When Ryan Hall announced his retirement from professional running last week, he got something he’d been missing for a while: praise. It’s no secret that Hall, once the most dominant force among American marathoners, has had a rough time over the past few years. His last strong performance came during the U.S. Olympic Trials in January of 2012 (where he finished second to Meb Keflezighi)–a drought that garnered the California-native his share of criticism. Once he decided to retire, however, the conversation shifted from “What’s been eating Ryan Hall?” to “Lets celebrate what Ryan Hall has achieved.” Such is the effect of seeing a great athlete through parting eyes.
There’s no doubt that Hall’s career deserves to be celebrated. If you make race times the principal criterion, you could argue that Hall is the best American marathoner ever. On the other hand, there might be a lesson in his premature decline.
After all, Hall is only 33, one year younger than Haile Gebrselassie was when he first broke the world marathon record in 2007. Gebrselassie was still running at a world-class level when he retired in his early 40s, while Hall has stated that, over the past year, he has experienced fatigue so extreme that he’s been at times unable to finish an easy 30-minute run.
Why the difference?
Some might say that it’s unhelpful to draw a comparison to Gebrselassie, who is widely considered the best distance runner in history. The affable Ethiopian may be a freak of nature, but, then again, so is Ryan Hall. (He ran a 2:04:58 at Boston in 2011.)
One crucial distinction between these two phenomenally gifted athletes is that Gebrselassie had a long and successful career at shorter distances on the track, where the training emphasis is on speed rather than on mileage, before increasing his distance to the marathon in his 30s. This approach reflects a typical trajectory for professional distance runners. Hall did not pursue that path, deciding instead to start racing marathons almost right out of college. When Hall set an American record for a debut marathon, running 2:08:24 in London in 2007, he was only 24 years old.
“When I was getting into the sport, jumping into the marathon, people told me to wait and hold out—I needed to work up to it,” Hall told the New York Times. “I said: ‘Whatever, that’s not true. I’ve been running 100 miles a week since I was 17, in high school, and I’m ready.’ But training at that level for so long takes a toll on your body for sure.”
There have been seven new world records in the men’s marathon since the IAAF first started keeping track. Six of those seven records were set by an athlete age 30, or older, which supports the argument that elite runners tend to peak later in the marathon. Meb Keflezighi, for instance, ran his PR of 2:08:37 just two weeks shy of his 39th birthday.
The vexing (and ultimately unanswerable) question is whether Ryan Hall might have avoided some of his fatigue issues, and perhaps run even faster, if he had waited longer before making the marathon his principal focus. In other words: Did the fact that he was doing the mileage of an elite marathoner as a 17-year-old prove detrimental down the line?
Hall told me that could have been the case, but that the 100-mile plus weeks he ran as a professional were much more intense than those he ran as a teenager. Still, the mileage during his formative years probably was excessive.
“During high school, I went through some periods where I was pretty fatigued as well, and I think if I had had a lot less volume in my legs, I would have been a lot fresher and run a lot better,” he said.
Of course, it feels greedy to ask whether Hall might have had even greater success if his career had progressed more gradually. After all, his approach garnered him results that were unprecedented in U.S. running history. He was 24 when he ran 59:43 in the Houston Half Marathon, shattering the previous American record by more than a minute.
Hall didn’t have anything close to that kind of success on the track, and he told me that if he hadn’t started racing marathons when he did, he might even have retired from the sport before finding out where his talents really lay. Once he did, he never looked back.
“When I ran that half-marathon, that was one of the top-10 performances of all-time,” he said. “Compare that to almost getting lapped on the track–getting the pity clap at the London Grand Prix 5000-meters. It’s two different ball games. If you’re competing in the major leagues, why would you go back to AAA?”
That doesn’t mean Hall wouldn’t have done anything differently.
“I think you do need to be careful with volume,” he said. “What I would say now, looking back, is I wish I would have never added up my weekly mileage. Because the workouts are where you are going to make your biggest gains. Work out hard and then recover really well, and don’t worry about running volume, just for volume’s sake.”
I asked Hall whether he felt that runners who spent years competing on the track had an advantage when they decided to move to the marathon. He said that they did, in the sense that, to be competitive on the world stage in the marathon these days, you have to have the kind of speed that is essential for fast 5 and 10Ks on the track. For younger athletes coming up today, Hall said, developing that speed should be a priority.
[This is advice has been corroborated, among others, by the great Gebrselassie himself. In a reader Q&A Gebrselassie did with BBC Sport prior to the 2004 Olympics, an American collegiate runner complained about tightness in his legs and disclosed that he was logging 110-mile weeks. Gebrselassie responded, “First of all, I am surprised that you already run 110 mpw. Please try to do more speed work and use your mileage for recovery.”]
Asked what other advice he would give to star high school runners coming up today, Ryan Hall reiterated that just running a lot of miles was not a key to success.
“There’s no 10,000-hour rule to mileage. It’s not like, if you do 100 miles a week, you are going to be a great runner. You might be at your all-time worst running 100 miles a week.”
Ryan Hall certainly found out a way to be really good in the short term. And, at least for a little while, he put on one hell of a show.