IN CLOSELY CONTESTED RACES, Sara Hall has an ability to tenaciously wear down and outkick opponents. But at the London Marathon she had to rely on a different set of skills, keeping focused and confident while running alone. She managed to turn the less-than-ideal day into a career highlight, finishing 2nd in a PR and landing on her first World Marathon Majors podium. Her 2:22:01 clocking improved her hold on the No. 6 spot on the U.S. all-time list.
The milestone was hard-earned for the 37-year-old Stanford alum. After the leaders ignored the dreary weather and took off at WR pace for a women-only race, Hall found herself isolated. “I ran almost every step of the race alone,” she says of her 19-plus trips around the 2150m loop of St. James’ Park, a confined course necessitated by the pandemic. A rabbit assigned to a second pack of runners never managed to take up that task, so Hall found herself in no man’s land. “At the time it was frustrating, but I’m really thankful for it now, because I think it’s really the performance that I’m most proud of,” she says. “That’s never really been my strength, running alone.”
She hit halfway in 1:10:27 and the solitary spectator-free surroundings continued to challenge her spirit. “I was worried about the mental part of that and how I’d be able to stay focused,” she admits. “There were moments out there I would start to feel sorry for myself, but any time I had that thought I would try to shift it and just remember I’m so grateful to have an opportunity to race right now.”
She steadily moved up as the lead pack crumbled, and found herself in 3rd on the penultimate loop. As she came past the finishline with a circuit to go, she heard husband/coach Ryan shout out that she was just 40 seconds down on 2nd, trailing reigning world champion Ruth Chepngetich. “I almost wish he hadn’t told me that,” she says with a laugh, pointing out that because of loudspeaker noise she didn’t pick up a crucial part of what Ryan had told her, that the Kenyan star was coming back to her. Still, she refused to settle for 3rd, explaining, “I just started throwing myself forward and willing everything in my body forward and trying to lock in my gaze on her and go into hunt mode. I was in pain for sure. But as the loop went on I could tell I was gaining on her.”
Down the final stretch, in the shadow of Buckingham Palace, Hall roared past Chepngetich to secure the runner-up spot behind WR holder Brigid Kosgei, who clocked 2:18:58. “Then the joys and emotions really hit me when I crossed the line and could relax,” Hall says.
The performance caps a turbulent year for the veteran Californian. In addition to facing the uncertainties created by the pandemic, she was also haunted by a disappointing showing at the OT in February. Succumbing to the demanding Atlanta course, she dropped out after 22M. “To be totally honest I would say my heart is still kinda broken from the Olympic Trials Marathon,” she says. “I wanted that more than any race in my career.”
Hall had previously come up short at the track trials in ’04, ’08 & ’12, but has nonetheless put together an impressive career, earning national titles in cross country and on the roads at distances between the mile and the marathon. She even scored gold in the steeplechase at the ’11 Pan-Am Games.
Though Hall hasn’t raced on the track since the ’16 Trials (finishing 14th in the 5000), she does plan to lace up the spikes and aim for the 10,000 next summer. Despite that lengthy hiatus from the track, and a PR of just 32:35.87, her rivals would be wise not to discount her. After more than 15 years as a professional, she remains in the ranks of the top distance runners in the country. Last year she won national road titles at 10K, 10M and 20K and had a breakthrough run at the Berlin Marathon, setting what was then a 4-minute PR of 2:22:16. And in August while preparing for London, she lowered her half-marathon PR to 1:08:18 (No. 6 all-time among Americans) in a low-key race in Oregon.
With Ryan—himself a 2-time marathon Olympian before his retirement—riding his bicycle alongside her on workouts, and occasionally accompanied by her teenage daughters on easy runs, she’s carved out an idyllic life in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“What’s kept me going has been a love for the sport, a love for the work and the grind,” she says. “Even when there are no races, I love training and continuing to see improvement, and just believe that there’s more special moments ahead. So to have this moment come on the heels of my greatest disappointment, it’s very redemptive, a huge shot of joy.” ◻︎