WARSAW — Running has taken Ryan Hall a whole lot of places — from his native Big Bear City in Southern California, to two Olympic Games and eventually all seven continents. On Friday, running brought Hall to Warsaw to speak with WCS Elementary students to tell them about his journey and to encourage them to discover their own greatness.
Hall’s journey to become a two-time Olympic marathoner was an unlikely one. He started pretty much on a whim at the age of 13 during a car trip to a basketball game while looking out over Big Bear Lake. He decided to run around the lake — in all a 15-mile trip — for his first run, and, as you’d expect, it didn’t go all that well.
“If you’ve never been for a run before I don’t recommend going for a 15-mile run, but I headed out the next Saturday morning with my dad and we ran a very slow, very, very painful 15-mile run around the lake. If you would’ve been looking at me from the outside you would’ve thought ‘Man, this kid is really going to hate to run now’ because I was so tired, so beat up with big old blisters on my feet,’ Hall recalled. “But that was not the case at all. I came home, I collapsed on the couch, and I felt like God was telling me he gave me a gift to run with the best guys in the world. And he gave me that gift so I could help other people.
“That was my moment when I found that I was made to do this. Ever since that moment, that transitioned from me trying to find my gift to me trying to cultivate my gift — get it to grow, see how far I could take it.”
Hall’s high school didn’t have either a cross country or a track team until his father, a teacher at the school, started the programs. He went on to win back-to-back state cross country championships as a junior and senior and to claim the 3200-meter state track title as a junior and the 1600-meter state championship as a senior with a state record time of 4:02.62. Hall was recruited to run for Stanford University, and after graduating in 2005 following a 5,000-meter NCAA championship finish that spring, became a professional runner for ASICS. Gradually increasing his distances over the next several years, Hall ran his first marathon in April 2007 at the Flora London Marathon, where his 2:08.24 was the fastest debut by any American.
A U.S. Olympic Team Trials-record time of 2:09.02 the following November earned him a spot at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and his come-from-behind performance in that first Olympic race helped earn him the cover feature in 2008 Runner’s World magazine. But it also taught him an important lesson, one that would become a theme throughout the rest of his running career.
With forecasts anticipating a hot, humid day in Beijing, everyone was expecting the 2009 Olympic marathon to take place at a conservative pace. But Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru had other ideas and quickly set a record pace on his way to a new Olympic record of 2:06.32 and the gold. That early pace pushed Hall into the back of the pack — he estimates around 50th place — and he remembers that he was starting to feel sorry for himself.
“I was like ‘Oh, why is this happening to me? I trained so hard and now look at me. I was supposed to be with the guys in the front, and now I’m with the guys in the back,’ he said. “I was starting to kind of pout and whine and feel sorry for myself, but then I felt like God was telling me I need to start encouraging people around me. So that’s what I did. I went and every single guy I’d catch up to, I’d just be like ‘Hey man, nice work. Good job. Let’s work together; let’s go get these guys.’ The crazy thing about doing that is when I would do that I would actually feel better so my body would relax, and I’d be able to run at a faster pace than I was running before.”
Still sitting back in 21st place at the 15k mark, Hall eventually worked himself up to a 10th place finish in a time of 2:12.33. But the most important encouragement he’s been able to give, while through the sport of running, has been off the course.
Following his epic comeback in Beijing, Hall and wife Sara had the opportunity to visit Zambia, where the couple had helped raise money with Team World Vision to provide clean water for a community of 90,000 people. During his visit, Hall was told that because of Team World Vision’s work, the life expectancy of everyone in that community had gone up by about 10 years each. It was a powerful lesson, and when the Halls returned home, they started the Hall Steps Foundation, which tackles structural causes of poverty around the globe, including access to clean water, shelter and physical security. Among other projects, the Hall foundation has helped fund a hospital in Kenya, rebuilt a maternity clinic in Senegal, funded a clean water project in Mozambique and sponsored victims of human trafficking in Southeast Asia.
And it all started with that trip to Zambia.
“That was one of those moments where things just clicked for me. I was like ‘I can’t believe that because we all ran a race and fundraised, 90,000 people are going to be living 10 years longer.’ Imagine, you can add years to people’s lives by doing a sport,” Hall said.
Hall earned himself a second berth at the London Olympic Games in 2012 but after developing plantar fasciitis training for the trials, he was forced to drop out of the race around mile 11. It was the first race in 20 years of running he had been unable to finish. Later that year, he had to withdraw from the New York City Marathon — which was ultimately cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy anyway — and in 2013, persistent health issues forced him to withdraw from both the Boston and New York City marathons. In 2014, he finished 20th at the Boston Marathon — his first finish since the 2012 Olympic Trials — but withdrew from two more marathons in 2014 due to fatigue, then, after returning to racing at the Los Angeles Marathon, had to drop out at the halfway point once again. He ultimately retired from professional running in Jan. 2016 at the age of 33, citing the toll it was taking on his body.
Hall finally got a chance to give a proper goodbye to marathon running when he was invited to participate in the 2017 World Marathon Challenge. The challenge, which helped raise money for the homeless population in LA, was a gauntlet of seven marathons in seven straight days on seven continents, beginning in Antarctica on Jan. 22, 2017 and finishing in Sydney, Australia Jan. 29. At the final stop in Sydney, Hall wore the same jersey he wore at that first marathon he ran in London back in 2007, and when he finished, he removed his shoes and placed them on the finish line.
“Most things are not meant to last forever, so me running professionally, it was never intended to last 50, 60, 70 years,” Hall explained. “We all go through our season where that’s what we’re into, that’s what we’re doing, but then you have to be able to shift into your next season. For me that kind of marked the end of my season as a professional athlete. I crossed the finish line, and I got down on my knees, which took forever because I was so tight and sore. I took off my shoes, and I put them on the finish line as a way to say goodbye to marathoning — I haven’t run any marathons since then, and I don’t plan to run any more — but also as a way to say thank you to running. It’s given me so many amazing experiences. I’m here with you guys today because I ran. Things like this just make me super grateful for all that running gave me, and it allowed me to move into the new season that I’m in now, which is focused on coaching, speaking, and I’m also writing a book right now. It’s just kind of a really nice, clean break. It was such a great season, but now I’m going into the next one.”
Running took Hall all around the world. It introduced him to wife Sara, a fellow All-American at Stanford, as well as their four daughters — sisters Hana, Mia, Jasmine and Lily — whom the couple adopted in 2015 after meeting them at an orphanage during a training trip to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Hall encouraged WCS students to find their talents and cultivate them, to “discover their greatness”, but the parting words of his address offered them perspective on what really matters on that journey.
“When I look back at my career, what I’m most thankful for is the people that I met along the trip. So as you’re on your journey to discover whatever it is that you’re created to do, whatever your gift is, don’t forget the person sitting next to you, your teacher, your coach, your family,” he said. “Those are the things that we take with us. So always emphasize relationships above performances, and I know that you’ll have a good journey.”