Ryan Hall Talks Olympic Marathon Atop the Empire State Building
By Emory Mort
May 10, 2012
Soon to be 2012 US Olympic Marathon Olympians Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Hall, and Abdi Abdirahman are running Saturday's UAE Healthy Kidney 10K in Central Park. On Thursday, the Olympic trio met the media atop the Empire State Building.
Standing on the windy 86th-floor observation deck of the Empire State Building, Ryan Hall reminded us why he is among a handful of the most interesting personalities at the top of men's marathoning. With three months standing between the shaggy, dyed-hair California boy and his second Olympic marathon, Hall and his faith-based support team - a team that now includes a hired bicycling pacemaker along with his coach, the big man upstairs, God - look forward to the course, the conditions and the race field as his golden opportunity (Hall's pun, not mine) to make his grandest marathon splash yet after a wind-aided 2:04:58 in 2011, his dramatic sub-60 Houston Half, the divinely-inspired '08 Olympic Trials pyrotechnics, and his 2:06:17 in the 2008 London Marathon. Recently announced as a headliner for the 2012 ING NYC Marathon to be held 70 days after he hopefully crosses the line in London, and with this image plastered on Vizio flatscreen boxes across the continental 48, Hall and fellow Olympic marathon teammates Meb Keflezighi and Abdi Abdirahman made their way east and up the three-elevator labyrinth to pose for pictures atop the Empire State Building with the American flag and NYRR head Mary Wittenberg. In the background, Lady Liberty rose out of the southernmost port of New York, and 1 World Trade Center - which only recently eclipsed our sturdy outlook as the tallest building in New York - inched higher towards the cloud-speckled skies while the American and United Arab Emirates sporting press descended on the athletes.
Before we go any further, let's get one thing straight: Ryan Hall (and likely his elder Olympic teammates) did not fly thousands of miles to The Big Apple to compete for the win on the hilly course at Saturday's Healthy Kidney 10km. Hall may, by some highly unexpected turn of events, snag the world-leading $25,000 first prize purse sponsored by the UAE royalty, but his training is 100% focused on the Olympic marathon. "I haven't run a single mile at 10k pace," Hall said, "I'm going to go out there and get hyped up and feed off the energy from all the fans out there in Central Park." Four years older and wiser than his marathon-debut year in 2008, Hall finds himself in a position to focus solely on his golden opportunity. It's the changes Hall has made, and plans to make between Beijing 2008 and London 2012 that we will discuss below.
Hall's London Focus
Though he still speaks somewhat like a stoned surfer boy, Hall is at least attempting to throw some cautious elder wisdom into his cauldron of ecstatic eccentricity. In some respects, Hall has formed a shaky truce with mortal limitations and commonly accepted guidelines. While some argued that he might have won Boston this year, Hall shakes his head and says just the opposite, "I'm never happy to watch the Boston Marathon, but if I had to choose a year to miss, this would be it. I've never been good in the heat; I'm never enjoyed it, ever since I've been a little kid. My buddy Wesley he loves the heat. [Louisville-based Kenyan citizen Wesley Korir came from behind to win the 2012 John Hancock Boston Marathon in a time 8 minutes slower than Hall's 2011 time] When we were training together a little bit in Flagstaff last fall for Chicago he was like 'I'm praying for a hot day', and I was like well we're praying against each other because I'm praying for it to be cool."
Hall stands much better odds at winning the weather prayer battle in London, but either way he also approaches resting and training much differently than in 2008, with a heavier emphasis on marathon preparation. "My training's just very specific to what I'm doing, which is running the marathon. In years past I really focused on 5k, 10k and then moved the focus up to the marathon as the training progressed. This year I've gone straight already to marathon pace." His workouts aren't up to full volume, but he says he's almost there, and this time he hopes to get the timing right. "After the Olympic trials I took 3 weeks completely off, let my body just totally recover from that... rather than 4 years earlier where I was comin' off a 2:06 marathon, pop straight back into hard training and really struggle in my training, to the point where I was basically hoping for a miracle on race day."
The Gift of Unanswered Prayers
"So are you still training yourself?"
"I call it faith-based coaching. I listen to my body, listen to God, listen to other people... God's been equipping me and teaching me lessons and preparing me for this season. I really feel like I'm gonna put all his lessons together and get it right."
That Ryan has an ongoing, spontaneous and crucial dialogue with a highly influential and interactive deity adds a rich flavor to his quest for the holy grails of marathoning. Unanswered prayers and difficult-to-swallow performances have led Hall and his advisors to narrow his focus in some areas, but in others he welcomes the urge to rebel. "The thing people say about the Olympics is 'you're either going for the experience or you're going for the medal.' But I think that's bogus, because certain people need to feel the energy of the event. The big mistake I made in Beijing was I didn't harness the energy of the Olympic Games, and I was totally removed from all that. I grew up Olympic-mad. I loved watching the Olympics, and in Beijing I was totally removed. The marathon was the last day, and rather than soaking in the energy of the Games I stayed out by the coast, watching Chinese television in my hotel room. I skipped the opening ceremonies and didn't even go to any other events. This year I'm gonna soak in all that energy, I'm gonna go to the opening ceremony, attend some events, and really get into the spirit of the Games." Coming from someone who has a legitimate chance at a medal, I can't help be inspired by this creative act of performance-enhancing and dogma-bending rebellion, even if his performance in Beijing was doomed not by what sounds like hellish self-imposed cultural isolation (not just American, but Chinese tv!?) rather by over-training, never-before-seen talent, and thermometer readings that rate as "dismal" on the Hallometer.
Hall plans on being in the Olympic spirit, "expert" advice be damned, and also plans to buck the trend of altitude training, a move that will further raise the eyebrows of physiologically-inclined viewers. While his stiffest competition will prepare on the high plateau dirt of Iten, Kenya and in the crisp altitude forest paths of Bekoji, Ethiopia, Hall envisions optimal training and living at sea level. "The victory's gonna come from the training. I'm gonna spend a lot of time at sea level...I might shoot up to altitude for a couple of short stints, maybe, maybe not... I feel like it's going to be really important to work on turnover, those 15 mile runs really quick. You can't do that at altitude, so for myself I feel like sea level is really important. So we're in California - our friends are there, our church is there, we just fill up while we're there." Whether his methods meet with scientific and coaching tradition or not, Hall is focused on fields of energy, whether they are formed by family, friends and church community, fans on the course, or mass audiences stricken with Olympic fever. In London, with conditions likely to remain within Hall's sweet spot, or as close as can be hoped for in a summer marathon, Hall is going to live or die (metaphorically, of course) by these energy sources.
Recently released from a somewhat secret USA Olympic marathon summit, Hall leaked some drops of mana to thirsty ears. What will the course be like? How will Asics' legendary far-east craft cobblers customize his flats to prepare for the peculiarities of the tarmac? He starts off with a shock: "I'm really excited about the course," … after the media recovered from this disclosure, he continued: "I think it's gonna be the most exciting marathon I've ever run," again we all paused to regain our composure before the next scintillating revelation, "the narrow alleys, it's gonna run like a criterium style, like a Tour de France-style stage because the roads are going to be so small where the crowd is right on top of you. And for me, that's what I'm looking for, I think I can take that energy out on the course and add that to my race."
When asked about the many twists and turns on the London course, Hall revealed that American forces put shoe rivalries aside and come together for the Olympics: "Well from what I've heard, I talked to the Hanson's coaches and (Brooks athlete) Desi (Davila)- they went there and she ran the course - the turns are like being waaaay over-hyped, the turns, they're kind of like sweeping turns where you hardly even know you're turning." Continuing on, Hall offered what may end up as LetsRun.com's official coaching advice of the week : "The best advice for the turns is the advice from back in high school cross country: when you come around sharp turns, anytime you lose your momentum, put together like 5 or 10 quick steps and regain your momentum."
Because I'm a journalist, I'm not allowed to say things like "Ryan Hall is one of my favorite runners because he's unexpectedly interesting." So I won't say that. Instead, I'll let our sky-high conversation (west coast pun not intended, and totally unwarranted) speak for itself. Like the Team USA officials who informed the athletes that there is only a 51% chance that the Mercury will rise above 70 degrees on race day, I too am 51% sure that Hall will add an intriguing flavor to the London competition, with a slight chance of showers and possible hair coloration.
Check back for move coverage of the Healthy Kidney 10km.
More Coverage: Story on Hall, Abdi, And Meb Atop the Empire State Building
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