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Interview With First-Time Marathoner Sara Hall

A chat with Sara Hall before her USA Cross-Country race this weekend.

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With two national championships right around the corner, we caught up with elite runner Sara Hall who will be competing in this weekend’s USATF cross-country championships in Boulder, Colo.—her final race before her 26.2-mile debut at the LA Marathon next month. Hall won the 2012 cross-country event and placed fourth at the USATF half-marathon championships last month in Houston. Together with husband and Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall, the 31-year-old runner will tackle the LA Marathon, host to the USATF Marathon Championships as well as the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, on March 15 with hopes of clocking her fastest miles in the last 10K.

Women’s Running: First, good luck this weekend in Boulder at the cross-country championships and then LA next month for your first marathon! How has training been going between those two races and coming off of the half-marathon championships a few weeks ago?

Sara Hall: It’s going really well! I’m really thankful after being in the sport for awhile, and there’s points where it’s going smoother than others and sometimes you don’t understand why. I’m just really enjoying the time, and things are really clicking, and I’m recovering really well and absorbing the training, so that’s kind of the season I’ve been in. You think of training for a marathon as this grueling grind of feeling horrible all the time—but it hasn’t been like that at all! I’m just excited to feel like it’s just been a natural fit for me. And for cross country, I was realizing that my focus has really been the marathon, but a lot of what I was doing was preparing me really well for cross country simultaneously. Just getting really strong. If you’re racing at altitude, it just benefits you be getting you really strong. I was just up in Ethiopia at 9,000 feet, so really high altitude and training on grass quite a bit. So I’m hoping coming down to Boulder [for the XC championships] will feel quite a bit easier.

WR: How did your trip to Ethiopia go?

SH: [Ryan and I] were there for three weeks. It went really well—it’s kind of becoming our home away from home where we can get away and focus on training. But also it’s a place where we can have a fun adventure too. We’ve been doing this for awhile, so it’s just a change of pace where we can start to get to know the culture and people there, so it’s something really fun to re-invigorate our training. We are heading back in two weeks for the last part of our LA Marathon prep.

WR: What are some of the ways you remain healthy while training for a larger goal race but also doing smaller races along the way, especially things like cross country that is often on more rugged surfaces?

SH: For me it’s helped to have a couple of races—I had the half-marathon championships [last month] and this will be my last race before the marathon. I like having a couple of races leading up to the big one, just because it gives me a little break from the training. I feel like you can get a little bit buried if you just train and never back off at all from the mileage. I’ve been putting in 110 miles per week, but it hasn’t really just nailed me like I thought it would. I’ve stayed on top of it and my recovery as much as I can. I think that’s allowed me to feel like I still have spring in my step.

WR: What does a normal recovery day look like for you?

SH: I definitely try to space out the workouts based on what I need. This buildup I was actually able to fit in one every other day. But then there’s one [run] every week that I’m trying to hit really well—usually a long tempo or long long run. Usually I would put in two recovery days in front of it if I could. But I really kind of go by feel. If I feel like I need another easy day, then I’ll take it just to really maximize the hard workout. There’s some that believe in running more than 110 miles, but I kind of prioritize quality over quantity. But fortunately, I haven’t had any really bad periods. One thing I’ve always done is just eating right after my workouts within 30 minutes to make sure I’m getting in some protein. For me that’s in the form of muscle milk powder and their amino powder that I can take with me during my workouts, and that really maximizes recovery. I also use this product called Glutathione, which has really helped my immune system. I used to have really bad allergies, but it’s really helped my overall energy as well as minimizing that used to knock me back.

WR: What has been the most surprising thing to you about marathon training?

SH: I was surprised at how much more fuel I needed. I thought I’ve always done a lot of mileage, so I wouldn’t notice a big difference, but I definitely have. My metabolism has just gone through the roof. I can now relate with Ryan [my husband] about getting hangry—it’s like “Get out of my way—I need food!” So that’s been something I’ve heard people say, but I didn’t expect it to be a big change. But the other thing that’s been a pleasant surprise is I didn’t know how I would respond to these long 16-mile tempo efforts. Coming off of track training, everything is pretty short. You kind of have this short attention span but are still really focused. So I didn’t know if having a longer attention span would come naturally to me. But it actually has—I think just because I’ve been feeling good, it makes those runs go by really quickly. I think I’ve learned to give myself more grace and the benefit of the doubt.

WR: How has your husband Ryan’s experience with the marathon helped you in your own training?

SH: I’ve been really thankful because Ryan has kind of coached me through everything. My coach is Steve Magness, but Ryan is the one that’s been around day to day and fields my questions. He’s really tried to help me with the mentality of the marathon and how that’s different than shorter distances. I like to get off the line, ya know, and he says, “No, you need to build into it as you go.” Kind of learning the rhythm of it. Also, with track training, you’re always maximizing the fastest route you can—run with the wind, downhill. You kind of always prioritize that. But with the marathon, you need to get used to suffering. He will have me going net uphill in my workouts or going the harder way just to get used to grinding. So it’s great to have him to learn from, and he’s really excited about my future in the sport. He gives me a lot of confidence just from his faith in me.

WR: What is your main goal on race day?

SH: The main goal is to just finish strong and have a good last six miles. I have some other things in mind, but I’ve seen people’s debuts all over the map. I feel I’ve prepared the best that I can, and that’s really all you can do at that point. I really want to focus on busting through that 20-mile mark and have my fastest miles at the end.

WR: And what’s the first thing you’re going to do after the marathon?

SH: That’s a good question! Ryan found this donut place in LA where it’s gourmet donuts. Donut Snob, which sounds perfect! I think just meeting up with my parents and my friends and enjoying a few dozen donuts together.