Meet Ryan Hall, the Reluctant, Self-Effacing Ultrarunner
The American road running record-holder talks about his eye-opening experience running the 43-mile Grand Traverse across Colorado’s Elk Mountain Range.
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Two-time Olympian and American road marathon record holder (2:04:58) and half-marathon record holder (59:43) Ryan Hall retired from racing professionally in 2016. In recent years, he’s been known for transitioning into heavy weight lifting: he has a deadlift PR of 462lbs., a squat PR of 390lbs., and a bench press PR of 290lbs. But the affable athlete and father of four daughters with wife Sara Hall is still game for toeing a starting line of a running race now and again. Those races just don’t look anything like the collegiate, Olympic and World Major road and track races of his decorated past.
On September 5, Hall took on a new adventure in running the 43-mile Grand Traverse ultramarathon on rugged terrain out of Crested Butte, Colorado, just three weeks after signing up on a whim with an athlete he coaches (Meta Haley). Though he’d run the 21K Xterra World Championship Trail Run in Hawaii in 2016, and took part in the 2017 Asics Beat the Sun Challenge trail relay around Mont Blanc, the Grand Traverse was the first ultra-distance run he’d attempted.
The course traditionally runs one way from Crested Butte to Aspen, but COVID-19 had race officials reroute the 2020 course to return to Crested Butte (which, to Hall’s chagrin, added 3,000 feet of elevation gain to the traditional course), and set runners off in waves of 10 for social distancing.
Haley, who lives in Park City, was just coming off a 5K road race training block but used to live in Crested Butte and had always wanted to do the race. Hall, who lives with his family in Flagstaff but spends time in Crested Butte, thought the race sounded fun and like “too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
“We were both underprepared and way in over our heads,” Hall chuckles, adding that his cumulative mileage for the year thus far, before the race, was 25 miles.
We caught up with Hall a couple days after the Grand Traverse to see how his foray into ultrarunning unfolded, and we’re more than grateful for his ability to completely drop his ego and laugh at himself.
Women’s Running: First of all, how’d the race go?
Ryan Hall: It wasn’t terribly different than expected, considering adding up my volume for the year so far.
It was interesting: with the race starting at 9,000 feet, I was expecting to be suffering a bit with the altitude, but I was fine cardiovascularly. My legs weren’t used to the pounding at all. They felt like lead an hour into it, and it ended up taking us twelve-and-a-half hours. But it was kind of fun to experience the pain of an ultra. It’s like a deep, low-level pain.
Luckily I didn’t have any injuries like stress fracture, shooting pain, blisters, chafing. I thought I’d experience all of that. I got really lucky that way. My pain didn’t really get worse throughout, but my legs were heavy for a long time.
The race ticked off exactly what I was looking for, with beautiful views way up in the mountains. Going up over Star Mountain was amazing.
I wasn’t out to compete. If there were an award for the most social person on the course I’d probably win that one. It’s so quiet out there, but I was making friends, chatting it up to pass the time. You’re just out there for so long. My longest run before that, time-wise, was three hours. So to go from three hours to 12.5 hours felt long.
WR: When was that three-hour training run?
RH: It was back when I was running professionally. One time I got lost on a run and ran way farther than expected, way longer than expected. The longest runs I’d ever do on purpose back then were 2.5 hours.
It was kind of funny — the last quarter of the race, people — I think — thought I’d finished and had come back to jog in with a friend, but I was still out there on the course.
WR: It’s great you got out there.
RH: I still love adventures but don’t miss the training. If I can have the race experience without the training, then that’s great.
I ran in these 5-year-old Asics I got when I was sponsored that were like, my hiking shoes. And I was carrying water bottles I’d bought for $5 on Amazon, like the kind with straps that go around your hands, but they started leaking so I switched them out during the race to carrying just regular, old-school plastic water bottles. I’m actually pretty sore in my lats from carrying water bottles in my hands.
I almost bought avalanche poles, but then realized I couldn’t carry water bottles and poles. In hindsight, I should have definitely had a pack, and definitely had poles.
WR: Other insights from coming from road running to trails, and ultras, in particular?
RH: I think, like a lot of people coming from the roads thought, “I can run 10-minute miles. That can’t be that hard.”
Even without run training, I can run 8-minute pace on the roads, no problem. So I figured, “I can run 10-minute miles even if I hadn’t been training.”
But then I got super dehydrated. I’d been filling up from streams and all that because I didn’t have enough water. I knew that hydration and nutrition were going to be huge players. I was having a really hard time eating. My stomach was low-level upset. I couldn’t eat, and got super dehydrated. My little brother showed up on his bike with a giant water bottle and I’m forever indebted. That was at like, mile 35. When he caught up to me, I’d been feeling like the water stations kept getting further apart. They were still nine miles apart from each other, but it felt like they were getting farther.
WR: How was your nutrition and hydration overall?
RH: I had 24 ounces of water between aid stations that were 9 miles apart and thought that should be plenty, but it wasn’t. Nine miles was taking like, three hours.
We’d hit a warm patch, up high, and it was really dry. And I’m way bigger than I was. (He says he’s now 175lbs. from the weight training.) It’s a perfect recipe for dehydration.
I had a really hard time taking in any calories. I forced down gels, but they were tasting terrible. It still gives me gag reflex to think about it.
We had this halfway drop bag. People had been saying, “You need salty foods,” so I had packed — and ate — this whole bag of chips, which made me super, super thirsty. I drank my entire 24 ounces of water and then I was fishing out water straight from creeks because I was so thirsty after that.
What ended up working, which I was skeptical about at first, were these little oranges at aid stations. These mandarin oranges were like, divine. They tasted good, sat well in my stomach…I was like, “I wish I would have been pounding these a way long time ago,” but at that point there was like seven miles to go.
WR: The weight training probably helped you get through the race, especially since you weren’t doing any run-specific training, don’t you think?
RH: Totally. I was curious to see how this would translate. I’ve been hitting lifting PRs. I’m the strongest I’ve ever been, deadlifting and all that. I think it’s helpful just surviving and not being super sore after. I did a crazy hike with my family two days after the race and didn’t feel that bad. The weight training certainly helped.
I also think that the softer surface of the trail — compared to like, doing the World Marathon Challenge [in 2017] on cement where I got a stress fracture — saved me.
People ask me on Instagram messages all the time if weightlifting is helpful for running. But it’s night and day. It’s so not helpful. I don’t recommend it. If you’re trying to run fast, I don’t recommend lifting heavy. It’s not the way to go.
WR: It’s not easy to just crank out 43 miles, though. What other strategies did you use?
RH: I’ve never done the walk-jog thing. It was hard actually. Every time I made myself run again, I’d be like, ugh, I just want to walk it in.
It was inspiring and comical. We had no idea how fast we were gonna go. We thought maybe it’d be 10-minute per mile pace, which sounded super slow, but we were averaging way slower.
We literally started in 30th place, since we started in the third wave of 10. We were running with people we shouldn’t have been. We finished in 130th. There were people who were limping who were passing us. That was both inspiring and comical.
We knew what was coming. We weren’t out there to crush. It was more like, “Let’s try and find the finish line.”
Towards the end it felt like the aid stations weren’t marked…we were just looking for the finish line.
WR: Any other notable memories from the race, your first ultra?
RH: We didn’t even keep time or know how far we were going the whole race. At one point, Meta stopped to get some gear out of her bag. I was in this patch of grass, lying on my back, like, sprawled on my back. We had met these super nice, friendly guys the day before the race. They came across us at that point of the race and said, “You’re an ultra runner! You made it past 26.2!” We had a mini celebration.
WR: What about your hardest moment?
RH: One particularly hard moment was when we had 7 miles to go. We thought we had 5. Two extra miles shouldn’t feel like a big deal, but it was so disheartening. I seriously debated if I wanted to keep going. My brother had his van, and I was thinking, I could literally have been lying in that van within five minutes. But then it was like, “Don’t be stupid, you’ve come this far.”
WR: Do you think you’ll do another ultra?
RH: It’s still way too early to ask that question. But, I love adventures. If the right adventure presents itself, I’ll probably do it.
As trying as it was to not train for it and do it, jumping in that race suited my life pretty well. I didn’t want to do the training so I didn’t do the training. I still got through it.
I could have maybe been four hours quicker if I’d done the training for it. But I wouldn’t trade that and would be happy for the rest of my life for not being four hours faster. For myself, as far as how fast I could go for an ultra…I don’t have the big goal to see how good at this I could get. I’d be curious about doing it without so much weight lifting.
But, for people with back pain trying to do these long runs, my back is so strong from deadlifting and squatting and that saved me for sure.
You can get through it off weight training. I wouldn’t try to get through it with no weight training, and no run training.
But yeah, it was a fun test—a good adventure.