Boston, 2010: 4th(2:08:41)
New York, 2009: 4th(2:10:36)
Boston, 2010: 3rd(2:09:40)
Summer Olympics, 2008: 10th(2:12:33)
London, 20080: 5th(2:06:17)
U.S Olympic Team Trials, 2007: 1st(2:09:02)
London, 2007: 7th(2:08:24)
RYAN HALL WAS LYING AWAKE last night when God spoke. "This time He was telling me, 'Less is more'—scale back the caffeine, the supplements, even the intensity of my training."
The 28-year-old marathon star is explaining his spiritual pillow talk to his younger brother, Chad, as they run a stretch of singletrack at the base of the Snow Summit ski area, in Big Bear, California. Ryan already put in ten miles and did drills this morning. Now he's on his afternoon run—25 to 30 minutes, at 7,000 feet of elevation, at a shake-the-legs-out pace of seven and a half minutes per mile. Chad, who's keeping up, is an accomplished NCAA runner in his own right. I'm following on their mother's townie bike. "There's this temptation to do more," he says, "as if hammering all the time is the way to improvement. As if winning is everything."
It's a peculiar credo for a man who had the distinction, three years ago, of being hailed as the most promising up-and-coming U.S. marathoner in a generation, after he set an American debut record of 2:08:24 at the 2007 London Marathon. It's also a strange mantra when you consider the double play that Hall is hoping to pull off on October 10: to win the Chicago Marathon, becoming the first American-born man to take that race since 1982, and, while he's at it, smash the American marathon record of 2:05:38, set by Morrocan-born Khalid Khannouchi in 2002.
In other words, Hall hopes to secure a position as the greatest American marathoner since Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, and Greg Meyer dominated the scene back in the Mustache Days of the seventies and eighties—proving that the U.S. can still produce great long-distance champions. (Joining Hall, of course, is fellow American Meb Keflezighi, last year's New York City Marathon winner, who immigrated from Eritria when he was ten.)
Yes, that sounds like "more" rather than "less." But Ryan Hall is a running contradiction. Consider his form. While the sport's leaders—mostly Kenyans and Ethiopians—move along with bowed lower backs and puffed-out chests, Hall, who's an inch shy of six feet and weighs 135 pounds, runs bolt upright, as if his lumbar has no curve. And then there's his long, relaxed stride: Hall is a loping wolfhound in a field of shuffling terriers. As Rodgers, winner of four New York City Marathons and four Boston Marathons, recently told me, "He runs kinda funny."
Hall talks kinda funny, too, tossing around words like dude, gnarly, and trippy in a low-decibel Southern California drawl. What's more, beneath the slow speech and the blond bro shag is a religious faith that's every bit as powerful as his motor.
God is indeed Hall's homeboy—"the God of the Bible, the God who created me, who gave me a gift to run," Hall tells me as he bites into a reheated fish taco at his parents' house in Big Bear. (He lives and trains in Mammoth Lakes, in the eastern Sierra.) But while God may have given Hall a gift, He has yet to deliver a career-defining win. Three years into his pro career, Hall's results are remarkable but not in line with the early hype: seventh place in London in 2007 (2:08:24, the fastest debut marathon by an American), first in the Olympic Trials in New York City the same year (2:09:02, a course record), tenth at the Beijing Games in 2008, third at the hilly Boston Marathon in 2009, and fourth in New York the same year. And at 28, he's in the prime of his career.
Still, the old guard believes. "He's only been in seven marathons," says Rodgers, "and his worst finish was tenth—at the Olympics! Most guys will have at least one slow race, but Ryan never seems to get tired. I think that makes him—along with Meb—a symbol of a new era of American distance running."