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Despite being a few years removed from displaying the form that propelled him to an eye-popping 2:04:58 clocking at the 2011 Boston Marathon and landed him on the last two Olympic teams, Ryan Hall is still one of the fastest and most recognizable marathoners in the United States.
A native of Big Bear, Calif., the nomadic Hall has trotted the globe with wife Sara in recent years, splitting most of their time between Redding, Calif., and Flagstaff, Ariz., while taking annual spring training trips to Ethiopia, where the couple recently adopted four sisters as their own children.
Hall, who dropped out of the 2012 Olympic Marathon with a hamstring injury and DNF’d the LA Marathon in March, hasn’t finished a 26.2-mile race since placing a disappointing 20th at Boston in 2014, where he ran 2:17:50. Still, the American half-marathon record-holder says despite his up-and-down race results, making a third U.S. Olympic marathon team in February 2016 is high on his priority list.
How has the role that running has played in your life evolved since you first got started as a kid?
That’s a really good question. When I was a kid, running was an addiction, something I had to do because it was who I was. It was my identity. I was obsessed. Over the years, God has taught me how to have a healthier perspective of running. Now I see running as a way for me to connect with God, much in the same way that we use songs, churches, and the bible to connect with God.
What are your thoughts heading into the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon a few months from now?
The last four years certainly have been very trying. The last Olympic Trials cost me four years of struggle as I got plantar fasciitis about a month before the trials and ran through the trials with it. Then I trained for the Olympics with plantar fasciitis, which resulted in my stride changing and an endless chain of injury after injury. So, it hasn’t been an ideal lead-up to this Trials, but the great thing about running is that when you are on the starting line, nothing else matters but what you have on the day. I know that who I am and my talent hasn’t changed over the past four years, so I will go out there and be the best version of me that I can be on the day—just as I always strive to do. Obviously, the fitness will have to be there, which I will be working on over the coming months.
What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an athlete since 2012?
Injuries have undoubtedly been the biggest challenge. I am blessed to have a couple great therapists in John Ball and Simon Strawhorn, who have done a great job in keeping injuries to a minimum. I’ve learned surrounding yourself with great people is a necessity when faced with challenges of all kinds and I am blessed to have such people to lean on when I am struggling.
The other is keeping my energy levels consistent throughout the year. I seem to go through periods of training when I will be feeling great and like my old self and then all of a sudden, something shifts and I feel terrible and can barely finish an hour run.
How frustrating has that been for you and do you have any idea why you’ll feel so terrible all of a sudden?
It’s been the most frustrating challenge I’ve faced in my running career because I haven’t been able to figure out exactly why it’s happening. Running is very tough on the body in many ways but I think one of the biggest ways is hormonally. Every time I’ve had blood work done, I’ve had clinically low testosterone levels, which affects everything. It has been really frustrating to put together months of really good training only to lose it all due to sudden fatigue that requires complete rest. This has kind of been the trend for me over the last couple of years, which is why my results have been so up and down and why sometimes I am so hopeful about my running and other times not so much.
Have you done anything to help try and combat your low testosterone levels?
There isn’t anything that I can legally do to change that and even if I were to get a TUE (therapeutic use exemption) for testosterone, I still wouldn’t take a synthetic version because then the body stops producing testosterone naturally. I also feel like taking synthetic testosterone, even with a TUE, crosses a moral line that I am not willing to cross.
I’ve tried altering my diet to a higher fat diet—the body cannot produce testosterone without fat—with no change in my testosterone levels. I’ve also tried playing around with weights and other natural testosterone boosting exercises, also with no noticeable change in my testosterone levels. When you do research about how to naturally boost your testosterone, there are many different things you can try both dietarily and in your activities or lifestyle, but the number one thing that everyone agrees reduces testosterone levels is running. So, I’ve kind of come to the realization that if I am going to be training like a marathon runner and running tons of miles, then I guess having low testosterone levels is the price I will have to pay.
You are 32 years old, you’ve made two Olympic teams and run the fastest marathon ever by an American. How much longer do you plan on competing?
I will keep competing as long as my body allows me to. I am always pushing on to break through and get to the next level. Sometimes a breakthrough takes going through a lot of failure to find what works and what doesn’t. I have the mantra that says, “you must fail your way to the top,” similar to how Thomas Edison failed so many times before finally getting the light bulb right.
You and Sara are now the parents of four girls. How do you foresee that affecting your nomadic lifestyles?
The nomadic lifestyle will definitely be changing, which I am really looking forward to. Since the girls are older, they will be in school in Redding, so we will be hunkered down there with more seldom altitude stints during winter and summer breaks. I am looking forward to spending more time at sea level as I feel that I recover from workouts and can work on turnover more effectively.
What’s your favorite meal after a race or tough workout?
Sweet potatoes and salmon or chocolate Muscle Milk Teff pancakes. It’s a toss up.
Do you have any pre-race rituals or superstitions?
The only thing I can think of is I always crumple up my number. We always did that at Stanford and I have at every race since, even if the race tells us not to do it.
If you could run one race in the world, which one would it be, and why?
I’ve always said I’d like to run the 90K Comrades Marathon in South Africa but with my energy problems that probably isn’t a good idea. But maybe I can just do it for fun and not as a serious competition.
If you could go on a run with anyone in history, who would it be and why?
Eric Liddel. He has always been one of my biggest inspirations. He gave up everything to serve God, even his running. He could have won another Olympic gold medal in the 400 meters but he went to the mission field in China instead. It would be fun to just jog a couple miles with him.
The Hall STEPS Foundation has done a number of great things to help fight global poverty since 2009. How do you see the organization continuing to grow and change in the coming years?
We are really excited about STEPS and what we, along with everyone who has partnered with STEPS, have done thus far. We have been getting more and more into micro-loans as we see this as a key way to empower people. We are excited to invest more and more time with STEPS.