Running with Her Whole Heart
Curiosity, resiliency, and spirituality have propelled Sara Hall to unexpected marathon success in her late thirties. She intends to explore her potential as long as she still loves to run.
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As she swung around the 1.3-mile loop in front of Buckingham Palace for the ninth time, Sara Hall tossed her watch over to her husband, Ryan. Stuck in no-woman’s land at the 2020 London Marathon, the lead pack a minute ahead and a chase pack 45 seconds behind, she had no desire to look at her splits anymore.
Ryan, who is also Hall’s coach, was confused. “Usually when people throw their watches, they’re really frustrated because they’re running slower than they want to,” he says. “So then I’m, like, in the dumps, as a coach and as her husband. She put so much work in and it’s cold and windy and she’s all by herself.”
The elite-only race, held on October 4, was not an ideal scenario for Hall, who typically thrives in the company of competitors and whose performances are buoyed by boisterous crowds. COVID-19 safety protocols restricted spectators on the course; the race was so quiet she could hear the sound of her own footsteps. Just 18 invited female athletes crossed the finish line — far from the 40,000 runners who normally race.
On another of the 20 laps she would cover that day, Hall made eye contact with Ryan. “I can tell when she’s feeling good and when she’s not,” says Ryan. “But this was a look of, ‘What do you want me to do?’ I didn’t even know what to tell her. I just said, ‘You’re doing great.’ But inside I’m thinking, ‘This is not good. Maybe I should tell her to drop out.’”
Although the field was small, it still included the fastest women in the world—the world-record holder (2:14:04), Brigid Kosgei of Kenya, was leading the charge, along with Ruth Chepng’etich, the reigning world marathon champion, also from Kenya. Hall, at 37, was 11 years older than both of these athletes, came in with a personal best of 2:22:16, which she set by placing fifth at the 2019 Berlin Marathon.
What Ryan didn’t know during the race was that although his wife wasn’t thrilled about her spot in the pack, she was excited about how she felt. Soon she’d make her way up the ranks, picking off competitors one by one. From ninth place to fifth place to fourth… then she found herself in the top three with just one more lap to go—an impressive place at any edition of the London Marathon, which is notorious for assembling the most difficult collections of competitors.
With about 200 meters left, Ryan thought Chepng’etich might be losing steam. He yelled, “You’re eight seconds back!” though he didn’t honestly believe his wife had enough ground left to catch her.
He was mistaken.
“When I moved into third, I got a big surge of joy and excitement to be on the podium,” Hall says. “It was instinctual. I’ve had a lot of races finish that way, even my very first race in seventh grade. That’s how it played out. My body knows what to do once I get to that point of the race.”
Hall went for it, her legs finding a ferocious kick that propelled her past a visibly struggling Chepng’etich in the final meters of the 26.2-mile race. It was (then) a career-best performance: second place, behind Kosgei, at a World Marathon Major, in 2:22:01. It was also the first time in 14 years that an American had landed in the top three in London, since Deena Kastor won in 2006 and set the American record of 2:19:36. Hall was now the sixth-fastest U.S. woman at the distance ever, with one more marathon planned before the end of 2020.
“I’ve been doing this 15-plus years and it’s way longer than I thought I was going to be doing it,” she says. “But I still just love the process and feel so motivated to keep seeing my potential come out. You don’t know, sometimes, the depth of that until it’s really tested. And I think in 2020, it was really tested.”
Finding Her Place
Hall, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, came into the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in February as a favorite to make the Olympic team. By her account, she had trained harder than ever before, consistently hitting 130 miles per week with hard efforts every other day, preparing for a moment she had dreamed about forever. But when race day came, Hall didn’t have it. She dropped out with four miles to go, defeated by the brutally hilly course in Atlanta on a relentlessly windy day.
A sixth attempt at qualifying for the Olympics ended in heartbreak.
“Having that dream die, then going straight into a pandemic and not getting to do any other races where I could use that fitness, it really caused me to reflect on why I’m doing this,” Hall says.
Hall kept training. For what? She didn’t know, but it’s the grind that’s really kept her in the game for this long, so she didn’t have any intention of stopping.
About four months into the COVID-19 disaster, the chance to compete in London presented itself and Hall took it immediately. She’s described the result as “redemptive,” a way to heal from the disappointment of the Trials.
“It was a big, personal breakthrough for me to be able to get the most out of myself on that kind of day in London,” she says. “It’s exciting for the future, I think, to feel like I’m growing as an athlete and being able to run well in different scenarios.”
Most professional distance runners consider their late 30s the “twilight” of their careers. A time for winding down, taking a few last chances, and calling it good. Hall’s trajectory, however, seems to defy the norm — almost as if she is just getting started.
She was actually introduced to running as a teen, growing up in Santa Rosa, California, splitting her time and interest between track and soccer. Eventually her love of cross-country won out. Hall enjoyed challenging herself, trying to find her limits whether during practice or running home from practice, when she’d throw in some bonus hill sprints along the way.
“I really loved that my parents and coaches always gave me a lot of freedom to push myself,” she says. “That really helped me grow a love of running. I was the one initiating it.”
After winning the prestigious Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships in 2000, Hall went on to compete at Stanford University, where her team won the 2003 NCAA cross-country title and she was a three-time NCAA runner-up in the 5,000 meters and indoor 3,000 meters. It was also at Stanford where she met Ryan, who went on to become a two-time Olympic marathoner with a career best time of 2:04:58 (the only American to break 2:05).
As her husband’s career skyrocketed during those early post-collegiate years, Hall often found herself in a supporting role. Though she continued her own training and competing, she struggled to find her place in the sport.
Then, 10 years in, she took a crack at her first 26.2-mile race at the Los Angeles Marathon. It didn’t go well. Succumbing to cramps on a hot day, she placed 22nd in 2:48:02.
“It’s funny because as bad as my first marathon was, it really didn’t faze me because I really loved training for it,” Hall says. “That race was actually a good example of what it’s taken for me to improve in the sport — it’s not the cardiovascular fitness but the muscular strength to be able to handle the pounding of the race.”
Just two weeks after that marathon, Hall was off to the world cross-country championships in China, where she led the U.S. team to fifth place. Then she went on to the 2015 Chicago Marathon, where she finished in 2:31:14 — qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Trials.
“That’s been the trend,” she says. “I think just after experiencing a lot of disappointment in the sport and struggle, it makes you really appreciate the times when things are clicking.”
Embracing New Roles
It was also in 2015 that the Halls expanded their family, bringing home their four daughters — Hana, Mia, Jasmine, and Lily — from an orphanage in Ethiopia. It was a big leap for two pro athletes who were used to a lifestyle that afforded spontaneous travel and plenty of recovery time from grueling workouts. But Hall was ready to quit running if parenthood demanded it.
“I thought there was a good chance I wouldn’t be able to keep going based on talking to a lot of other families that had adopted older kids from Ethiopia, because they had really hard adjustments — like, life-altering,” Hall says. “So I was going into it braced for that, but willing to stop competing if I had to.”
It turned out, the transition wasn’t as rough for the girls as it could have been — and Ryan was the one who was ready to exit the pro running scene. Shortly before the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, he announced his retirement.
As his career ended, Hall’s began taking off, leaving fans wondering if motherhood had anything to do with her success. Hall, however, believes she’s improving despite becoming a parent, not because of it, though she acknowledges that it adds a layer of meaning to her career.
“I see a correlation where my kids feel empowered to go after their dreams,” she says. “Before kids, I struggled with not always seeing the positive impact of my running on others. It feels really self-centered. The upside now is that I don’t have as much of a conflict with that. I see the positive effects in real time.”
Although the initial difficulties of bringing four children into a new home are over, the typical rigors of raising tweens and teens remain.
“Being a world-caliber athlete, you’re competing against people who are living completely focused lifestyles. And I know what it’s like to live that way,” Hall says. “I definitely get overwhelmed at times.”
The non-negotiables for Hall are her sleep, which she tracks with an app (“If I haven’t gotten enough, I text Ryan that I’m going back to sleep.”); daily physical activity for the girls when their sports aren’t in season (“walking doesn’t count.”); and eating dinner together as a family each night (“if there’s no homework we’ll play games after dinner — it’s family time.”).
The pace is hectic, but fulfilling. Hall protects her time to make it all work, often declining social invitations or other business opportunities to focus on her family, training, and recovery.
“I’ve learned that rest can be an internal state. You can be doing a lot of things outwardly and physically, but you can internally be at rest if you just keep your peace,” she says. “Even when I’m in the rigamarole of picking up kids and dropping them off, after a really hard workout, I give grace to myself. I’ll take an hour to unplug and listen to a meditation…I picture myself as a human battery. You have to recharge yourself.”
Never Too Comfortable
Her oldest daughter, Hana, now attends Grand Canyon State University, where she competes for the cross-country and track teams. While the younger three girls are going to school online during the pandemic, the family decided to temporarily relocate to Crested Butte, Colorado, for “super altitude camp.” The town is at 9,000 feet, which is 2,000 feet higher than Flagstaff — and traveling there was a way to satisfy the family’s adventure bug.
Does the higher altitude give Hall a performance boost? Maybe. Or maybe not. But for Hall, it doesn’t really matter what the physiological effects are if she feels like it’s making any kind of positive difference. It’s an example of how she and Ryan work well together as athlete and coach, she says.
“He’s a risk-taker like I am, but also there’s a mutual trust that I know my body and that I have a good sense of what I can handle, even if it’s a really different approach,” Hall says. “He’s been willing to let me do some stuff that probably other coaches wouldn’t, just because it’s less traditional.”
Do they always get it right? They acknowledge that they don’t, but also attribute the relationship to why Hall has seen so much improvement.
“Where we run into trouble sometimes is I don’t treat him as professionally as I would a coach. I’m 100 percent comfortable with him, so I’m just going to snap at him. And it can spiral from there,” she says. “Most of the time it’s really good, though. I’m really hard on myself, so I need someone who’s really empathetic. In that way, we’re a good fit.”
Hall also likes to push for some experimental marathon training — high volume, high intensity, few easy days. After London, she only took a few days of recovery before diving into training for the Marathon Project, another elite-only race on December 20, 2020. She posted a practice workout from the race course where she had run the last 12.2 miles at 5:17 pace, which if she held on race day would have translated to a record-setting 2:18:25 marathon. She came close, winning the race in 2:20:32 and moving up the all-time fastest marathoners list to second, just after Kastor’s national record of 2:19:36.
Ryan’s challenge is to hold the reins and make sure his wife (and other athletes he coaches) don’t repeat the mistakes he made in his career, like total burnout. He believes that Hall still has room to grow in the marathon — neither of them rule out another try for the Olympics in 2024, when Hall will be 40. Before that she plans to race the 10,000 meters in June at the 2021 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, where the top three finishers who have the Olympic qualifying standard (31:25) will go to the rescheduled 2021 Tokyo Games.
“Sara trains harder than I’ve observed other people training. She gets away with that because she’s also very intuitive with her body,” Ryan says. “That’s the beauty of coaching someone like her. She takes really good care of herself in terms of her nutrition, her sleep, all those million little things that are a pain in the butt. That’s why she’s still running so well, even in her late thirties.”
Strengthened by Faith
Physical preparation only gets athletes so far. Over the years, Hall’s been dealt a number of blows that might take less optimistic athletes out of the sport forever. Part of her ability to keep perspective is her evolving Christian faith, she says.
“I think sometimes I am leery to share just because you can get put in a box as a Christian as, ‘You’re some evangelical religious right person,’” she says. “It was through really investing in my spiritual life that I found a lot more joy, and then I was able to really actually love where I was at in my life. It was a real turn-around. I think we focus so much on the physical when we ask, ‘How are you still improving at 37?’ But it’s actually body, soul, mind, and spirit.”
Her growth and peace comes from prayer, meditation, reading the Bible and other spiritual books, and listening to music. She also relies on her church community for support.
“For some people it’s walking in nature or something else. There’s a lot of noise everywhere and a lot of distractions,” Hall says. “It’s getting in the quiet space to hear, for me it’s God’s voice, but in your life it might be different.”
And when the time comes to step away from professional competition, Hall already knows what she’s been called to do: Start an international-caliber school that is free for poor children outside of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. She envisions an institution that includes character and leadership development, ultimately producing citizens who can lift their communities out of poverty. She and Ryan already support education, clean water, and health initiatives in the region through their Hall Steps Foundation.
“In 2009 I was ready to move over there, but Ryan was at the height of his career, so that wasn’t an option,” she says. “It’s still my dream. I feel like that’s the only thing that makes me come alive as much as running does.”
For now, Hall intends to keep competing: She believes she still has a “couple of minutes” to shed from her marathon time before all is said and done (though since this interview she already set an 89-second PR at the Marathon Project). It’s that kind of attitude that Ryan believes will one day land Hall as one of the country’s all-time greatest distance runners. It’s her enviable confidence and belief in what’s possible, without fear of failure.
“Hope is what fuels athletes to keep going, to stay motivated, to keep training at a super high level,” Ryan says. “Once you lose your hope, that’s when it’s over. When I started believing that my best days were behind me, my career was over. One thing I know, like for certain, is she can run a lot faster.”
Hall sees her age as an advantage. It’s given her a certain amount of wisdom. It’s liberated her, too — she never feels like she has something to lose by taking chances, whether in training or during a race. And that makes her a threat on every starting line.
“I’m just excited to see where I can go from here. Seeing a lot of improvement and getting faster with each build up is addicting,” she says. “It’s really important to love the process as a marathoner. You only get to race once or twice a year, but if you love the process along the way, then it’s worth it no matter what. So I think that’s kept me in it.”