“I reflect on these achievements not with pride, but with humility, for I know that I was only faithful to the gift I had been given.”
– Ryan Hall
Ryan Hall isn’t worried about what you think
When I first read the news that Ryan Hall, the fastest American marathon runner in history, had decided to retire from competitive running only a few weeks before the 2016 Olympic Trials, my first instinct was to compile a list of his most audacious and remarkable races. From his American Record 59:43 Half Marathon in January 2007, to his romp through Central Park in November 2007 to win the Olympic Trials, to his astonishing front running at the Boston Marathon in 2011 that resulted in a fourth-place finish in 2:04, I wanted to remind myself why we always had such high hopes for him, and why we sometimes believed there was no race that he couldn’t win.
But almost as soon as I had that notion, LetsRun had published such a list, recapping those transcendent races, as well as others where Hall’s potential and his fearless approach to racing were on full display. They wrote about his debut marathon in London 2007 where he challenged the leaders late in the race before finally finishing 7th in 2:08:24, the fastest debut ever for an American and the fastest time ever for an American-born runner. The next year he would run 2:06:17 prompting many of us to dream that he might medal in Beijing. They retold the story of how, several years later and struggling to regain his competitive form, he helped slow the chase pack in the 2014 Boston Marathon, a decision that almost certainly helped Meb Keflezhgi become the first American in 30 years to win the race.
As I read the LetsRun piece, I realized that most fans of American distance running will remember Hall’s career by these few brilliant races, and by the years of frustration that followed that early promise. It all seemed a little sad, because of course, other than that win in the Olympic Trials, Hall’s great races never brought him that big victory on the world stage that we thought he deserved.
But I suspect that Ryan Hall isn’t worried about whether we’re sad. He has never been worried much about what others think.
The thirteen-year-old Ryan Hall didn’t ease into running. By now the story is familiar how Hall impulsively completed a 15-mile run around Big Bear Lake with his father. He wrote that he knew from the beginning, that God’s plan for him was to run with the best runners in the world. As a high school runner, Hall became one of the best in the country, and — with Dathan Ritzenheim and Alan Webb — became one of the big three in the graduating class of 2001. In June of that year, he ran 4:02.62 for 1600m and a 3:42.70 1500m as an 18-year-old. That time would stand as his lifetime personal best.
In college, Hall struggled at time with injuries, but in his senior year at Stanford won the 5000m at the NCAA Championships, running 13:22. Even in college, I remember there were some who recommended that he focus on his speed, hoping he would live up to his early promise as a miler. But Hall had other plans.
Out of college, he became a professional runner, and began to find success at longer distances. He won a U.S. cross country title in 2006, and later that year set an American record for 20K. And then, on January 14, 2007, he ran that ridiculous, unexpected, amazing 59:43 half marathon.
For the next three years, Hall was America’s best long distance runner. Not only that, he appeared to be poised to take his position at the very top of the world stage. He raced with absolutely no fear of the marathon distance, and with a self-belief that allowed him to push the pace or take the lead early or late in races against the world’s best. His style of racing often resembled that of his East African rivals more than that of other Americans. His style of training seemed to anticipate the precepts of world-renowned coach Renato Canova with an emphasis on frequent long tempo runs of 30K at marathon pace.
But after those 3-4 years of dominance, Hall began to struggle. It now appears that his struggles were related to low levels of testosterone, or, more generally with the accumulated toll that his intense training was taking on his system. Given the high expectations others had for him, it was probably inevitable that when he failed to win everything in sight, fans of distance running started criticizing his choices. They questioned his mental toughness, mocked his decision to part with his coach in favor of ‘faith-based training,’ doubted his reasons for dropping out of races.
Trolls will be trolls, of course, but it wasn’t just trolls, it was many of us in the mainstream running community that felt puzzled by Hall. There was the matter of his faith, and his insistence that his running was the fulfillment of God’s plan. There was his self-sufficiency, and his ability to remain aloof rather than play the role of a celebrity runner. At some level and if we’re honest with ourselves, we all thought we knew better than Hall about how to train, how to race, how to live.
It didn’t really occur to us that his unique view of the world probably was what made it possible for him to achieve what he did in running. For Hall never allowed himself to be limited by conventionally reasonable thinking, but followed his vision of running with the best runners in the world as though it were inevitable. So if we were surprised to see his name at the top of the leader board at London, he wasn’t surprised. He would say it was the working of God’s plan, the same as his decision to retire.
It’s not easy to put ourselves in Ryan Hall’s place. We might have a problem with his devoutly religious worldview, or might want to shake him sometimes to look at things more reasonably… But I think our biggest hang-up might be that Ryan Hall really doesn’t worry about what we think of him. I doubt he loses a single hour of sleep worrying about what others think about his career. And that being the case, it’s time for us, or for me anyway, to simply appreciate the runner he was and the list of highlight races that still have the potential to amaze and inspire.