“My biggest strength is also my biggest weakness — being fearless and aggressive.”
That’s what Ryan Hall, two-time Olympic marathoner, has learned since he began racing 26.2 miles back in 2007. His explosive power translated to speedy success — and a 2:04:58 at the 2011 Boston Marathon, the fastest time ever recorded by an American. But since then, injuries have disrupted his career.
Now, Hall has set his sights on conquering his first ASICS LA Marathon on March 15. He’s joined by his wife Sara, a prominent middle-distance runner (600 to 3,000 meters.) She recently made the USA Cross Country world team for the third time — and she’s hoping her speed on the track can propel her to a strong first-time marathon finish. She might even have her eye on the podium.
So how are the Cali natives (and Stanford University sweethearts) going to crush this race? We caught up with the running power couple to talk speed, nutrition, “bonking,” philanthropy, and why they’ve been spending time in Ethiopia recently. Plus, try their favorite protein pancake recipe below!
Why this race, this year? The 2016 Olympic Team Time Trials will be in LA — did that factor into your decision?
Sara Hall: I’ve been wanting to run a marathon for a while now, after watching so many of Ryan’s [marathons]. But I’ve been waiting for the right timing and balancing it with my track career. I’m a California girl, and my first big moments in the sport were all in the LA area, so I have a lot of memories there. I wanted a course that had an exciting atmosphere to keep me engaged. Plus, this year is the US Marathon Championships, and I love champion-style competition. It always brings out the best in me.
Ryan Hall: The Asics LA Marathon has been on my bucket list since I began running marathons in 2007. Even when I was a kid, I remember watching my dad run a marathon in LA and being inspired. For the most part, my extended family all resides in SoCal, so this will be a bit of a homecoming for me. It will be the first time many of them have seen me race in person since my high school days. Also, I’m an athlete that thrives off the energy of the crowd. Having people on the course pulling for me makes all the difference. I see competing as an opportunity for me to better connect with the people in LA and give them a chance to get to know me. And hopefully [I’ll] earn their support a year from now when I try to qualify for my third Olympic Team on the streets of LA.
At the 2007 London Marathon, Ryan set an American record of 2:08:24 for a debut marathon. Sara, do you feel any pressure?
SH: I don’t feel as much pressure as excitement. I’m not one to pump up expectations… I’ve seen the first marathon humble a lot of people. People time and time again hit the wall. I have some times and [finishing] places I want to run, but I’m training so that I won’t hit the wall. I want to be kicking really strong into the finish line.
Sara, what are your strategies to avoid “hitting the wall” during your debut?
SH: The main ways I’ve tried to prevent this are by training aggressively and practicing fueling. Fortunately, I have an iron stomach. I can handle quite a bit of Cytomax [pre-workout mix] during runs, as well as large breakfasts before running. Hitting the wall is a fuel issue, so your intake of carbs is really the limiting factor. But you also become fuel-efficient by training and doing long efforts, like 24-mile runs. I’ve also occasionally done runs where I don’t eat carbs before, to teach my body to keep going when my blood sugar is low. They aren’t my favorite but hopefully they pay off!
Does your nutrition change throughout your training cycle?
RH: I practice exactly what I am going to do on race day in training, so before big, long runs I’ll do a bit of carb loading. It’s kind of the opposite of the trend of doing carb depletion in training. My workouts go so miserably wrong if I carb deplete that I choose to maximize my workouts and enjoy some carbs, too.
SH: I mainly listen to my body and let that dictate my nutrition. I have needed a lot more food in general [while marathon training] and have emphasized more carbohydrates since increasing my mileage to 100-115 miles per week. I try to get in more frequent meals throughout the day rather than having huge amounts at once. I also emphasize protein before and after training for more muscle recovery. I put Muscle Milk protein powder in my pancakes every morning for breakfast, and have it in a shake.
If you’re pressed for time, Sara and Ryan recommend substituting 1/3 cup of your favorite pancake mix for the first three ingredients. For protein powder, they prefer Muscle Milk Light Cake Batter flavor.
Ryan, do you have a specific goal for the LA Marathon?
RH: My goal is to maximize my potential for that day. I find it more fun and gratifying to go into a race and expect nothing but be ready for everything. I’ve learned it’s better to believe the best about myself to maximize my potential. The first time you run a course you’ve got to go in humble because you never know what you’re going to get.
Ryan, you’ve battled injuries in recent years and didn’t finish the marathon at the 2012 Olympics due to a hamstring issue. How have your injuries changed the way you train and race?
RH: To be honest, my training hasn’t changed too much. I’ve been in plenty of rooms full of runners where I’ve asked ‘Who here has plantar fasciitis?’ and nearly every hand in the room went up. I think it’s part of the journey of being a runner. It makes the journey worth it, in a sense.
“If you can’t control your greatest strength, it can become your greatest weakness.”
What are both of your biggest strengths and weaknesses when it comes to running?
SH: I think that my strength is that I love to compete. My instincts allow me to have fun with competing! My biggest weakness is definitely running in heat and humidity.
RH: My biggest strength is also my biggest weakness — being fearless and aggressive. There have been certain races where I did not do a good job of controlling myself. I went out like a bat out of hell. Two laps into the race, I felt like, “Oh, I wish I could stop and start over.” If you can’t control your greatest strength, it can become your greatest weakness.
Sara, you recently posted an Instagram photo of you running #likeagirl. Throughout your life, how has running empowered you?
SH: Fortunately, I was raised with parents that really believed in me. With running, I honestly never felt like I was physically any less than a boy. I would run in the same races as boys. And I would beat all of them but one. It was empowering to feel like I had an equal opportunity to pursue the same dreams and passions that men do.
You’ve both been training outside of the U.S. recently. Are there advantages to training abroad?
SH: I like having training camps abroad because you kind of get away from everything and life becomes simpler. We have been doing a lot of our [mileage] building at YaYa Village in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which has become a second home for us. It’s a beautifully landscaped compound and an ideal place to rest between training sessions. I also like getting to know the other Ethiopian runners and I’m learning a lot from them and about their approach [to training].
RH: There certainly is [an advantage] to training at 9,000 feet like in Ethiopia. The nice thing about training abroad is getting to chase the good weather. Rather than battling the cold that accompanies altitude training in the winter at U.S. destinations, we can be in Ethiopia and enjoy the sunshine at a very high altitude. Plus, training in places like Ethiopia and Kenya keeps it fresh and fun. Sometimes running the same roads over and over again can become a bit draining, but mixing it up by training in different places with different people adds a little boost to training.
What will you both be thinking about when you toe the start line?
SH: There’s a quote from Roger Bannister [Ed.—First man to run a four-minute mile.] I have been thinking about in training: “In the joy of going all out, I forgot my pain.” I’ll be going all out with a smile on my face that becomes a grimace… and enjoying getting to use this gift I’ve been given.
RH: The really tough part of the race is all the training. The race is the fun part — the cheering, the crowds. We can go run 26 miles anytime we want, but being on the streets of LA is a treat.
What do you both dream of accomplishing in the sport over the next five years?
SH: I would love to make the Olympic Games — it’s something I’ve yet to achieve. But as long as I can say I gave 100 percent with every opportunity that I had and worshipped God in the process, I will be satisfied with my career.
RH: I would also like to make an Olympic team or record. But we also see The Hall Steps Foundation as our legacy. That has been incredibly impactful for me. How can we make an impact through running? We’re hoping to bring clean water to 100 people by joining Team World Vision for this upcoming race.
To keep up with Ryan and Sara’s training, follow them on Twitter (@ryanhall3 and @SaraHall3) and Instagram (@SaraHall3 and @RyanHall3), or check out their website. On March 15, tune in to watch the LA Marathon live on KTLA and on Universal Sports.