The Golden Boy

Big Bear’s Ryan Hall is wholesome looking, God loving, and hoping to bring the United States a medal in the Olympic marathon

Los Angeles magazine, June 2008

Wearing a large American flag around his neck, Ryan Hall weaves through the mirrored corridors of Tavern on the Green. The lanky marathoner from Big Bear has just won the United States Olympic trials in record time and is following a handful of officials to a victory press conference at the Manhattan restaurant. As the group approaches the last checkpoint, the hulking doorman waves in everybody except Hall, who waits patiently until one of his bodyguards takes charge. “He don’t need no credential,” the man yelps. “He’s the champ!”

When Hall finally reaches his seat on the dais, he learns that a runner collapsed and died during the race—Ryan Shay, a friend and former training partner. “I’ve been dreaming about [making the Olympic team] for ten years,” Hall says softly into the microphones. “But as great as the moment is, my heart and my thoughts are with Ryan Shay and his family.” He goes on to thank God and his wife and talks briefly about the challenges of competing in Beijing. Reporters dutifully record his words, but he may as well still be out in the hallway. The next day’s headlines focus on tragedy rather than triumph. Overshadowed are Hall’s scintillating performance and his emergence—after only his second marathon—as a serious contender at this summer’s Games.

At the November trials Hall attacked the hilly roads of Central Park with fluid, rhythmic strides; then at the 18-mile mark he unleashed a series of sub-five-minute miles that crushed the field. Pumping his fists and pointing heavenward, he crossed the finish line in 2:09:02, more than two minutes ahead of his nearest rival.

“I’ve been watching marathoners for 40 years,” says Amby Burfoot, the executive editor of Runner’s World magazine, “and I’ve never seen anyone run more beautifully, gracefully, and fast-fast-fast on a tough course than Ryan. The last half of the race was eye-popping.”

Should he medal in China, the 25-year-old Hall could spark a renaissance in U.S. marathoning, which has languished for decades. Since the mid-’80s, east  Africans have dominated international competition. An American last won the Boston Marathon in 1983; the most recent Olympic champion was Frank Shorter in 1972. The dearth of success has left the country’s elite runners laboring in anonymity, even as tens of thousands of weekend warriors jog through events from L.A. to Niagara Falls.

Hall’s wholesome looks and lifestyle may help him become as popular as Shorter and other past distance stars. With his straw blond hair and toothy grin, he resembles the counterman at the local In-N-Out. He prefers the solitude of the mountains to city life and espouses a deep Christian faith. Yet he’s a ferocious competitor—once a race begins, he can’t wait to get out front—which makes him an appealing blend of John Denver and Steve Prefontaine. “I’m not intimidated by anybody,” he says. “I feel confident that I can run with anyone at the longer distances.”

Hall likes to say that God gave him the gift of running; his father, Mickey, helped him develop that gift. When his son was five, Mickey moved his family to Big Bear Lake, a resort in the San Bernardino National Forest, 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Ryan loved sports, but he was too scrawny to get much playing time on the school basketball team. One day when he was in the eighth grade he asked his dad if he could join him during a workout run around the lake. “I told him, ‘No whining or no crying,’?” recalls Mickey, a special education teacher and recreational triathlete. “We stopped for a drink at the am/pm, but he made it all the way. And you could see it even then: He had a glide in his stride.”

Ryan, who had completed the 15-mile circuit wearing basketball sneakers, started training seriously. Never mind that the locals mocked him by yelling, “Run, Forrest, run!” from passing cars. Never mind that Big Bear High had neither a track nor a cross-country team. Mickey, a former baseball standout at Pepperdine, organized a club for his son and other students and put together a regimen after studying the ideas of track gurus Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerutti. During the summer he had Ryan run up the ski slope at Snow Summit, which gained 1,400 feet in just over a mile. He brought in Irv Ray, a coach at a local college, to improve Ryan’s form.

The Halls had the perfect setup for developing an endurance runner. At about 7,500 feet above sea level, Big Bear is the same altitude as the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, where many top marathoners train because the oxygen-deprived atmosphere encourages the creation of red blood cells and enhances aerobic capacity. Ryan didn’t live like a typical sedentary American teen. He rode his bike everywhere, played cutthroat backyard games with his four siblings, and rarely watched television. To Ray, Ryan was “the white Kenyan.”

Mickey preached the importance of setting goals. Inspired by celebrated miler Jim Ryun, Ryan vowed that he would break the four-minute barrier while in high school. Into a concrete pad that his father had poured next to their house he carved his dream: 3:55. “From the very first time I started running, I had that vision of competing with the very best guys in the world,” he says. “My dad was always there, building me up and giving me a ton of confidence.”

Hall didn’t achieve his goal—he clocked 4:02 to win the state title as a senior—but he did earn a scholarship to Stanford. Soon after he arrived on campus, he helped nurse a fellow runner who had fallen ill. He and Sara Bei, a cross-country champion from Northern California, discovered they were both devout Christians and began to date.

Although he had grown to five feet ten and 145 pounds, Hall struggled to keep pace with other collegiate milers. Shinsplints slowed him. Worse, he found he didn’t have the foot speed. The 2004 Olympic trials were supposed to be Hall’s coming-out party. Instead, he subsisted on tortillas and slept in a van by the Sacramento River while watching Bei try to make the team.

Hall prayed about what to do next and determined that pride was getting in his way. “The mile is such a big deal in the U.S.,” he says, “and I couldn’t let go of it. I was wrapped up in being the next great American miler. I started to think, ‘What am I naturally good at? Like, how has God created me?’?”

The answer was to keep running—only farther. In his junior year Hall helped Stanford win a national championship in cross-country. The next season he took the NCAA 5,000-meter title. Hall turned pro in 2005, but he lacked the stomp-on-the-pedal acceleration required to win on the international track circuit. That left him with one option: the marathon, a 26-mile, 385-yard test of stamina and heart. “It seemed like the longer the distance was, the more competitive I was getting with the best guys in the world,” Hall says. “I was like, ‘All right, we’ve got to give this a shot.’?”

In January 2007, Hall ran the quickest half-marathon in U.S. history, becoming the first American to slip under an hour, with a time of 59:43. He entered his first marathon in London last spring and went stride for stride with a field that included world record holder Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia. Hall faded to seventh, but his 2:08.24 was the fastest debut by an American. The Olympic trials proved he was no fluke. “I found that when I picked up the pace, I started to feel better and better,” he says. “It was a nerve-racking moment because I was like, ‘Here’s my bid for the Olympics.’?”

Since the men’s marathon was introduced at the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the United States has won only three times. Thomas Hicks took the gold in 1904. John Hayes’s dramatic victory over Italy’s Dorando Pietri in 1908, and their subsequent barnstorming tour, sparked the first marathoning fad in this country. The current interest in recreational running started with Shorter’s victory and was fueled by the success of Alberto Salazar and Bill Rodgers in the ’80s.

“A decade ago [America’s] 23-year-olds were running five- and ten-thousand meters and not choosing to jump to the marathon,” says Burfoot, who won the 1968 Boston Marathon. “Maybe they should have tried the marathon when they were young and tough, like Ryan and some of the others are doing now.”

Few places are more picturesque than Mammoth Lakes, a town in the eastern Sierra encircled by majestic snow-streaked ridges. “Being up here, you can’t help but look around and say, ‘Wow, this is so amazing’—you’re like, closer to God,” says Hall one sunny afternoon as he sits in a nearly deserted coffeehouse and orders a decaf.

Hall trains here to take advantage of the altitude and the quiet. He also belongs to Mammoth-based Team Running USA, a club formed by U.S. Olympic coach Joe Vigil and former UCLA coach Bob Larsen, who want to revive American competitive distance running. So far the results have been promising. Two of Hall’s training partners, marathoners Deena Kastor and Meb Keflezighi, medaled in the 2004 Games in Athens.

During the three months he needs to build up to a race, Hall reduces life to the basics: He eats, runs, eats, naps, eats, runs, eats, works out, eats, sleeps. “It’s more than a job because it’s a lifestyle,” he says. “Like, I can’t just eat Snickers bars all the time.” Hall pounds along Mammoth’s trails twice a day, logging as many as 140 miles a week, including dreaded “tempo runs” in which he covers upwards of 20 miles at a near-race pace. He exercises daily in a sports club across from the trailer park where he shares a TV-less double-wide with Bei, whom he married in 2005, and a miniature husky named Kai. The couple live simply but comfortably. Like other top runners, Hall receives endorsements, appearance fees, and prize money. For winning the Olympic trials and making it to the Games, he earned $80,000, not counting bonuses from one of his sponsors, the sneaker company ASICS.

Hall began to prepare for the Olympics by entering the national cross-country championships in San Diego in February. He finished a sluggish fifth in the 12-kilometer race. “It’s a good thing to get my butt kicked,” he says. “That puts my head on straight.”

In April Hall rebounded with a strong showing in the London marathon, which was his last chance to measure himself against the east Africans before Beijing. For most of the race he stayed with the leaders, who were maintaining a world-record pace, and ended up fifth. His performance impressed Stefano Baldini, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, who called Hall the future of the marathon.

Hall is back in the mountains, splitting time between Mammoth and Big Bear, training and helping his wife in her attempt to qualify for the Olympics. He expects to leave for the U.S. camp in northern China about three weeks before the Games begin in August. Given the Olympic marathon’s emphasis on tactical running over speed, he and his personal coach, Terrence Mahon, are concerned about Beijing’s heat and poisonous air. (Gebrselassie has asthma and says he will skip the race.) Hall is working on running “with emotional control,” as Vigil puts it. “If you go out too hard and overheat, you’re through.”