REDDING, CALIF. — Ryan Hall rocked slightly, palms up, closing his eyes or singing softly to lyrics projected on giant screens at the evangelical Bethel Church. Other worshippers jubilantly raised their arms and swayed and jumped in the aisles. A band played onstage, and a woman waved a fabric flag like a rhythmic gymnast.
Thin and blond and boyish at 29 — flight attendants still asked his age when he sat in an exit row — Hall wore jeans and a blue shirt labelled with the shoe company that sponsored his running. At the 2011 Boston Marathon, he ran a personal best of 2 hours, 4 minutes, 58 seconds. No other American has run faster.
The Boston course is not certified for record purposes because of its drop in elevation and its layout. Still, of the 29 fastest marathon performances in 2011, Hall’s was the only one achieved by a runner from a country other than Kenya or Ethiopia. His next marathon will come Aug. 12 at the London Olympics. On a Sunday in March, Hall firmly believed he could challenge the East Africans for a gold medal.
“Light a fire in me for the whole world to see,” he sang.
The Bible downloaded on his iPhone, Hall read along with Psalm 68: “Let God arise and his enemies be scattered.”
He took notes as Bill Johnson, the pastor, casually hip in a sports coat and jeans, spoke to hundreds of worshippers about risk-taking, saying, “If you live cautiously, all your friends will call you wise, but you won’t move mountains.”
The sermon seemed particularly resonant with Hall, a Stanford graduate with a degree in sociology, a surfer-dude mien and an approach to running that is experimental and unorthodox. He has pushed the boundaries of conventional training, seeking to confront the dominant East Africans and the unforgiving way that the fastest marathons have become something like 26.2-mile sprints.
He coaches himself, running alone instead of with an elite training group here in Northern California, two hours above Sacramento, where the flat land of the Central Valley begins to buck and heave like a rodeo bull.
For the Olympic marathon trials in January in Houston, Hall trained entirely at sea level, contravening a widely held belief that altitude training is necessary to increase oxygen-carrying capacity and enhance performance. Although he has incorporated some altitude training for the Olympics, Hall has headed to the highlands of Flagstaff, Ariz., for weeks, not months, at a time. He runs 100 miles a week instead of the typical 120, taking one day off each seven days. Every seven weeks, he runs once a day instead of twice, the standard regimen.
Hall has yet to win a major marathon. He finished 10th at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After taking fourth at Boston in the spring of 2011, he finished fifth at the Chicago Marathon last fall. His preparation for the London Games has been complicated by foot problems, disappointing tune-up races and an acknowledgment that his initial training strategy — to try to shatter the world record — did not work. But Hall remains flexible, adaptable. He has four weeks until the Olympic marathon to refine a new approach begun over the past month.
“Sometimes, you have to fail your way to the top,” Hall said in his open, easy manner in March. “Thomas Edison found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb before he got it right.”
Underpinning his running is his faith. The marathon is so isolating in its training, so impossibly fast at the elite level, so restricting to two performances a year for most top runners, that many athletes seek a purpose larger than themselves, something to believe in more than the numbing miles of roadwork. For some, it is their families or an escape from poverty. For others, it is their religion.
“If you run without any reason, you are just chasing the wind,” said Wesley Korir, the reigning Boston Marathon champion from Kenya.
During the 2011 Chicago Marathon, Hall began singing praise to the Lord. Freestyling, he called it. Korir joined in.
“Come Lord Jesus, come,” the two runners sang as they ran. “Come Holy Spirit, come.”
After finishing second at the 2011 U.S. half-marathon championships, Hall went to drug testing, a standard procedure. Asked on a form to list his coach, he wrote: God.
You have to list the name of a real person, a doping official said.
“He is a real person,” Hall responded.
It is while running, or thinking of running, Hall said, that he feels most conversant with and dependent on God. And it is through this professional excellence that Hall believes he is best able to show God to the world, to display his goodness and his love.
Joe Bottom, who won a gold and a silver medal in swimming at the 1976 Montreal Games and attends Bethel Church, compared Hall’s Olympic pursuit to that of Eric Liddell, a Christian runner from Scotland who won the 400 meters at the 1924 Paris Games. Liddell’s story was featured in the movie Chariots of Fire.
In the movie, Liddell is portrayed as saying, “I feel God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
Bottom said in an email: “It’s fulfilling, even exhilarating, to feel God’s pleasure in our willingness to pursue and occasionally fulfill the dreams He puts in our hearts and the purposes He built into us. Co-operating with that purpose and those dreams is the greatest fulfillment that one could experience.”
Hall said that God spoke to him regularly, giving him training plans, even a race strategy for the London Olympics. He does not hear a voice; rather, he will pray or scroll through workouts in his head and a heightened thought will give him a sense of peace, grace and empowerment. Or a passage from the Bible will seem particularly relevant and urgent. Hall is still learning to distinguish his own thoughts from what he believes are God’s words to him. And sometimes, he has done workouts that in retrospect seem unwise — a thigh-shredding hill run in Flagstaff, a bicycle time trial a week after the Boston Marathon.
But Hall has also found biblical reinforcement for his training. He takes one day off a week, just as God rested on the seventh day. Every seven weeks, for restoration he runs only once a day instead of twice, an allusion to Exodus 23:11 and the admonition that farmers should leave their fields fallow every seventh year.
At night, he rubs his legs with anointing oil, another reference to Exodus and the belief that the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Hall bought — but did not immediately use — a weighted vest for uphill running, an idea gleaned from Judges 16:3 and Samson’s hoisting the doors of the city gate of Gaza on his shoulders and carrying them to the top of the hill facing Hebron.
In spacing three days between his most arduous workouts, Hall refers to the Holy Trinity and the time that Jesus spent in the tomb; for him, this period represents resurrection, completeness, new life.
“The Bible is not going to tell you how to be a good runner, just like it’s not going to tell you how to build a computer,” Sara Hall said. “I don’t think Ryan is looking at the Bible for a formula, necessarily. There are certain things that God highlights for him that he applies to his training. The majority is what he hears from God.”
Some elite runners seem taken aback by Hall’s faith-based training.
“So he really thinks God is saying, ‘Run 10 times 1,200 metres today,’ or ‘Take tomorrow off?’” said Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished ninth in the marathon at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, one spot ahead of his countryman Hall. “Wow.”
Hall’s belief in a direct conversation with God was not a fringe occurrence, according to T.M. Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist who spent a decade researching charismatic evangelicals and wrote a recent, critically acclaimed book, When God Talks Back. Polls have shown that about a quarter of Americans have reported a direct revelation from God or have experienced a voice or a vision through prayer.
“Just the way a well-parented child will carry with them the soothing voice of their mother and father, these folks are really trying to build God as that kind of personal relationship,” Luhrmann said in an interview. “It really does give an emotional buffer to people. It seems people are able to carry with them a sense of comforting reassurance and a sense of inspiration. So it’s not as alien as it seems.”
On Aug. 24, 2008, Hall reached the starting line of the Olympic marathon in Beijing, expecting, along with many others, that pollution, heat and humidity would slow the race. A moderate time of 2:09 might win the gold medal, he thought. The temperature at the start was 70 degrees, with 72 per cent humidity. Through the race, the temperature rose to 84 degrees. Anything above 55 was considered less than ideal for a marathon.
Still, Hall had anticipated this moment since he was a short, skinny eighth grader in Big Bear Lake, Calif. At the time, baseball was his passion. He wanted to emulate his father, Mickey, who was a pitcher at Pepperdine and was drafted by, but never signed with, the Baltimore Orioles. His father ran, too, as a triathlete. Ryan had loped through a mile in physical education class, but he dreamed of a career in baseball spikes, not racing flats.
Mickey Hall said, “Every time Ryan went for a run, he’d come back and say, ‘I’m not a runner.”’
Then, as Ryan rode with his teammates to a basketball game one day, Hall experienced what he described as a vision from God, urging him to run around the lake at Big Bear. The family was deeply religious, belonging to a Pentecostal church. The next weekend, wearing basketball shoes, Ryan and his father covered 15 miles. His father tried to dissuade him, but Ryan persisted.
“He kept bugging me till he drove me crazy,” Mickey Hall, a teacher, said with a laugh. “I finally said, OK, but this is a bad idea.”
Ryan eventually grew tired, and his father stopped for cold drinks. Ryan remembers soaking his legs in the cold water of the lake. When he got home, he collapsed on the couch, exhausted but changed. Soon, Hall gave up other sports. He was now a runner. He went on to win multiple California high school championships, and an NCAA title at 5,000 meters at Stanford.
“I felt like God was saying, ‘I’m giving you a gift to run with the best guys in the world, but I’m giving you that gift so you can help other people,”’ Hall said.
At a young age, he said, he did not understand about helping people. But he understood, “OK, I’m going to run in the Olympics one day.”
That day had come in Beijing. Hall was considered a medal candidate. But he felt sluggish, and when the gun sounded, his race plan crumbled. Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya had an entirely different, unanticipated strategy. He went out at a searing pace. This was a marathon, but it felt like a 10k race.
“It’s like if you were to come out in a boxing match, kind of hoping to work into things, and the guy comes out and, bam, pops you,” Hall said.
He kept checking his mile splits. He was running fast and yet drifting so far back.
“What’s going on?” he wondered.
He felt dazed, hoping the lead pack would come back to him. It did not. Hall grew discouraged and quit checking his splits. A helicopter providing a television feed of the leaders kept moving farther down the road.
Dejected, Hall finished 10th in 2:12:33. He was unable to watch a replay of the race for three years. Emotionally scarring, he called it. At the dining hall in the athletes’ village, Hall sought consolation by stuffing himself with cookies and other junk food. He saw the celebrative Wanjiru walking out with a handful of fruit.
“I was like, ‘Just salt my wounds,”’ Hall said.
That night, he attended the closing ceremony at Bird’s Nest stadium. He found himself perhaps 50 feet away from the medal podium as Wanjiru had gold placed around his neck, Jaouad Gharib of Morocco received the silver, and Tsegaye Kebede of Ethiopia was awarded the bronze.
“Man, I’m going to get myself there in four years,” Hall told himself.
It would not be easy. Marathon running became something different in Beijing. Wanjiru broke the Olympic record by nearly three minutes, winning in 2:06:32. It was Kenya’s first gold medal in the marathon. Given the oppressive conditions, some considered it the greatest run ever. A certain fear of the distance had been lost. The best runners no longer thought they had to hold back at the start to conserve energy.
Wanjiru would not live to defend his Olympic title in London. His personal life grew messy. He drank heavily by many accounts, and he died last year after a fall from a balcony at his home in circumstances that have never been resolved.
Still, his effect on the marathon has been sweeping. Of the 24 sub-2:05 marathons that have been run internationally, 20 have come since Wanjiru’s blazing victory in Beijing. The current world record, set last September in Berlin by Patrick Makau of Kenya, is 2:03:38, a pace of about 4:43 per mile. At least one scientist has said that a sub-two-hour marathon is possible by 2015.
“It’s almost like how we measure time — before Beijing how the marathon was and after Beijing how the marathon is,” Hall said. “People stopped being afraid. They are much more aggressive now. Guys just go for it.”
Eventually, that defeat in Beijing changed from deflating to liberating for Hall. He embraced risk and lost his fear of failure.
“I don’t see failure as a negative thing at all anymore, which is a huge shift for me,” he said. “I just see that as part of my training, my process, learning, experimenting, getting it wrong so that I can get it right.”
Among the most interested observers of Hall is Alberto Salazar, a former U.S. marathoner who now coaches elite athletes. He, too, is a renowned tinkerer whose Catholic faith played a significant role in his career. Salazar said he had the utmost respect for Hall but also believed that God wanted his followers to take responsibility for their daily actions and “not depend on him for the answer to everything.”
“I don’t believe God is necessarily interested in what workouts I should give my runners,” Salazar said.
At the same time, he said, “I may not understand how Ryan believes, but what I respect him for tremendously is that he has the guts to share his faith.”
Hall does not appear defensive about challenges to his beliefs. Instead, he seems to relish the discussion. He does not view his reliance on God as an abdication of responsibility but as a means of empowerment.
“I’m my own toughest critic,” Hall said. ‘‘I’ve messed up, but the mistake wasn’t on God’s end. I really believe God is always wanting to speak to me and reveal secrets to me and tell me what I need to be doing. I just mess it up sometimes.
“I’m very open about saying I don’t have it all figured out,” Hall said. ‘‘I don’t necessarily feel I’ve hit a marathon completely right yet. But I don’t think that’s a reflection of some character flaw. I’ve learned to see myself as God sees me. We believe God sees us as perfect, almost as if we have a Jesus suit on, because he died for us and took away our sins.
“If that’s how the creator of the universe sees me, that’s a very honouring thing,” Hall said. “It builds your confidence. It makes you see yourself in a very good light. I don’t have a lot of issues with my identity.”
He has begun to compress his training, placing two days between his hardest workouts instead of three. And he has quit wearing a watch while he trains, so he will not be discouraged by slow splits or inhibited by fast ones. He says he does not plan on wearing a watch in London, either. He feels unbound this way, running for the joy of it, more closely connected with God.
“It’s going to take a special day,” Hall said of his gold medal chances. “But I feel like I went for it, regardless of how the race goes. I’ll always look back on this as a season of joy. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s part of the fun of life, taking some chances and seeing what happens.