T&FN Interview — Sara Hall

A U.S.-leading 2:20:32 in The Marathon Project race gave Sara Hall 4 PRs in her 5 races in 2020. (KEVIN MORRIS)

AMERICA’S SECOND-FASTEST MARATHONER ever, Sara Hall freely admits that one of her talented daughters recently dropped her on a distance run. But first, some backstory.

As Sara Bei, the energetic sprite out of Santa Rosa, California, captured the Foot Locker XC title her senior year after becoming the first girl to win four straight Golden State crowns. She followed that up with successful career at Stanford — thrice an NCAA runner-up on the track — and wed fellow Cardinal running royalty, Ryan Hall.

She continued her track career as a pro — remarkably, she’s been sponsored by Asics for the 15-plus years since then (“There are definitely times I was underperforming and I just feel so grateful for their loyalty”). It seemed she tried everything on the track, from the 1500 at the ’08 Trials to the steeple 4 years later, but only in the last couple of years has she truly discovered her medium.

Along the way, she helped Ryan as he battled with the marathon. The winner of the Trials in ’07, he placed 10th in the Beijing Olympics after hitting a PR 2:06:17 in London that year. He retired from racing in ’15, about the time the couple adopted 4 sisters from Ethiopia. That changed everything for the Halls, and one would think, might have marked the end of her running career as well. “I had a lot of unfinished business,” she says. (Continued below)

After a crushing DNF in the OT Marathon last February, Hall has put together some of the best running in her life. A 68:18 half-marathon in August, a 2:22:01 runner-up finish at the London Marathon in October that made her the No. 6 American ever, and an improvement to No. 2 with her 2:20:32 win in the Marathon Project just 11 weeks later.

At age 37, she says there’s no end point in sight for her career: “I just want to keep improving.” She found time in a hectic training/parenting schedule early in the new year to talk with us about her long and winding path. And to confirm the stories about being dropped by her own kid. Running with her second oldest, Mia, Hall — on her second run of the day — watched as the teenager left her behind: “That had definitely not happened before. It was fun to see.”

T&FN: You’ve been on quite a streak ever since the Trials. Are you enjoying the ride?

Hall: Oh yeah. I’m having a blast and it feels so good to have had some opportunities. Typically I race more than most pros and so this was a hard year. Obviously the disappointment of the Trials, and not being able to really move forward from it without any other races. So to finally have some opportunities at the end of the year and have them be the best races of my career is just really exciting.

T&FN: The year has been a challenge for everybody. How was it for you?

Hall: It was the most challenging year — maybe of my life. Mainly because the Trials was really the biggest disappointment of my running career. I just had such high hopes for that moment and making my first Olympic Team and had really committed for that race, trying to prepare for that course and doing all kinds of really crazy things in training… and to have it go so much different than I thought it would and not make the team. That was really heartbreaking.

And then I told myself, “Well, I have all this fitness I can use towards future races.” And to have just everything I had planned canceled and not really getting to turn the page on that race. To have to self-motivate for a really long time, not knowing if I was going to get a chance to run a marathon this year. And then, you have your kids at home all the time; it’s all those things like you can’t travel. All your normal rhythms are out of whack.

It was challenging, but it definitely it made me realize how much fire I still have for this sport. You know, I’m 37, I have four kids and if there’s ever a time to cruise or wind down, it would be this year. But instead I was the opposite. I was like, I know have so much more I haven’t seen yet. And I’m just so motivated more than ever to keep seeing my potential come out. It made me just realize just how much fire I still have to improve in the sport. In the end, it was obviously rewarding and it made those victories that much sweeter, but the year was very challenging.

Hall was at the front of the pack in the Olympic Trials Marathon, but was doomed to disappointment. (KEVIN MORRIS)

T&FN: Was it tough doing, let’s call it an emotional rebuild of yourself after the Trials?

Hall: For sure. I think what made it really tough is I just didn’t understand why we ran the Trials on the hilliest course in history, when the Olympics was going to be completely flat. And I think that just was really hard for me to wrap my head around. It was up to me to figure out how to be successful there on that day. And I really tried, but at the end of the day, I just felt like that wasn’t the right call. I get that some things are outside your control, right? Sometimes that’s what’s hard.

If you felt like you gave it your all and it just wasn’t good enough, that’s one thing you can live with, but sometimes when things are outside your control, it’s a little bit harder to deal with. In general, I’ve always just moved on in my career when I’ve had disappointments and been like, “Alright, I’m going to do the best with whatever opportunities I have.” And so I just tried to refocus that way and fortunately I had the opportunity of London.

T&FN: Those last two marathons, did they make up at all for the Trials? Or is it just an apples-and-oranges impossible comparison?

Hall: It’s apples and oranges. I would have traded them for the Trials for sure. I think that’s a dream obviously to make the Olympic team. And I think it’s a dream that we maybe inflate a little too much here in the U.S. In other countries it’s World Marathon Majors and everything are almost bigger because it’s not as hard to make the Olympic team. But that was something I had really felt capable of. I’m still hopeful I can have the experience at the Olympics either on the track — I’m going to go for that in June — but if not, I don’t see any reason why I can’t be in contention into 2024 at this point. My body’s still responding to training. (Continued below)

T&FN: Running 2 marathons 11 weeks apart, it’s not that common. What was the timeline of deciding to race again so soon after London?

Hall: When they announced they were doing the Marathon Project, it was before London. And so I didn’t commit to the race yet, but I had it in the back of my mind as an option. Every time I’ve run a marathon, pretty much since my very first, I’ve always kind of regrouped towards races. My very first marathon in LA went really poorly because of a similar course to Atlanta, but I had already qualified for the World XC Championships, and it was 13 days later.

I wasn’t really thinking I was probably going to do it, but after the marathon, similar to the Trials, I was like, “I have all this fitness I built, I want to use it for something.” Even though USATF was kind of advising against me doing Worlds, I was like, “I’m just going to throw myself into recovery and do everything I can.”

And sure enough, by the time the race came, I was 20th and the top U.S. performer. That kind of opened my mind to the marathon not needing to be like a hard-stop. Ever since, when it made sense, I’ve started racing [shortly] after marathons. [The decision] was the day of London because we were hoping to run fast in London. And I’m really thankful that the race went how it went. I think that was the highest I could have placed on that day. The No. 1 goal was just to compete and that’s what I did, but we both were like, “OK, that wasn’t like a good indicator of how fast you can run, just because of the conditions.” And I ran that whole race alone.

We originally thought of doing an early spring marathon [in ‘21], which would give me more time to prepare. I thought I would look into a Dubai or something like that, but we just weren’t confident that they were going to happen with COVID and sure enough, everything’s gotten canceled. So we were like, “The Marathon Project is one we know is going to happen. Let’s do that.”

T&FN: The marathon project itself: the small, super-fast loop, the small elite field, custom-made for records. Do you think that’s a type of race we might still see after the pandemic? Is that a model for something that might work?

Hall: I think so. I mean, we see it already at major championships, right? Spectator-friendly loop courses. I think personally, there’s good things and bad things. There was the upside with it was a flat course. I was able to have great pacemakers. But I would say it’s still difficult in this kind of COVID scenario [when] there’s no crowd; it’s pretty quiet out there and it feels kind of like training.

I really hope we can get back to those mass starts, with crowds out there, because it’s really hard to replicate that kind of atmosphere. But certainly I think that criterium-style racing, especially if you have a great crowd, that can be amazing. It’s kind of like Breaking2, right? It can be a great opportunity.

T&FN: It’s been 4 years since you’ve raced on the track. Do you miss it?

Hall: I wouldn’t say I miss it. I’m not someone that loves the track as much as the roads. But I’m actually really excited to get on it just to see what I’m capable of. ‘Cause I haven’t raced on it in a long time, but I’ve built all this strength in the process. I’m a totally different runner than I was 4½ years ago.

And, in my track work and training, even in the middle of high-mileage marathon training, I’m doing the best track workouts I’ve ever done, including this last summer. So that gives me hope I can be competitive in the 5000 or 10,000 even though my PRs are not anywhere in the ballpark of what you’d need to be in contention. I’m really hopeful when I do plan to get on the track as soon as there’s track races, and just start working towards that. I’m excited to see what I can do.

T&FN: You do a lot of training with Rachel Schneider; what’s the key to a good training partner for you?

Hall: The number one thing I’d look for in a training partner is someone that I want to just hang out with a lot. Rachel, she’s lovely, one of the most positive people I’ve ever met. So upbeat, she has probably 10 times the serotonin of a normal person. I love spending time with her, but then also we really balance each other in our strengths. She’s obviously from the 1500 and even 800 in college.

The way that Mike [Smith] trains her, she puts in a lot of really hard, long stuff that I would want to do too. And so she definitely pushes me in the speed area, but then I think I can push her some in the longer stuff. We complement each other well and obviously she just had a really great 10,000 [31:09.79] and a really fast 5000 [15:06.71] last year. She’ll be a great training partner to get ready for the track.

T&FN: When you were a new runner back in Santa Rosa 20-plus years ago, did you ever imagine the sport would take you all these places?

Hall: Not at all. This wasn’t really my dream to be a professional runner. I always thought I would go into doing development work in Africa. That’s still my plan when I’m done. Right now, we’re still investing in people living in extreme poverty through our foundation, the Hall STEPS Foundation. That’s been neat to get to keep investing in that passion because here I am 15½ years later running professionally. I would’ve never guessed I would be doing this professionally that long.

I definitely would have walked away from the sport back in 2009, had Ryan not kept me in, both because he was doing it himself and he was really supportive of me and believed in me. It’s really interesting how life works because here I am. I’m enjoying it the most I ever have, racing the best I ever have, and I want to keep going, but that was never really the plan.

T&FN: You had a successful collegiate career at Stanford — 7 times All-America — but never got that NCAA win. Did that perhaps spur you to keep going longer?

Hall: You know, not really. I would say that was just disappointing. Getting 2nd a bunch of times. And then also the one time in the 3000 when I was moving into the lead and I got clipped from behind and, you know, you just have a lot of those near misses. For me, I think it was even kind of a relief because I’d had some rocky races early on in college. So even just to be in the picture in 2nd place was a good thing.

Definitely getting outkicked my senior year when I really wanted to win that 5K was what probably stung the most. But I’ve always just been someone that as long as I have another goal ahead of me, I’m excited just to keep moving forward and try to keep improving.

The steeplechase is just one of four events in which Hall has been a U.S. Ranker in her long career. (SPENCER ALLEN/IMAGE OF SPORT)

T&FN: Along the way, you’ve had some very high-profile coaches. What have you learned from them?

Hall: A lot of different personalities! I think I’m responding the best to having Ryan as my coach. It’s definitely hard having your husband as your coach at times. We butt heads — we’re both pretty stubborn people. Obviously you don’t get to being one of the fastest marathoners in history without being pretty strongwilled.

But I think the upside is he’s a natural coach. There’s just this mutual trust where he allows me to do some stuff that’s outside the box and take risks because he’s also kind of a risk taker himself. I think I’ve really responded well to that. I definitely could not have done this career without his support for so many years. I’ve learned the marathon through him, watching him competing himself. I was one of his main support people throughout his career and I learned how to do the grind of the training and just racing fearlessly. He really taught me that.

I’ve always kind of gone out—even in the Marathon Project — believing for a lot bigger, higher from where you’re at quite yet, you know, but in that process you really can accomplish some great things. And I think Ryan was similar. He wasn’t afraid to be aggressive. He wasn’t going into his first marathon trying not to blow up. He was taking the lead at the London Marathon against World Record holders and Olympic champions. That’s taught me a lot about not playing it safe in this sport, but swinging big.

And Terrance Mahon, his training with Ryan has definitely influenced what I do. A lot of the main components come from that style of training. The value for strength training really came from him too. At the time I was not really enjoying it because my body was pretty beat up when I was in Mammoth and I wasn’t responding that well to the lifting, but now that that’s a big part of what I do. I learned from him how important it is.

T&FN: How does Ryan do with your race days now that he’s not competing himself? Do his nerves get going like they used to when he was racing?

Hall: I think so. He got really sick after the Trials. I know what that’s like, it’s almost harder on the support person watching the marathon than the person going through it. You just sink so much into those days. It’s really stressful. I remember that from when I was vice versa. But I think also the last two, he just felt — just the way my buildup had gone — just felt really confident in me. And so that helps. I remember being that way with him where it was like, you’re more nervous in the buildups that don’t go well, or you’re coming into it having gone through an injury or something, you don’t know what to expect, but I think we both really trust each other that if the training’s gone well, than the race is going to go well.

T&FN: Are you able to generalize how your training has evolved over the years?

Hall: Obviously track training was different than this, but I think one of the mistakes I made, when I was running track professionally, was getting a little too far away from the strength work. I almost feel like I would have run better on the track if I was marathon training. I was really focused on the race-specific work and I think you can really do some damage if you overrun that stuff too often. So when I transitioned to the road, I found I actually had a lot of room to grow my aerobic capacity that I didn’t realize from neglecting it. What gave me the success in high school and college that I had was a lot of aerobic work.

Getting back to that each marathon I’ve been able to chip off about a minute per marathon. First I ran the LA Marathon and it was a disaster. I ran like 2:48 or something, but then I ran 2:31, then 2:30, then 2:28, 2:27, 2:26. So it was very linear and progressive. Then I had a big jump down to 2:22 in Berlin, but that was really because I had had a long stretch of injuries and I’d been making those gains, but I hadn’t realized them in a race because of injuries.

Each buildup my tempos get a little bit faster. Each buildup my long runs get a little bit faster and what’s exciting in the marathon is those couple second increments add up to like a minute in the race. What I’ve been focused on is just trying to make those incremental gains.

T&FN: You’ve been up in Flagstaff for a while, and before that Mammoth; do you think you’ve accrued some nice altitude adaptation by now?

Hall: For sure. It took me a while to become that altitude responder. I really struggled with living full-time in Mammoth and Mammoth is pretty high, it’s around 8000ft [c2500m]. I struggled with sleep and recovery and I was ready for sea level once we ended up leaving.

We did train in Palo Alto and Redding as well as making trips to Flagstaff, but it was actually when I started spending a lot more time in Ethiopia during the adoption process of my kids and started training up higher at 9,000 feet that I feel like I really started to become an altitude responder. Now I feel I really get a big boost from it, but it took me a while, like a lot longer than Ryan who was raised most of his life at altitude. (Continued below)

T&FN: Speaking of Ryan, when he retired, he was 32. At that point, was there a temptation for you to consider retiring too?

Hall: Yeah, it’s funny because you know, I would have if it had been like 5 years earlier. I would have been really excited that he was finally done and we could move to Africa, but at that point when he retired, I actually had started the marathon [training] and was really enjoying my career the most I’d had in a while. And I felt like I had a lot of unfinished business on the road and wanted to keep going and keep seeing my potential come out. I would have never guessed I would outlast [Ryan’s career] quite a bit. We kind of switched there.

You know, it’s interesting that it’s difficult to both be successful in this career. I definitely was more the support person for him and my career took a hit in some ways. I’m not super-surprised that we were never quite running really well at the same time, you know?

T&FN: You’ve talked about how in your tough times you always get that glimmer of hope from training that there are better days ahead. That can be hard to do in our sport. Are you generally hardwired to be more optimistic than other people?

Hall: I would say I’m optimistic, but I’m more of a realist than Ryan. Ryan was definitely a dreamer when he was in college, dreaming about like winning the Olympic gold medal and I’ve always been a little bit more like, looking at my training and making goals. In track I was always striving for these higher goals, but never quite reaching them, but in the marathon it’s like in each buildup, I do stuff in training that really just surprises me. It makes me just believe bigger.

I would have never guessed I could go after the American Record, but it’s just from training and making those gains slowly that actually this is just the next logical step to go for. That’s been a fun part about the marathon for me. It’s just continued to expand what I think I’m capable of and what my goals should be.

T&FN: You could walk away your career now and call it a success, but do you have faith that there’s a lot more coming?

Hall: Yeah, I do. Mainly just because of how I’m responding to training. I think the last couple of buildups was the most work I’ve ever done, mileage-wise, intensity-wise, and the fastest workouts, but also the best my body actually absorbed the work. I credit that a lot to my team, obviously Ryan’s coaching and oversight and as well as my therapist, John Ball and Maximum Mobility, does a really good job keeping me injury-free. But that’s what’s interesting, right? You think as you get older, you need more recovery and you need to be more careful, but that’s kind of in the opposite for me thus far. So it gives me hope I can keep improving even at this age.

T&FN: Obviously there have been developments in footwear that have dramatically changed times and distances over the last few years. Do you worry that controversy might obscure the fact that you’ve genuinely improved?

Hall: It took me a while to get in a high stack-height, carbon-plated shoe. My first race in that was London Marathon. So I’m kind of thankful that when I had my big breakthrough in Berlin, where I had that big jump, that I was in normal shoes there. I feel like everyone else would have just attributed that to my shoes, you know, but I was able to just know for myself, “No, this was me working my butt off the last two years.” And, obviously now running London and Marathon Project in those it’s a little bit hard, ’cause you’re still out there working just as hard.

You know that anything you do, people are just going to attribute it to super-shoes, but that’s just the game now. It was hard to be on an uneven playing field for almost 5 years, competing against that technology and not being in it myself. I’m not willing to do that anymore. So for me, it’s a new game now. The game has changed and we all need to be on an even playing field. We all need to be in that technology.

T&FN: It’s changed the meaning of fast times in a historical sense, one might say. For instance, do you think we’re on the brink of seeing more sub-2:20s by American women?

Hall: I don’t know, because super-shoes or not, running 2:19 is not easy. We don’t even have that many people running that fast for a half-marathon right now. I think that we have to respect those times. There’s a little bit of a mentality of like, “Oh, well, 2:09 isn’t what 2:09 used to be anymore” with the Marathon Project, but I dunno, I would say, yeah, they are affecting times, but. As someone that’s in the shoes trying to run that fast, it’s still really hard and I don’t think it’s going to be as commonplace as maybe we hope.

T&FN: Looking back over your long career, even going back to day 1, race 1, are there any races that you’ve that have made a mark on you and truly transformed who you are as a competitor?

Hall: Hmm, that’s a good question. I think Foot Locker in high school really was a pivotal experience. I loved that at the time we only had one national championship. My freshman year I made it kind of on a fluke. I didn’t even know what Foot Locker was. I was going to do the freshman race [at Regionals] and someone told me, “No, you should be in the seeded race.” I ended up nabbing in a photo finish the last spot to Foot Locker nationals.

Being there really opened my eyes. It felt like the Olympics as a high schooler. I was like, “I want to win this race by the end of my high school career” and got 3rd the next year as a sophomore. I didn’t qualify as a junior, which was really heartbreaking. It really was something that I had on my wall, that goal of winning Foot Locker.

My senior year, it was my last chance to win the race, but I started that year off in the worst shape of my life, losing some of my league races. I refused to take that goal down off my wall though. And sure enough, I just kept chipping away at my fitness. And in the end, those [Cal State & Foot Locker] are really only the two races I did win that year.

Every day I would run strides outside my house on a grass strip and I would picture winning Foot Locker. Once I got to the race it was like my body just knew what to do. I wanted a sprint finish like I had pictured over and over again. And it really just taught me the power of, No. 1, no matter how unlikely your goals, not giving up on them, to keep chipping away. And No. 2, the power of visualization. That’s something that I’ve carried on throughout my career.

I still have my goals written on my mirror. I had “American Record holder” written on my mirror this year. I think just keeping those in the forefront, even when it’s challenging, even when you’re going through the biggest injury cycle of your career, like I was a couple of years ago. I wrote “2:22 in Berlin” on my mirror in the middle of a massive injury. And sure enough, by the end of the year, I ran 2:22 in Berlin. So yeah, I would say that was a pivotal moment for me.

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