schedule and more aware of and in tune with my own body.
Do you think that once you turned your focus almost exclusively to the marathon, that at some point you should have gone back and focused on improving your 5K and 10K times, or racing cross country again? Or were those days definitely behind you once you committed to the marathon?
Well that’s probably something where I refuse to buy into the cliche stuff that I heard once I went to the marathon, like “You’re too young to run the marathon” or “you only have like three good marathons in you and then you’re going to peter out” or whatever. That’s probably one of the things that’s pretty true. Once you go up to the marathon, for me personally, and there’s examples of people who defy this, like Jen Rhines, and I think of other people like Dathan [Ritzenhein], who went to the marathon and then came back down and ripped a 5K on the track, like that stuff amazes me! Because I was trying to get my wheels back for a long time and I was trying to get back on the track and I was trying to get 5K-fit and trying to get 10K-fit and I just couldn’t do it, no matter how much work or emphasis I put into it. So, I kinda feel like if you’re gonna run a marathon, you just gotta come out of it and really concentrate on track if you’re going to get back onto it because it takes a lot of effort once you do go up [in distance].
You’ve said that running is one of the ways you can best glorify God, because its one of the greatest gifts that He has given you. Does that change at all now? Or does how you can use running to glorify Him change?
That’s another good question. Yeah, it does kind of change a little bit. It’s actually been kind of interesting for me to be in church and we’re very much about going after things. So for me, whenever we’re talking about a breakthrough in church and trying to go after supernatural things in your day-to-day living, I always thought about running. That was my way to express my faith in a tangible way and now that’s less of the case. So now, like, it’s a little bit weird for me to think “What am I going after?” But I’ve tried to just turn a lot of my goals into heart goals, you know, like trying to love my kids well today, trying to love my wife well today, trying to do ordinary things, like doing the dishes or whatever, trying to do it in extraordinary ways. I’ve just had to reframe my mind a little bit because it is quite a change.
Building off that, how do you define a runner? And has that definition changed for you over the years?
I guess when I think about, “What is a runner?” and what running is in its purest form, I think back to the retirement video ASICS put up, and in that video, there’s one brief clip of Kai, our Siberian husky, running in the forest and she’s just got her legs fully extended, just flying and eating up the ground, and when I watched that—kinda like when I’m coaching Sara now—I can feel in my body and my legs the same sensation when they’re just flying through the forest, you can tell they’re just totally in the flow. And for me, when I think about running, that’s what running is to me and that’s how I’ll remember my running. I’ll always run to some extent but I’ll probably never experience that again at the same magnitude that I’ve experienced it before. So, that is what I’ll miss about being a runner. When that’s your definition of being a runner, going out now and running 4 miles three days a week, I don’t really feel like a runner. It’s funny, oftentimes I’ll just wear normal ASICS baggy pants and a sweatshirt. I don’t put on my running shorts anymore because it just doesn’t feel right. I’m like, “I’m not really running here.”
So would you say you have a hard time identifying yourself as a runner now?
Yeah, if someone asked me, “Do you run?” I’d have to think about it. I would say I jog. Now I can relate to those people who don’t want to call themselves a runner. I’m more in that jogger category now, I think.
Last question: Is this really it for you? Is there any chance that you will ever return to a starting line as Ryan Hall, competitive marathoner? Or are you pretty content with your racing days being behind you?
I was having a conversation about this the other day and I was like, “If you want me to run again, you’re going to have to speak to me in an audible place.” I’ve turned the corner on things. I was super focused on running for 20 years and when I’m going after something, I go after it—like crazy focused, I’m going for it. But at the same time I can flip switches on and off and when I flip the switch off, it’s off. I would be extremely, extremely surprised if I did come back and honestly it would take some type of supernatural voice from heaven.