A Day in the Life of Ryan Hall

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A 15-miler before breakfast? That’s a typical day for Ryan Hall as he prepares to run the 2013 New York City Marathon in November.

At the risk of sounding like a swooning teenage girl, I have a confession to make: I have an autographed poster of Ryan Hall hanging in my study at home, prominently displayed on a wall where I’ll eventually get around to hanging more memorabilia from my trip to the 2013 Boston Marathon.

Ryan Hall is a devout Christian, a faithful husband, an all-around good guy, and America’s best marathon runner. The poster on my wall is from Hall’s run at the 2010 Boston Marathon (see how much we have in common?), where he placed fourth with a 2:08:40 finish (okay, not so much in common). He ran the Boston Marathon again in 2011 and, again, placed fourth, this time with a 2:04:58 finish — the fastest marathon ever for an American. He also holds the American record for the half-marathon (59:43).

I waited in line for what seemed like hours (actually, I think it was literally “hours”) to get Hall’s autograph on my poster. Hall was scheduled to run the Boston Marathon this year but had to pull out due to an injury. Nevertheless, being the good guy that he is, Hall welcomed hundreds of his fans with a smile and a word of encouragement for our race.

Below his (illegible) signature, he added:

“John 10:10” … a reference to the words of Jesus:

I have come that they might have life, and have it to the full.

So, being a fan, of course I was thrilled to stumble across a recent video. Here’s the description:

A day in the life of Ryan Hall: Olympic marathoner Ryan Hall seeks a triumphant return to international racing after battling injuries. In this STACK “Day in the Life” video, see what a typical training day is like for Hall. See his pre-run warm-up and watch him crank out sub-5-minute miles. Listen and learn as he describes his new, battle-hardened look on life, which comes from being on the marathon scene for more than six years.

Here’s the video!

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Heartbreak on the Hills

Boston Marathon course map

Heartbreak Hill lived up to its name during my running of the Boston Marathon. After we’ve talked so much about the tragic bombing, some folks are still gettting around to asking how the actual race went. I tell them the Hills of Newton proved to be my undoing.

Heartbreak Hill is the last, longest and steepest in a series of hills that greet runners as they approach Newton, Mass., on their way toward the finish line in Boston. I suspect  the infamous hills are not so long and steep as they loom in my imagination. Surely, Heartbreak Hill is no worse than Kansas City’s own Hospital Hill. It’s just that the Hills of Newton rise up at the worst possible location on the course.

Not that there’s any good location for hills in a marathon …

During the first half of a marathon, I feel strong and fast and inspired. I’m having fun. Much later, after I pass the 20-mile mark and I’m no longer having fun, I start telling myself that I’m in the homestretch. Past the 23-mile mark, hey, it’s only a 5K race. But the miles between 13 and 20, the “in between” miles, are the most mentally challenging.

And that’s where Boston decided to put its worst hills.

Up to that point, I was running on pace to cross the finish line in 3 1/2 hours. My pace averaged 7:45 (7 minutes/45 seconds) per mile for the first 16 miles of the course. The constant encouragement from an enthusiastic crowd lining every step of the course — especially the famously raucus women of Wellesley College — fueled my postive mood. I was starting to think (the mind plays tricks on you late in the race) that I might even beat my 3:26 finish at the Sioux Falls Marathon in South Dakota last September. A new personal record!

Then came the hills.

I have a good enough grasp of the law of gravity to expect to slow down while running uphill. My pacing strategy included logging some faster miles earlier in the race to put some time in the bank for just that reason. But kind of like my actual bank account, those deposits didn’t pay much in the way of returns. I didn’t expect to slow down soooo much. My pace slowed to about 9 minutes per mile. Instead of running an 8:19 pace up Heartbreak Hill, as scheduled, my pace actually slowed even further to about 10 minutes per mile.

I also planned to speed back up once I got past the hills. Instead, I continued to slow down, running the last part of the marathon at a pace somewhat slower than 10 minutes per mile.

I can’t be too disappointed with a finishing time of 3:48. After all, thousands of runners didn’t get to cross the finish line at all. Some spectators and runners were maimed or killed. So I consider myself fortunate … fortunate for the privilege of running the most revered race in America, fortunate for crossing the finish line unscathed.

To be honest, I finished about as fast as I deserved, considering how poorly I trained. I skipped most of the weight training that helped me qualify for Boston in the first place. I ran fewer weekly miles. I was carrying a few extra pounds.

I was still hoping to perform better than I deserved. But there is no grace in the marathon. You get out of it exactly what you put into it.

This isn’t the first time I’ve maintained a good pace early in a race but lost steam at about the 16-mile mark. That tells me that I need to work on increasing my strength and improving my endurance.

So I’m back in the gym. Twice a week, I run four miles to Anytime Fitness, spend 30 minutes weight training, then run the four miles back home. Later in the day, I run a few more miles with a friend after work. My long run on Saturday includes a couple of trips up Siloam Hill (finishing, of course, at Cedar’s Coffee House).

I’m getting more sleep. I’m eating better and trying to drop a few pounds.

Come the next marathon, and the next hill, I’ll be ready.

Boston, it’s personal

My wife, Loretta, took this photo at about mile 24 of the Boston Marathon.

My wife, Loretta, took this photo at about mile 24 of the Boston Marathon.

Folks sometimes ask me why I’m so passionate about running. In the echoes of Boston’s bomb blasts I found the answer.

Not that I blame them for asking. As anyone who has suffered under a high school coach knows, my sport is your sport’s punishment. Running, especially when you’re just beginning, can be uncomfortable. Heck, it can hurt.

It’s supposed to hurt.

Runners always seem to be nursing some injury or another, wearing black toenails like a badge of honor. So as I limp around the house after a long weekend run, I’m not surprised to be asked: Why?

The answer, for me, is found in the same place as the answer to this question: Why did the Boston bombing register so deeply with so many of us at such a gut level?

An iconic American institution was defiled. Innocents were killed and maimed. Cowards spilled blood on a day reserved for celebration. It was a national tragedy deserving of every ounce of grief and outrage it provoked.

But that still doesn’t go far enough to explain my own visceral response.

Maybe it’s because I was there … embedded in a historical moment … a couple of blocks from the starting line when the bombs exploded. I was fortunate to have already crossed the finish line about 20 minutes before the blasts, which I only heard from the safe distance of the changing tent. I suffered only the confusion and frustration shared by thousands of runners — along with their friends and families — who struggled in the ensuing chaos to find one another and to find their way home.

Maybe it’s because this attack was a direct assault on my sport and my comrades. Not just any busy city street, but the finish line — the finish line! — of our nation’s most-revered road race. Not just any victims, but fellow runners with whom I shared the course … with whom I share a passion, and therefore, a bond.

Which brings me to this … This was personal. In ways that could only be true for runners, this was personal.

Running is the most intensely personal sport of all. It’s an individual event, an activity uniquely suited for introverts. Those of us who thrive in being alone with our thoughts, who enjoy spending time in our own space, gravitate to running.

Running is mostly a solitary endeavor. There are advantages to running with a group, which I’ve written about, and I’m a better runner for the support of my friends in the KC Track Club. But when I’m training for a race, following my own specific schedule of distance and pace, I tend to run alone. Which means I spend hours upon hours each week by myself. I stingily stake my claim on that time and space for my own self.

This is what you need to know about runners: We aren’t running away from anything. We are running to something, toward a place deep within ourselves. As the miles unfold down the road, we approach a distant locale of our soul. We are challenged from within … we challenge ourselves from within. To be better. To know better. To do better.

There is healing and self-awareness that can only be reached in solitude, when there is sweat on your forehead and your calves are throbbing and your heart rate threatens to rush above 180 beats per minute. There is abiding joy and purpose in the realization that I ran farther today, or faster, than yesterday.

Because it’s not about the miles I cover outside, but the distance I’ve traveled within.

So you’ll understand that training for a race, even a once-in-a-lifetime event like the Boston Marathon, is really just an excuse to run.

When race day arrives, never mind that hundreds or thousands of other runners may be jostling with me at the starting line. I know that I am only competing against the most challenging opponent … the same foe who confronted me across so many miles in the months leading up to the race. Myself.

I will push myself to run faster, to embrace the pain, to accomplish something I didn’t know I could achieve. Then I will believe I can do anything. And I will be a better person for it.

Because running is so intensely personal, this attack on runners was inherently personal. I was attacked. I felt vulnerable, victimized.

So after arriving home from Boston on Thursday night, one of the first things I did, as soon as I was able, was go for a run on Friday morning. It was cathartic. So I ran again on Saturday, for all of the same reasons. I hope those reasons are clear now.

This is why I run. And this is why I still hear the bombs exploding in Boston.