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Editor's note: After a month-long training session in Kenya, Ryan Hall was scheduled to run the Rock 'n' Roll San Jose Half Marathon on Oct. 6, but pulled out on Oct. 3 because of a training setback. Hall' status for the New York Marathon on Nov. 3, his first marathon after nearly two years away from the distance, is still unknown.
During a long, hard year, Ryan Hall's long, hard runs have rarely posed a problem. It's been the easy days that have tended to explode.
Late last year in Redding, Calif., for instance, Hall was just rounding into shape after a sharply disappointing 2012 season, during which injuries forced him to drop out of the Olympic Marathon around the 10-mile mark and withdraw from a much-anticipated appearance at the New York City Marathon. Thus ended a five-year run in which Hall had logged 10 consecutive world-class marathons, including a 2:04:58 performance at Boston in 2011, the fastest time ever run by an American.
But by December Hall had started working with a new coach, Renato Canova, and he and his wife, Sara, had just moved into a house on the outskirts of Redding. On a dark afternoon, as the remnants of a typhoon pummelled California's Central Valley Region, Hall set out for an easy half-hour recovery run, one of the rare relaxed workouts allowed under his new coach's rigorous system.
Hall zipped into a red rain shell, put on a red ball cap, and stepped out into the storm. The rain rang like grapeshot over the surface of the bass pond in front of his house. "That pond is what sold me on the place," he says. "I've fished it almost every day since we moved in. I dream about teaching my kids to fish here, when the time for children comes."Hall followed a circular drive out to the highway and turned right, running on the shoulder past an elementary school and grocery store. The rain beat against him in crashing sheets, but Hall moved steadily, with his signature, galloping stride. About a mile from the house, however, with no warning twinges, a shout of pain rose from his lower back.
"I couldn't believe it," Hall recalls. "I didn't want to believe it."
This wasn't the plantar fasciitis that had dogged him through the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials or the hamstring pain that had driven him off the road in London; this was a new affliction. Hall stopped, pivoted, and managed to limp home. He had suffered a serious muscle strain that took weeks to heal.
By early February of this year, he seemed back on track. Along with Sara, a professional middle-distance runner, and his younger brother Chad, a former Foot Locker national high-school cross-country champion, Hall was by then in Flagstaff, Ariz., his altitude training base. Almost 10 weeks remained before the 2013 Boston Marathon, and Hall's training clicked along on schedule; on Wednesday, Feb. 7, he and Chad had hammered a 23-mile run at 6:15 pace, at 8,000 feet elevation.
"My right quad had felt a little hot over the last mile, but overall it had been a great workout, a real confidence-builder," Hall says. "I thought I had turned the corner."
The next morning, Sara, Chad, and Ryan embarked on an easy hour's spin on a dirt road by Lake Mary. Hall parked his SUV, and his two dogs boiled out of the back seat. Early sunlight flooded over the snow peaks. The next week, he and Sara were scheduled to fly to Kenya, where Hall would train for a month under Canova's eye. They had bought their airline tickets. All Hall had to do now was run for an hour, without even glancing at his watch.
But not a quarter-mile down the road, he abruptly stiffened. He drew in a breath, took a kind of stutter step, tried running for a few more strides, slowed to a halting walk, and then stopped altogether. He bent over and pounded his knees in frustration. The hot spot on Hall's quad had bloomed into a shooting star of pain. For more than a week he tried to tough it out, but by late February the injury hadn't healed and Hall was forced to cancel his trip to Kenya; by mid-March he had withdrawn from Boston.
"I could have shown up and jogged through half the race, and still collected a solid payday," Hall says. "But that goes against everything I stand for. I couldn't have lived with myself afterward."
Some six months later, on an overcast August morning, Hall is back at his house in Flagstaff, under eerily similar circumstances. He is 12 weeks out from another major competition -- in this case, the 2013 ING New York City Marathon. The day before, he'd run 25 pain-free miles at 7,000 feet elevation. In early September, he and Sara are scheduled to travel to Kenya for his long-postponed training sojourn. This morning he'll run for an easy hour along a dirt road on the edge of town. But if Hall fears that the road may be booby-trapped -- that yet another injury awaits -- he's not showing it.
"Too bad I couldn't have had this cloud cover yesterday, during my long run," he says, smiling. "But hey, after everything that's happened this year, I'm not about to complain about a little sunshine."
Hall's smartphone buzzes. "Sorry," he says. "I've got to take this."
It's Sara, Skyping from Uganda, where she's serving on a mission trip with Bethel Church, the evangelical congregation that drew the couple to Redding in 2010. She and Hall exchange news and confirm their Kenya plans. Then, with the call concluded, Hall mounts up for his run. He looks clear-eyed and healthy, his boyish face clean-shaven, his blond hair buzz-cut close to his skull.
"I like holing up here in Flagstaff, but it's good for me to look forward to something new in Kenya," Hall says. "Some marathoners -- Meb [Keflezighi], for instance -- thrive on routine. They prepare exactly the same way, race after race, year after year. I can't work that way. If I'm doing the same thing for weeks on end, it just seems like a grind."
In contrast to the spacious home in Redding, with its bass pond out front and swimming pool in back, the house in Flagstaff is snug and relatively spartan. When not training, Hall mostly works from the kitchen table, keeping up his Twitter and Facebook accounts, reading self-help books such as Talent Is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, and studying the Bible. Today, the book is open to Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, ye his angels, that excel in strength, that do his commandments, hearkening unto the voice of his word."
Nineteen months have now passed since Hall last completed a marathon, the U.S. Olympic Trials race in Houston. Hall reads neither print-media stories about himself nor the online message boards -- "Sara's my filter in that department," he says -- but he's aware of the criticism mounting against him: that, as a runner, he is lost and reeling, burned out from 10 high-pressure marathons and addled by his overzealous faith, with little chance of contending in New York or any future major marathon.
Almost from the beginning, Hall's professional career was simultaneously transcendent and star-crossed. After graduating from Stanford in 2005, Hall joined coach Terrence Mahon's training group in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. In the fall of 2006, race director Mary Wittenberg invited Hall to watch the New York City Marathon.
"I rode with Mary on the press truck," Hall says. "It was incredible -- rolling through the five boroughs, with the wind blowing and the crowds screaming."
To Hall, it felt like destiny.
In January 2007, in Houston, Hall popped an astonishing 59-minute half-marathon, smashing the standing American record by more than a minute. Both the running and mainstream media heralded him as the long-awaited heir to Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar, much in the way that precocious emerging folksingers were proclaimed the next Bob Dylan.
In his marathon debut at the London Marathon a few months later, Hall started to redeem those hopes, finishing seventh in 2:08:24, the fastest debut ever notched by an American. Then in the fall of 2007, he handily won the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2:09:02, surging down the final mile through Manhattan's Central Park far out in front of the field, his blond hair waving, jabbing his fist skyward in a gesture of unfettered joy, which also happened to play very well on TV.
"That moment helped Ryan cross over to a mainstream audience," his agent, Ray Flynn, says. "After that race, with Ryan wrapped up in the red, white, and blue, it was inevitable that the corporations would want him."
Since then, however, he has yet to win another marathon. No matter how brilliantly he runs, a few East Africans always run faster. He nailed that sub-2:05 at the 2011 Boston, for instance, but Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya trumped him, running 2:03:02, followed by another Kenyan and an Ethiopian. (The official U.S. record still belongs to Moroccan-born Khalid Khannouchi, who ran 2:05:38 in London in 2002 after becoming an American citizen; Boston times, because of the downhill, point-to-point course, are unofficial.)
|For all his success, Ryan Hall still can't stay ahead of his East African rivals.|
Meanwhile, Hall's two Olympic Marathon appearances fizzled: Along with his DNF in London, he was 10th in Beijing in 2008. Unlike his American peers, such as Deena Kastor, Keflezighi, and Galen Rupp, Hall has failed to derail the East Africa juggernaut with a victory or medal at a major international competition.
"For all that I've accomplished," he acknowledges, "I realize that a lot of people are still waiting for my defining race."
Hall's failure to deliver that race, however, can't be traced solely to African dominance: Stubbornly, at times self-destructively, he has insisted on going his own way. Instead of sticking with Mahon, the coach who guided him to early professional success, or settling in with an established training group, Hall has shifted peripatetically -- at times, seemingly erratically -- among coaches and systems.
In 2010, Hall left his longtime base in Mammoth to live and train in both the relative running desert of Redding and in the larger running community of Flagstaff. In Redding, he joined the Bethel congregation, an evangelical mega-church. Hall declared God as his coach and trained with an unofficial team of advisors (chiropractors, massage therapists, etc.), and his present slump descended. When media reports depicted Hall's fellow church members engaged in faith-healing sessions and Hall himself consulting divine powers to plan his day's training agenda, the head-scratching turned to genuine concern.
America's most talented marathoner seemed on the verge of squandering his gift. Until Hall submitted to the 24/7, speed-oriented rigor of a Nike Oregon Project or Team Schumacher, critics maintained, he had no chance of beating the East Africans.
So there was hope, in some quarters, when Hall announced in the fall of 2012 that he had hired Canova as his coach. But by July of 2013 Hall declared that he had returned to the self- and faith-based coaching that, by his critics' lights, had led to the cycle of injuries and subpar performances. (Hall says he still "bounces ideas" off Canova from time to time.)
Hall failed to boost his stock. In fact, he barely aroused a shrug when he announced this summer that he'd be spending the month of September training in Kenya. Last November, when Hall first broached the idea of Africa, it had seemed like a cool and edgy gambit, an intriguing risk undertaken by a colorful, talented runner known, and mostly admired for, for his maverick tendencies. But now, after nearly a year of further injury and missteps, and after Superstorm Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombings, and doping scandals have deeply roiled the sport, going to Africa just seems like one more instance of Hall's fecklessness and, perhaps, desperation.
At age 31, he is no longer the wunderkind pumping his fists through Central Park. If Hall is to redeem himself, his critics say, if he is to regain his mojo and restore his standing as America's premier male marathoner, finally fulfilling the grand hopes invested in him, he must come through on November 3 in New York City.
In Flagstaff on this summer morning, however, Hall hardly looks like a man fighting for his professional life.
"Every good runner goes through a rough patch during his career," he says. "I'm not saying this year hasn't been difficult. I've had to learn that it's possible for me to find fulfillment in ways other than running. But at the same time, this year has made me hungrier than ever. I almost feel like I'm starting my career all over again. I know my best marathon still lies in front of me."
Hall strips down to black shorts and a pair of Asics, his longtime shoe sponsor. He opens his front door and, after casting an eye at the gathering thunderheads, ducks back inside for a battered white cap. He pulls on the cap and breaks from his house on what should be an easy run.
In the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel back in April, at the Friday morning media conference before this year's Boston Marathon, Ryan Hall is glaringly absent. At this race in 2011, the year of the famous tailwind, Hall had logged the sub-2:05 performance that sealed his standing as America's fastest marathoner, but his off-the-podium finish reinforced the fact that, for all of his speed, consistency, and prolific body of work, he falls short of being the greatest. Nor had he found the podium the previous year, when he celebrated that 2:08:41 run by exuberantly imitating an airplane as he ran down Boylston Street to the finish, rather than castigating himself for finishing in fourth place, as a Shorter or Salazar might have done.
Checking in for his media credentials, the veteran TV commentator Toni Reavis weighs in on the injured, absent star.
"People think that Ryan Hall is like Bill Rodgers, that he's an animal. Ryan isn't an animal. Billy was an animal -- he had that hunger and focus to win," Reavis said.." Ryan has never shown that savagery or grit you need to get to the very top level. Look at 2010 Boston -- he's doing airplanes and cruising in? Would Rodgers have done that, or Salazar? Ryan has a beautiful stride like Bill, and that flowing blond hair like Billy, but he's not a Bill Rodgers. Ryan seems to simply be looking to run up to his potential, not to beat the other racers. You only have a small window to run a career-defining marathon. Ryan's window hasn't closed yet, but it's moving in that direction."
For the introduction of elite athletes, the runners troop into the hotel's gilt-edged ballroom and sit facing the reporters. Among the rows of predominantly East African faces, you reflexively search for Hall's emphatically non-African one. But there's no Hall this time.
Over the last decade, he, Keflezighi, and, to a lesser extent Abdi Abdirahman and Dathan Ritzenhein have prevailed as the premier American male marathoners, the only performers with the talent and gravitas to consistently sling it with the Kenyans and Ethiopians at the big-city, big-money marathons. Holding court in a corner of the room after the athletes' introduction, Bill Rodgers points out that fact, suggesting we should be grateful for Hall's accomplishments.
"I understand Ryan totally," Rodgers says. "I think he's a very smart guy with a certain loner quality that is typical for a marathoner. I think he's going to come back from this rough patch of injuries to run well again. From a U.S. perspective, he's been like a monk keeping the light of learning alive through the middle ages. In this era of East African dominance, he's kept American marathoning viable."
Wesley Korir, at that time the defending Boston champion from Kenya, voices a similar sentiment.
"We miss Ryan here," Korir says. "Everybody needs Ryan Hall -- he always brings a special quality to a marathon. Remember, here in Boston in 2011, it was Ryan who gave that big midrace surge. There wouldn't have been all those amazing times that day without Ryan going out and pushing the pace."
Jack Fleming, the longtime Boston Athletic Association communications director, overhears the conversation and offers his opinion.
"I really admire the way Ryan keeps 'losing' in perspective," Fleming says. "And he has a great, authentic way of relating to his fans. That photo of him doing the airplane at the finish is one of Boston's iconic images."
Fleming also cites the press conference after Hall's third-place finish in 2009 when the runner pulled out a baseball that he had used to throw out the first pitch at Fenway Park and said, "How great is this?"
"Let those other guys bawl when they belt their guts out but still finish third," says Fleming. "Ryan keeps his performance in perspective."
For his part, Greg Meyer, whose 1983 win in Boston is the last there by an American man, splits the difference between Reavis's criticism and the others' praise.
"Ryan is a great kid with incredible talent, and I wish things could fall in place for him better," Meyer says. "It seems like he's constantly vacillating among coaches and philosophies, as if he can't stop searching for the perfect system. Well, in the marathon, there is no perfect system. At some point you just have to stop seeking and start trusting. He's a man of deep faith, but sometimes I wonder if he really has faith in himself. In that 2011 race, if Ryan really believed in himself, he wouldn't have gone out with the leaders to prove that he belonged with them. He would have waited to attack over the final miles, and he might have wound up on the podium. I think Ryan would greatly benefit by moving away from self-coaching and starting to really trust a coach. That takes anxiety and doubt out of the equation for an athlete."
Two days later, on the Sunday before the race, Hall appears at the marathon expo on behalf of Nissan, another one of his sponsors at the time. He also has promotional deals with Oakley and Competitor Group (the Rock 'n' Roll race series); last summer, during the Olympics, he starred in a prominent TV ad for AT&T. He thus spends a lot of time at expos and various corporate events. In a normally successful year, Hall's business activities would only be judged as his due.
In this slump year, however, they form more grist for his detractors. A posting earlier this year on letsrun.com, for instance, slammed the marathoner for "...lack of direction and focus, no big plan, and poor coaching decisions. It's a shame...Hall is now a highly paid, running-expo, autograph-signing has-been."
At 11 a.m., a long, snaking queue of fans has assembled at the Nissan area, and Hall sits down behind an autograph table. During a prolonged economic downturn in which many pro runners have seen their sponsorships slashed or eliminated, Hall sails on unscathed, among the small handful of highly-paid American distance runners. Except for a slight reduction in road-race appearance fees, Hall reports that his income hasn't suffered during his year of injuries; last winter, at the nadir of his slump, Asics signed Hall to a four-year extension.
"I compete in the marathon, our sport's glamour event," Hall says, attempting to explain his enduring marketability. "I understand the importance of relating to fans on social media. And let's face it, I look different than most of the world's top marathoners."
Moreover, Hall's deep religious faith, while off-putting to some in the running community, draws a greater number of intensely loyal evangelical fans. Indeed, by an unscientific sampling of the 100-plus people lined up for Hall's autograph, roughly half claim to share his faith. One is Brian Yowler, cross-country and track-and-field coach at Geneva College in Pennsylvania.
"Many of us in the Christian community celebrate Ryan declaring God as his coach," Yowler says.
His more secular-minded supporters, meanwhile, seem skeptical of Hall's religious-based coaching scheme. "Maybe Ryan's time has passed," says a quiet, middle-aged man waiting in the middle of the queue. "I haven't seen him win anything since God took over."
According to a member of the expo staff, the line of fans waiting for Hall is twice as long as the one that stretched yesterday, when Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher signed autographs at the same table.
"I'm not religious," says Tom Tayeri, 48, an ophthalmologist from Palo Alto who patiently waits near the end of today's queue. "I just think that Ryan is a great runner and a really decent person."
Perhaps Greg Meyer deserves the last word from Boston.
"The reason so many people around this marathon are still talking about Ryan Hall," Meyer says, "is because they still hope and believe that, someday, Ryan might actually win here. He has the talent to make it happen."
In Flagstaff, Hall trots away from the house, threading between the pickup trucks at work in this emerging subdivision near the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains. He runs out to Woody Mountain Road and hangs a left, continuing through a traffic circle to where the asphalt gives way to a graded dirt road shooting deep into a wooded valley.
Hall runs in that rolling, flexible-hipped, wild-horse stride that is like Ichiro Suzuki swinging a baseball bat or Eric Clapton playing a guitar or David Foster Wallace writing a sentence: a style expressed by no on else. A stride technician such as Alberto Salazar would likely find faults in the way that Hall runs, but from the day he won the 12-K at the USA Cross-Country Championships in 2006, Hall understood that his cadence, his metabolism, and his competitive instinct were all meted precisely to the marathon. He says he got a sense that day that longer distances were what God had created him to run.
"The marathon is my thing," Hall says. "I have decent leg speed, but what I can really do is go out and hammer tempo forever. I think in my whole life I've only run three 10,000-meter races on the track, and I couldn't even tell you my PR. I think I ran around 28 minutes."
A mile into the run the clouds thicken and big plashing drops of rain begin to fall. You recall that monsoon in Redding last December, when Hall's back muscles seized, and hope that the past won't replay. It doesn't, and after a brief squall, the rain clears into the mountains and Hall runs freely on. Wildflowers bloom, the ponderosa pines emit a resiny bouquet, and a driver waves from the cab of a logging truck. Hall crests a bridge above Sinclair Wash, hitting a solid solo 6:30-per-mile rhythm. Although, in his own mind and heart, he may not feel alone.
|Hall's faith sustains him during training, but some say it's holding him back.|
"For instance, yesterday, I was getting down on myself," Hall continues. "I remember very clearly what my best 25-mile run felt like, and yesterday's run didn't feel that good. The Holy Spirit talked to me. He let me see that I'd put a lot of miles in during the week and I was still regaining my strength. He let me see that I'd done the best I could, and that I should be content, not frustrated. The same thing happened after Beach to Beacon [in August he had run a lackluster 29:43 at the Maine race]. I was ticked off at myself for not running better, but the Spirit reminded me that I was doing the race without the benefit of speedwork."
Hall says when the voice sounds during a run, it's not like he just dialed its number.
"It's more of a subconscious thing," he says. "It's like if you're out on a long run with somebody and the conversation just starts to flow. It's a matter of learning to recognize the voice. In church, we call it learning to 'feel God on a thing', learning to recognize when He is communicating through a person or an action. I might be out on a run and trying to decide whether to push it because I'm feeling good or back off because I'm tired or sore. I'll be having this conversation with myself, and oftentimes I'm just going around in circles. But then the Spirit starts talking in this quiet voice that always points me in the right direction. It takes prayer and practice to feel God on a thing. This year has definitely deepened my faith."
Watching Hall run the final mile down Woody Mountain Road, there's no way of knowing what kind of conversation is going on inside his head and heart, or whether God is "on" the moment. But as he moves in his graceful, made-for-the-marathon stride past the blooming sunflowers on this clearing morning, you can't help but sense that something special is happening, and that whatever sacrifices and compromises Hall has made to live in this moment have been worthwhile.
Ultimately, perhaps, a seemingly easy, deceptively straightforward run such as this one, and not some future Olympic medal or New York City Marathon victory, may truly define Ryan Hall.
Back at the house, Hall moves into the kitchen and deftly knits together a huge chocolate nine-grain pancake, one of the recipes he shares with his 64,000-plus friends on his Facebook page and his 66,000-plus followers on Twitter. As he bolts it down, he listens to what people had to say about him last April in Boston.
"I think those comments about coaching are valid," Hall says. "Last fall, that's why I reached out to Renato. I felt like I needed an outside influence and a fresh, more African-based approach. Renato works with a number of the top Kenyans and Ethiopians. I didn't feel that the path I'd been following for the past few years had been a failure. How can following the will of God as you understand it be a failure? But I never said that I wasn't going to explore other options."
He explains that his relationship with Canova had been a long-distance affair, with their communication confined to e-mail. Still, for three months at the end of 2012, Hall avidly followed Canova's rigorous system, with a minimum of easy days or low-quality miles. At first, Hall thrived on the change and felt that he was improving. But then came December and the fresh onslaught of injuries.
"My body just wasn't ready to handle all that intensity," Hall explains. "I hadn't laid down the proper base of endurance and strength. So of course I kept breaking down. It wasn't Renato's fault, and it might have worked out better if I had made it to Kenya last February and he could have watched me up close. But to those who say that I got hurt because I was coaching myself, well, the fact is that I also got injured while I was working with Renato."
Hall says that his darkest days came after he tore his right quad in February, during his easy run in Flagstaff.
"This is ridiculous, I remember thinking. How could this be happening again?", Hall says. "I just felt like I couldn't handle it anymore. I had reached a breaking point, but at the same time, I was still trying to salvage something for Boston. I tried to be optimistic and think I'd heal somehow. For 10 straight days I tried to go for a run, but all I could do was limp for five minutes before the pain became unbearable. It broke my heart."
Once he decided to withdraw from Boston, Hall says, things got easier. He took a break, evaluated his mistakes of the last few months, and determined that he "felt more at peace" coaching himself.
"I also decided to let go," Hall says. "I decided that if I tried everything to get over the hump and still failed, it would have to be okay."
On his own, Hall plotted a course of patient, incremental base-building.
"I read a story in a book about Kenyan training, of a house built on a strong foundation," he says. "And it basically said you shouldn't try to live in a house while you're building it."
Forgoing all speed-based work and most strength and flexibility training, Hall started jogging half an hour each morning. Then he added an easy half-hour run each afternoon. He built his distance gradually, eventually running for an hour each morning and evening, proceeding by feel, with no concern for pace.
Hall finally achieved his present routine, which he's maintained through much of the summer: a 15-K run in the morning and another 15-K in the afternoon, with hard workouts every third day and one day of rest each week.
"That adds up to roughly 110 miles on six days' work a week," he says. "If I'm feeling good, I speed up. If I'm feeling sluggish, I back off. At this point, 12 weeks out from New York City, I've done basically zero speed work. I think I've been to the track once in the last month. But the trade-off is that I've built the deepest and strongest base in my career. Most important, I'm looking forward to every run, and I'm running pain-free. Even a sub-2:05 marathon is 99 percent aerobic, and I'm very optimistic about having the aerobic part covered."
Now that he's healthy and fit, Hall says, he is eager to embark on his long-postponed pilgrimage to Kenya, where he and Sara plan to stay with Wesley Korir for a week and then land at Lornah Kiplagat's High Altitude Training Centre in the Rift Valley town of Iten. Although he has no specific regimen or training partners in mind, Hall expects the atmosphere to turn anaerobic in a hurry.
"Apparently in those training camps the guys go hard a lot, and practically every workout turns into a tempo run," he says. "They're constantly testing and pushing each other, and they can be especially hard on a mzungo runner. You get into that competitive frame of mind and you want to prove yourself, prove you belong with them. You can get into trouble that way. I'll take it easy at first, but I'm really looking forward to mixing it up with the Kenyans. September will be my toughest month of training."
And perhaps, true to his nature, Hall seeks Africa because, among distance runners, the continent's not quite in fashion. With Kenya's relative scant medal count at the London Games, and Rupp's silver-medal performance in the 10,000, there was a brief thought that, after 40 years of East African dominance, the rest of the world was finally catching up to the Kenyans and Ethiopians. Hall, of course, takes a contrary view.
"Hats off to what Galen and other U.S. runners are doing on the track, but Africans still dominate the marathon," he points out. "Look at the top 25 world list of [male] marathoners and see if you can find a non-African name. And the dominance is growing. When I ran my 59-minute half-marathon AR in 2007, it was in the top 10 times ever for the distance. Now it's like the 54th fastest. [Similarly, Hall's 2:04:58 at Boston is now only the 33rd fastest marathon ever.] The young Africans keep coming in waves. I've proven that, in the right conditions, I can hang with them. But now I have to learn to run sub-2:06 consistently. To break through to the next level, I feel like I have to go to Africa."
To Hall's credit, he doesn't use African dominance as an excuse, and there seems something quixotic about his present mission to Kenya, which, as of press time in early September, was off to an instructive start.
"In my opinion, the biggest factor why the Kenyans are so dominant is because they have thousands of elite-level athletes training very hard in training groups," he wrote in a blog entry after he arrived in Africa. "The biggest lesson I have learned from my first few days here in Kenya is the importance of training with others. This is a lesson I will take back to the States with me."
Hall's critics will point out that he didn't have to travel halfway around the world to learn this self-evident lesson, and that at this stage of the season and his career, traveling to Kenya for the first time entails considerable risk. Hall is adjusting to radical changes in climate and diet, and perhaps most important, given his recent injury history, he is forgoing treatment from his longtime Phoenix-based chiropractor. In some ways, Hall's decision to go to Africa recalls his decision to embrace divine coaching, or to abandon that plan to work with Canova, or to leave Canova and return to self-coaching, or his most recent revelation of the importance of training with other elites.
There is no perfect system, Greg Meyer had said. At some point you just have to stop seeking and start trusting.
In Flagstaff, Hall puts the pancake dish in the sink and answers the door for a FedEx box from Asics. He shoos away his dogs and spreads out on the rug for some stretches.
"I won't lie and say that this year hasn't been hard on me," he says. "Moving through those injuries has taken a huge amount of physical, mental, and emotional energy. I've got a new empathy for runners who are consistently saddled with injuries. It's a ton to deal with."
He goes quiet for a moment.
"By the time I got to Boston last April, I was about three weeks into my base phase, and starting to feel whole and happy again," he says finally. "And then the bombings happened. Combined with Hurricane Sandy and New York getting canceled, it's been a very hard year for all of us in the sport. I expect emotions to run high in New York this November. In the year ahead, I think we'll all be looking for redemption."