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Sara Hall and the 2021 Olympic Trials: “I Don’t Want the Weight of the Day to Steal the Joy”

She may be out of her element on the track, but she’s never competed there as a 2:20 marathoner.

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Two weeks away from competing against the most loaded women’s 10,000-meter field the U.S. Olympic Trials has ever hosted, Sara Hall got the confidence boost every athlete would like to have in their back pockets right about now: a win.

On Saturday, Hall defended her title at the New York Road Runner Mini 10K, a women’s-only race that was held in hilly Central Park, crossing the line in 31:33. She unleashed a finishing kick over the last 400 meters that she’s been perfecting in her build up to the Trials, where the 10,000 meters will run on June 26.

She calls herself a longshot to make the team—she’s tried many times before, having competed in various events on the track since 2004 and twice in the marathon. Her time, 31:21.90, is twelfth on the qualifier’s list in a field so large it’s being divided into two separate heats. The top three times will go on to the Tokyo Games (assuming those top three athletes have also achieved the Olympic qualification time of 31:25). 

RELATED: Sara Hall Just Wants to Have Fun (and 8 Other Pieces of Running Advice)

After a disappointing showing at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on February 29, 2020, where Hall dropped out with four miles to go, she sought redemption, even amid the pandemic. She entered the 2020 London Marathon, an elite-only race on a closed-circuit 1.3-mile looped course, and placed second in a 2:22:01, a career-best performance. Then she entered another elite-only 26.2-mile race, the Marathon Project, in December, where she won in 2:20:32, making her the second-fastest U.S. woman ever at the distance, behind Deena Kastor’s American record of 2:19:36.

All of this is to say that Hall is on a serious roll—an unexpected late-career surge of which she’s enjoying every minute.

“The track is still feeling really foreign, like at my last race we were all hanging out on the opposite side of where we start the 10K and I was like, ‘Wait, we start on the other side, right?’” she says, laughing. “Even though I feel a little bit out of my element, when I’m actually racing, I just feel different than when I raced track before, because of all the marathon strength that I’ve built. It’s been fun to see that translate and just see how far I can go with it.”

Age: 38

Hometown: Flagstaff, Arizona

Event/PRs: 10,000 meters (31:31.90)

Training tip: Hall loves the marathon—not just the event, but the preparation. So when she decided to head back to the track to compete in the 10,000 meters at the Olympic Track & Field Trials, she figured she’d only have to focus on training for about four months. Thanks to the pandemic, that turned into more than a year.

“When I first decided to do the track I knew I would feel stressed about being behind the other women. I mean, I already wasn’t good at track like five years ago and now U.S. distance running is the best it’s ever been. I was setting myself up for just feeling anxious and like I had to do something superhuman,” Hall says. “But I decided that I really needed to focus on the process and enjoying it—whatever the outcome is I’m going to lay it all on the line and have it be what it is. But it wasn’t going to be worth it to me to go after it if I didn’t enjoy it.”

Favorite workout: Two sets of 5Ks with “in and out” 200 meters—she runs about 3K pace for 200 meters, then eight seconds slower for the next 200 meters. Do that for 5K.

“It’s a long, sustained effort because it’s over three miles with some fast work in it,” Hall says. “But it’s also kind of like a tempo run because it’s continuous. It gets you used to changing gears, like in a race.”

The worst part of race day: Road racers are early birds—their competitions are almost always held in the morning. But track? The distance events are often in the evening. It makes for a long race day, though Hall tries to watch a movie, return emails, nap, and FaceTime with her four daughters.

“I’m really out of practice with deciding what to eat all day,” Hall says. “You’re definitely questioning what you’re eating or if you should walk around after laying in bed all day. I look forward to the shakeout run—it’s a chance to just move and feel alive, you know? The rest of the day you kind of feel like the fattened calf, just sitting around waiting for the slaughter or something.”

The best part of race day: Running fast at sea level. Hall’s homebase is Flagstaff, Arizona (at 7,000 feet of altitude) and she puts in a six-week super altitude training stint in Crested Butte, Colorado (at 9,000 feet), where she joined the Joe Bosshard-coached group, with Emma Coburn, Laura Thweatt, and others, for some speed workouts. So, getting the chance to race at sea level feels like sweet relief.

“I’m doing my strides and I’m like, ‘Whoa, I’m not even winded,’” she says. “That feeling of clicking off those laps and you’re not even hurting yet; you’re gliding along. That’s really fun.”

Trials success (aside from the obvious goal of making Team USA): Hall is after a personal breakthrough. Hopefully that correlates to a spot on the Olympic team, but even if it doesn’t, she’ll feel fulfilled if she has a well-executed race at Hayward.

“It’s a bit of a long shot to make that team, but I think being able to finish strong and feel like I ran to my potential would be a satisfying moment,” she says. “I just have a lot of disappointment in that stadium over a lot of years where I went for it and it was like top three or bust. And I was there until I blew up, basically. That’s a hard way to run. I would love to feel like I made all the right decisions—that I didn’t let the weight of that day steal the joy of getting to compete in the stadium and be part of it.”

Last words to herself on the starting line: She leans on her faith on the start line and says a prayer.

“I say, ‘God, I can do nothing without you, but I can do all things through you,” Hall says. “It’s my thing that I pray right before the race. But when I’m out there, on the track, it’s more chaotic than the roads, so I don’t say much to myself.”

Sage advice: Her husband and coach, Ryan Hall, reminds her of how far she’s come since those disappointments on the track.

“He has said, ‘You’ve never run on the track since you’ve become a 2:20 marathoner,” she says. “So, just keep an open mind of what’s possible.”

Pandemic pastimes: Keeping up with three daughters who were remote learning from home and one in college didn’t leave a lot of extra time on top of training. Hall ran two marathons during the pandemic, too, the second of which landed her the second-fastest American woman at 26.2 miles (2:20:32). She’s a This Is Us fan and enjoyed Truth Be Told on AppleTV, too. Recently she and the girls have gotten into Shark Tank, though.

“It’s teaching them a lot about entrepreneurship and creative ideas and negotiation,” Hall says. “It’s one of the only things we can all enjoy together.”


Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2021 U.S.A. Track & Field Olympic Trials, highlighting many of the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team. You can find all of our coverage here.