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The Road to Sara Hall’s London Marathon PR

After Sara Hall's second-place finish in the London Marathon, her coach (and husband) Ryan Hall discusses the ups and downs of the last year and of their entire careers.

American marathon star Sara Hall finished second in last Sunday’s London Marathon, improving her personal best from 2:22:16 (Berlin, 2019) to 2:22:01. She also became the first American, man or woman, to climb the London awards podium since Deena Kastor won London in 2006.

“This sport has broken my heart a hundred times, and the pandemic year has been hard on all of us,” Hall wrote on Twitter. “But if you’re resilient—if you ‘forget what is behind and strain for what’s ahead’—eventually, preparation will meet opportunity.”

Hall has run at the elite level since 2000, when she won the Footlocker High School Cross Country Championships as Sara Bei, and went on to compete at Stanford. In 2005, she married future marathon great Ryan Hall, who retired in early 2016 while Sara kept competing. In 2015, the Halls adopted four Ethiopian sisters. The last several years they have lived in Flagstaff.

Sara Hall seemed poised for a great 2020 when she finished last year’s Berlin Marathon with a fast personal-best performance. However, she subsequently dropped out of both the 2019 New York City Marathon and the all-important Olympic Marathon Trials in late February of this year. At London, she powered through the distance despite having to run most of the marathon all alone, between faster and slower groupings.

Sarah Hall racing at the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials.
Sarah Hall competes during the Women’s U.S. Olympic marathon team trials on February 29, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Below, Ryan Hall responds to questions about his wife’s London race, the last year, and the long journey they have shared together. He has been Sara’s coach for the last four years.

Sara said she heard you cheering for her from the sidelines. Where were you, and what were you yelling to her?

Ryan Hall: There was only one place we were allowed to sit due to Covid was a grandstand area about 100 meters from the finish. I was getting splits for how far Sara was trailing the runners up ahead, so she would know what was happening. She wasn’t sitting in a great place mid-race. It wasn’t her fault. There was just no second pace-group, and the first-group pace was too hot.

I was tempted to yell at her to slow down and wait for the group behind her so she had people to run with, but I am so glad that I didn’t do that. She needed to stay somewhat close to be able to finish as high as she did. Her early pace was fast but not crazy. I knew Sara was fit enough to handle a 70:00 opening half, but in those conditions on her own the effort was worth a low 69.

She ended up coming through halfway in about 70:25. If she had company on a nicer day, I think she would have been much quicker. There was supposed to be a second group going 2:18:30–2:19 pace that she planned to run with. But that group just ended up merging into the lead group from the gun.

Sara Hall chasing Ruth Chepngetich in the London Marathon
Sara Hall chasing down Ruth Chepngetich to finish second in the Virgin Money London Marathon Photo: Adam Warner for Virgin Money London Marathon

The last time you saw Sara, how much was she trailing second place by? What did you yell at her then?

I saw her with a lap to go. Before then I didn’t think second place was in the cards. But when I saw the slowing turnover of the second-place athlete and saw how Sara had gained on her the previous lap, I knew she had a shot.  I told her she was 40 seconds down but that she could catch her and finish second.

What was most interesting and/or different about Sara’s buildup for London? Did you deliberately try anything new? You spent time in Crested Butte, which is even higher than Flagstaff. What was that about?

Nothing too new. We followed the same tried and true training that has continued to have her see nice improvements from buildup to buildup. We did head to Crested Butte for four weeks for a change of scenery since Sara goes stir crazy when she can’t travel/race much. (Covid obviously prevented this). Crested Butte is such a beautiful place to train and a fun community to visit.

Sara’s ASICS racing shoes appeared new, thick and nonstandard for ASICS. How and when did you get WA approval?

Sara’s shoes were approved by World Athletics before the race and fit World Athletics requirements.

Sara Hall sprinting to overtake Ruth Chepngetich to finish second in the Virgin Money London Marathon Photo: Andrew Baker for Virgin Money London Marathon

There’s a general theory that high school girls shouldn’t be pushed hard because they will burn out and not improve as senior athletes. Sara was a Footlocker champ. Do you wish she had trained and raced less when young? Or, conversely, what did she gain from her early experiences?

I think it is really tempting to peg everything (results) on miles run per week/volume when in actuality there is so much more going on than just an athlete’s mileage. I mean, I get it, mileage is really easy to measure and it does have relevance to every athlete in describing their training load. However, let me explain what I am trying to say here.

Take two hypothetical athletes. Both train high volume/miles since their high school days. One is rigid in following the program. He doesn’t always listen to his body, and is married to the schedule. Maybe this runner even goes on crash diets and still gets good results, perhaps setting an American record in the half marathon. But the runner is forced to retire because the lifestyle isn’t healthy or sustainable.

The other athlete trains the same way, but listens to her body. She bends her training around how her body is feeling, and eats a healthy, balanced diet that helps her maintain a healthy weight. This athlete keeps getting better and better late into her running career.

See what I mean? Same training load but very different results. If you only isolate the variable “mileage,” you get a very incomplete picture of the whole package that is made up of many, many variables.

All that to say, I am glad Sara ran as much as she did in high school as it began the journey of developing her threshold. Her threshold strength continues to improve with every buildup, and she is staying healthy while maintaining high mileage. Now, there is a sweet spot for everyone in terms of mileage, so I am not saying every high school athlete should train how Sara did. We are all experiments of one. I see it as the roll of the coach to help each athlete find their sweet spot when it comes to volume.

The last time we talked, a year ago, Sara had just run great at Berlin and was headed for New York City and Atlanta. What went wrong in those races?

Yeah, the turnaround for NYC was tough. As a coach, I think I didn’t build in enough recovery from Berlin, and tried to push her training rather than just give her plenty of rest and maintain the fitness we had built for Berlin. I learned a lot from that one. With that said, she was still fit going into it and then picked up a stomach bug just prior to the race. I peg NYC to both those factors.

She was also super fit going into the Trials but that course, in combination with not being in a very “cushy” racing shoe, just ate her legs up. If the race was on a flat course, I have no doubt she makes the team, but we don’t have control over course selection so not much we can do there. I am excited about Asics innovation and their up-and coming shoes so I don’t think the shoe factor is a problem going forward either. It’s nice to see shoe companies catching up to the Alphafly and results beginning to reflect that.

What have been the biggest factors in Sara’s steady and rather spectacular marathon improvement curve?

I could talk for a long time on this one. So many things. She takes really good care of her body to start. Nutrition, sleep, recovery tricks are all on point at all times. Also, she just loves the journey. That’s probably the biggest factor. When you love what you do, good things happen because you pour all of yourself into it. Also, she is really good at managing the bad races (like NYC and the Trials). She gets bummed out for a few days, but she always gets back on the horse and just keeps moving forward.

Also, she works harder than any marathoner I’ve seen. We will go bang an absolutely huge day of running in the morning, then go straight to the gym, and she is banging in the gym for another hour on top of that. My main job is to just hold the reins so her incredible work ethic is coupled with enough rest and recovery to get results. She is always wanting to push and I am always trying to decipher when to let her run and when to hold her back.

Ryan Hall and Sara Hall
Ryan and Sara Hall in Los Angeles, 2015. Photo: Jonathan Moore/Getty Images for ASICS

Why do you think her marathon arc has been so different from yours? Are there any general conclusions to be drawn from the comparison, or do you think you two are just different people with two different bodies and mentalities?

Sara has natural speed. Even though her 5k and 10k PRs might not show, she competed in the Olympic Trials over 1500 meters. She has wheels, and they don’t go away with marathon training. This is so huge. If you gave me the option to work with two athletes, one of whom was incredibly good over the half marathon, and the other who was incredibly good over 1500 meters, I would take the 1500 meter athlete in terms of long term marathon development.

Threshold strength can be developed very late in one’s career (Kipchoge for example) but it also must be balanced with maintaining foot speed. I was never naturally very fast, so when I started marathon training, I slowly lost my 5k speed, and the marathon got harder and harder. I think if I kept myself in 13:16 5k shape, I could still be getting faster to this day. But probably what killed me more was just not listening to my body with nutrition, sleep, and body weight. That’s why I am so passionate about coaching now. I don’t want athletes to make the same mistake I did.

It’s hard to understand how an elite woman marathoner gets stronger and faster by adding four teenage girls to her family. Did that shift do something for Sara? Something that has helped her running?

I wouldn’t say this has given her a competitive advantage. It’s been a rewarding, beautiful trip, but in terms of running, a challenging development. Honestly, I don’t know how she does it. I don’t think I could compete at her level while being a mom/dad of four. With that said, our kids are super supportive and love watching Sara be an example of excellence and chasing after one’s dreams. They don’t protest when we take them to training camps or have to be traveling to races. We, as a family, try our best to support each other in going after each one of our dreams.

When you retired in Jan, 2016, Sara was a 2:31 marathoner. Now she’s a 2:22 runner. This seems to mean that you were either a really bad runner-husband or a really good-runner coach. Which is it?

Haha! Yeah, it is interesting, huh? I feel like Sara and I were rarely thriving at the same time. I don’t fully understand this mystery. I do know this though: having slid fully into the support role, it is not an easy role to take. It may look easy from the outside, but it is really hard, especially coming from being used to it being more the other way around.  Don’t get me wrong: It’s an honor to support Sara now and be there for her as much as I can. But it is also internally and physically trying. Oftentimes, after marathons, I feel more blasted than she does.

I don’t know. I don’t really have a good answer for this question, but I think it is really interesting to observe and I do know this: For anyone to reach their full potential in anything, they need people to step in behind them and support them on their journey. I certainly would never had achieved the results I got if not for Sara, my coaches, family, therapist, etc., all behind me on my journey.

As Sara’s coach, what’s the worst coach-athlete argument you’ve ever had with her?

Hmmm. Hard to identify the worst one. We do get in little tiffs about pacing. If I drift too far in front of her on the bike when we are doing hard workouts, she can get a little bent. And then I get a little bent, and it can go south from there. But we always figure it out in the end.

It’s a long time until the 2024 Olympics. Do you and Sara have a plan for the next several years?

Not really. We are just living in the moment, celebrating London. Then we will choose what is next and go after that. We just take one buildup at a time. But I would not be surprised to see Sara toeing the line of the Olympic Marathon in 2024.