Running The Race That Counts With Olympic Marathon Runner Ryan Hall
About This Episode
Growing up, Ryan Hall trained for hours upon hours on his swing, his pitching, and his catching; he dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player. Unfortunately he could practice all he wanted, but it would never change his physical build enough to be a viable candidate for baseball. But, as he would soon learn, practice would indeed make him faster. His dad had always been a distance runner, but Ryan didn’t share the same passion for hitting the pavement. In fact, he didn’t enjoy it at all. But one day while sitting on the edge of a lake near his home in California, Ryan says, “I felt God tell me to run around it.” With no training or preparation, he and his dad ran the slow and painful fifteen miles around the lake. It was from that day forward that he says that he knew he would run in an Olympic Games.
He dedicated himself to training and was an all star high school athlete. Despite his reservations about attending a trendy, powerhouse running school, Ryan signed with Stanford University after he graduated. He had always been a decent student in high school, but was utterly unprepared for the rigors of college and wasn’t cut any slack for being an athlete as well. His undergraduate years were brutal. At one point his professors weren’t even confident that he would pass his classes, injuries plagued his racing, and his entire sense of identity was compromised because of it. “I looked in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw because I wasn’t performing well,” says Ryan. He wrestled with relentless negative self talk and depression that drove him home midway through his sophomore year. Knowing that he needed to confront his destructive performance mindset, Ryan began pursuing his faith in God to rebuild his identity. “I needed to see myself how God saw me,” he says. He returned to Stanford with a new confidence in his self worth; what started as an inward transformation began to work its way outward, resulting in faster and faster times.
He signed with ASICS right out of college and continued his running career on a whole new level. He had always dreamed of running alongside the very fastest individuals in the world, and now he was training, traveling, and racing his dream alongside his wife, Sarah, who was also an elite runner. Ryan soon realized that his 5K times were simply not competitive, which led him to up his race length. This proved to be the perfect move for him. In 2007 Ryan made history at the Houston Half-Marathon as the first American to break the one hour mark for a half marathon with a time of 59:43. He describes that race as feeling enfortless, a “mountaintop experience.” Unfortunately there is no half marathon at the Olympics, so Ryan upped his distance once again to the marathon length. That same year he logged the fastest debut marathon ever by an American at the London Marathon, where he took seventh place. He followed that up with a first place finish at the US Olympic Trials and qualified to race at the 2008 Beijing games.
Of the Olympics, Ryan says it “completely lived up to its hype.” From the athlete village, to running with some of his heros, to the ceremonies – it was a dream come true. His dream also included him running the race of his life, which unfortunately isn’t what happened. Three months prior to the Olympics fatigue caught up with him, his times lagged, and he couldn’t overcome feeling sluggish. He mixed up his training, nutrition, and sleep rhythms in hopes of breaking out of the slump, but, in his opinion, his fitness wasn’t as good as it could have been. Feeling the weight of the difficult journey to that starting line, he decided to hand over the outcome to God knowing that it didn’t change anything about who he was. “I told myself that I’m still of worth and value even if I don’t have my best performance on the day that I want it more than anything else,” says Ryan. During the first half of the race he fell behind the pack, carrying burden of the heat, humidity, and his own discouragement. He prayed as he ran and felt God prompt him to start encouraging others athletes along the way. So as he caught up with another competitor he would encourage them, pray for them, or run with them until they caught a fresh wind. “As I turned my thoughts out to other people, I wasn’t focused on my own suffering or pain,” says Ryan. This perspective shift worked; his splits improved and he picked his way up to a tenth place finish, something he is still very proud of.
A year after the Beijing Olympics, Ryan and his wife, Sarah, ran the Chicago Marathon to raise money for World Vision. Following the race, they had the opportunity to travel to Zambia to attend the ribbon cutting ceremony for the clean water well that was built from what they helped collect. At the event a community member shared with Ryan that the availability of clean water would add ten years to the life expectancy of the 90,000 people in their village. It was in that moment that he realized the impact that running could have on people who truly needed it. The following year Ryan and Sarah founded the Hall Steps Foundation, which raises money for a variety of projects around the world – from foster care development in Ethiopia, to microloans for widows across a variety of countries, to health clinics in Kenya. Runners can fundraise for a race and all of the proceeds go directly to the programs through this volunteer-run organization.
As their foundation grew, Ryan and Sarah continued to run professionally, but unfortunately, a domino effect of injuries afflicted Ryan. He qualified to run in the 2012 London Olympics, but had to step off mid-race because of a pulled hamstring. The injuries didn’t relent and after four years of nursing one after another Ryan decided to step away from the sport. Despite his love of running, his body made it clear that it was time to retire and honestly, he was ready for it. “It was kind of a relief,” says Ryan, “I had a powerful realization that my journey wasn’t all about me.” He looked forward to a new season of teaching, coaching, writing, and speaking, finding it incredibly fulfilling to pour into others and see them succeed, almost more than his own successes. He also took time to heal his body from almost fifteen years of elite running.
During this time the Hall family also grew in numbers. After spending time training in Ethiopia, Ryan and Sarah grew to love the people and culture, while simultaneously feeling convicted by the poverty and growing orphan crisis. They were originally interested in adopting an infant from Ethiopia, but while serving at an orphanage there, were confronted with the need for adoptive families for older children and sibling groups. When they returned to the US they switched adoption agencies and were matched with a group of four biological sisters who needed a home soon to avoid being seperated. Overnight they went from a family of two to a family of six. “It was almost an easier transition than the traditional route,” jokes Ryan, “I have never changed a diaper and have probably only been woken up twice in the night.” It may have seemed like a big move, but they were ready. “If everyone chooses to take their own personal step, then we can see big change,” says Ryan. He hopes that their work can encourage others to look around and find ways to have a positive impact in their own communities. Ryan shares more of his journey in his upcoming book, Run the Mile You’re In: Finding God in Every Step that releases this month. Packed full of insights on identity, purpose, and calling, he writes about how to pursue a relationship with, and direction from, God, no matter a person’s journey.
Ryan’s personal race has come full circle; he heard from God on the side of the lake in California that someday he would help others through running, and that vision has come to fruition. He has traveled the world, grown his family, competed with his heroes, and yet still realizes that the best race is the one run not for himself, but for God and those around him. Keep up with all of the amazing things that Ryan and Sarah are doing around the world on Instagram, Twitter, their website, and through the Hall Steps Foundation.
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Check Out Ryan's Book
Ryan Hall’s book is available in hardcover, audiobook, and eBook formats on Amazon