Friday, June 18, 2010

Hall’s marathon success has been running high


Ryan Hall has been elevated most of his life. He was raised in Big Bear, levitated as America’s next great middle-distance runner while at that great institution of higher learning, Stanford, and he now resides in the rarefied air of Mammoth Lakes. Heady stuff.

But even Hall has to come down off the mountain every so often, so he’s here now, working at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista.

“I’m here in San Diego doing work for Nissan, promoting a healthy lifestyle,” says Hall, 27. “After Boston (Marathon, in which he finished fourth), I headed out here to work and get in some sea-level training.”

I’ve always wondered about that. A late doctor friend once told me a city such as Denver shouldn’t be allowed to have major league sports teams, that the mile-high air gave them a tremendous advantage.

“Ever wonder why John Elway had more fourth-quarter comebacks than anyone in history?” he said. “The other teams were dead. And those high-altitude teams have an advantage when they come down to sea level, too.”

That last part, I’d never known. But Hall confirms it.

“The first couple of runs at sea level after I’ve been at altitude, it feels like I have a third lung,” he says. “Your chest is inflated. It’s amazing. Everybody should train at altitude for a while to see how it feels.”

Well, that leaves me out, but I’ve known people who run 10 miles a day who feel it real soon when their bodies haven’t had enough time to adjust to altitude. For a runner such as Hall, who can run under water, it’s no big deal. But Kenyans have been training at altitude forever, and we’ve noticed how good they are.

It’s working for Hall. He’s a marathoner now. It just didn’t happen for him at the shorter distances — although, among Americans, he was near the top — but the marathon seems ideal for him.

He didn’t try the distance until April 2007, when he finished seventh in the London Marathon. But his time of 2:08:24 was the fastest run by an American in a marathon debut. It was then he realized his future.

Along with Mammoth Lakes neighbor Meb Keflezighi , the San Diego High and UCLA grad who won the last New York Marathon, there is hope for the U.S. at a distance where there has been little dominance since the days of Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar and Bill Rodgers.

“It’s going well for me now,” says Hall, whose 2:08:41 at Boston was the fastest ever run by an American there. “I never really expected to go to the marathon, but here I am. And it feels like the perfect fit for me. I’m training to win an Olympic medal in London (2012) now.”

It happens with distance runners, especially in this country, who try on all kinds of suits off the rack before they find one that fits. Hall is a talent. He’s covered 1,500 meters in 3:42.70, the 5,000 in 13:16.03 and the 10,000 in 27:08.93, so the foot speed is there.

“I was looking to see what I wanted to be after a rough time growing up,” he says. “I thought I was a miler, then I opened myself up to longer distances, but it just wasn’t happening for me on the track. I was looking up at the big-screen TVs and guys were a lap in front of me. I had to make a change.”

This is exactly what Meb did after a standout prep and collegiate career at shorter distances. Thing is, Keflezighi, who also won the silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics, just turned 35, so he has only so many world-class racing years left. As a marathoner, Hall hasn’t entered his prime, and as with Keflezighi, he doesn’t overdo it. He will run one more marathon this year — Chicago in October — and that’s it.

“The Olympic year (2008) I ran three and it was too much for me,” says Hall, whose 2008 London Marathon time of 2:06:17 is the fastest by anyone born on U.S. soil. “I sleep a lot and eat a lot. Running the marathon at this level is a different lifestyle. More than anything, the marathon really has evolved over the past 10 years; you’ve got to be at the top of your game and go after it all the time.

“Meb is my neighbor (in Mammoth). We live about 400 yards apart. We have different coaches, but I see him twice a day, six days a week. I run 20 miles a day. There are miles and miles of beautiful trails up there.”

There is, of course, the real uphill battle — beating the runners from the powerful African nations at what has become their own game.

“They’re humans, just like everyone else,” Hall says. “It’s an exciting time to be in the sport. More and more Americans are running real well; there’s a huge resurgence.

“I’ve progressed a lot since my first Olympics. I’ve finished in the top five in all my major marathons. It’s going to set up nicely for the next Olympics. I feel I could be on the podium every time I run. I’m only 27. I figure I have a decade left in these legs.”

He may have me there, too, I’m afraid.