Editor’s note: The New York Times followed marathon runner Ryan Hall over weeks of training for the London Olympics, which are now under way. This story is based on that reporting.
REDDING, Calif. — Ryan Hall rocked slightly, palms up, closing his eyes or singing softly to lyrics projected on giant screens at the evangelical Bethel Church. Other worshippers jubilantly raised their arms and swayed and jumped in the aisles. A band played onstage, and a woman waved a fabric flag like a rhythmic gymnast.
Thin and blond and boyish at 29 — flight attendants still asked his age when he sat in an exit row — Hall wore jeans and a blue shirt labeled with the shoe company that sponsored his running. At the 2011 Boston Marathon, he ran a personal best of 2 hours, 4 minutes, 58 seconds. No other American has run faster.
The Boston course is not certified for record purposes because of its drop in elevation and its layout. Still, of the 29 fastest marathon performances in 2011, Hall’s was the only one achieved by a runner from a country other than Kenya or Ethiopia. His next marathon will come Aug. 12 at the London Olympics. On a Sunday in March, Hall firmly believed he could challenge the East Africans for a gold medal.
“Light a fire in me for the whole world to see,” he sang. The Bible downloaded on his iPhone, Hall read along with Psalm 68: “Let God arise and his enemies be scattered.”
He took notes as Bill Johnson, the pastor, casually hip in a sport coat and jeans, spoke to hundreds of worshippers about risk-taking, saying, “If you live cautiously, all your friends will call you wise, but you won’t move mountains.”
The sermon seemed particularly resonant with Hall, a Stanford graduate with a degree in sociology, a surfer-dude mien and an approach to running that is experimental and unorthodox. He has pushed the boundaries of conventional training, seeking to confront the dominant East Africans and the unforgiving way that the fastest marathons have become something like 26.2-mile sprints.
He coaches himself, running alone instead of with an elite training group here in Northern California, two hours above Sacramento, where the flat land of the Central Valley begins to buck and heave like a rodeo bull.
For the Olympic marathon trials in January in Houston, Hall trained entirely at sea level, contravening a widely held belief that altitude training is necessary to increase oxygen-carrying capacity and enhance performance. Although he has incorporated some altitude training for the Olympics, Hall has headed to the highlands of Flagstaff, Ariz., for weeks, not months, at a time. He runs 100 miles a week instead of the typical 120, taking one day off each seven days. Every seven weeks, he runs once a day instead of twice, the standard regimen.
Hall has yet to win a major marathon. He finished 10th at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. After taking fourth at Boston in the spring of 2011, he finished fifth at the Chicago Marathon last fall. His preparation for the London Games has been complicated by foot problems, disappointing tune-up races and an acknowledgment that his initial training strategy — to try to shatter the world record — did not work. But Hall remains flexible, adaptable.
“Sometimes, you have to fail your way to the top,” Hall said in his open, easy manner. “Thomas Edison found a thousand ways not to make a light bulb before he got it right.”
Underpinning his running is his faith. The marathon is so isolating in its training, so impossibly fast at the elite level, so restricting to two performances a year for most top runners, that many athletes seek a purpose larger than themselves, something to believe in more than the numbing miles of roadwork. For some, it is their families or an escape from poverty. For others, it is their religion.
“If you run without any reason, you are just chasing the wind,” said Wesley Korir, the reigning Boston Marathon champion from Kenya.
During the 2011 Chicago Marathon, Hall began singing praise to the Lord. Freestyling, he called it. Korir joined in. “Come Lord Jesus, come,” the two runners sang as they ran. “Come Holy Spirit, come.”
After finishing second at the 2011 U.S. half-marathon championships, Hall went to drug testing, a standard procedure. Asked on a form to list his coach, he wrote: God.
You have to list the name of a real person, a doping official said. “He is a real person,” Hall responded.
Conversing with God
Bethel Church, formerly affiliated with the Assemblies of God or Pentecostal faith, is a charismatic evangelical Christian fellowship with more than 3,000 congregants. It promotes a direct, personal relationship with an unconditionally loving God and what it calls supernatural signs and wonders. These include speaking in tongues, prophecy, healings and miracles that are said by church officials to include the curing of cancer, regeneration of limbs, mending of broken bones and raising of the dead.
After the Sunday service in March, some worshippers came forward for healing ministry. Prayer teams circled them. Hands were laid on the spiritually and physically ailing. A few collapsed in apparent rapture in the presence of what they believed to be the Holy Spirit.
“Just what Jesus demonstrated in the Bible, we really do believe it; we’re seeing it,” said Eric Johnson, 35, the senior leader of Bethel Church and the son of Bill Johnson, 61, the senior pastor.
Eric Johnson also spoke of “a culture of honor,” serving your fellow man and living as Jesus lived. Hall donates prize money from his races to a nonprofit organization founded by himself and his wife, Sara, the national cross-country champion.
The nonprofit, called the Steps Foundation, is dedicated to fighting global poverty through improved health. The Halls have financed running programs in the United States to help mentor disadvantaged youths and homeless adults. They have also worked with Korir to build a hospital in Kenya’s Rift Valley.
As part of the so-called renewalist evangelical Christian movement, Bethel Church subscribes to a relationship with God that is not distant but intimate. Through prayer, charismatic evangelicals train their minds to converse with God, not unlike athletes who train their bodies to run marathons. They speak to God and believe that he speaks to them in return.
“There’s a verse in the Bible that says we have the mind of Christ,” Sara Hall said. “When you believe you have the mind of Christ, God can work in your own thoughts. His thoughts become your thoughts.”
It is while running or thinking of running, Hall said, that he feels most conversant with and dependent on God. And it is through this professional excellence that Hall believes he is best able to show God to the world, to display his goodness and his love.
Joe Bottom, who won a gold and a silver medal in swimming at the 1976 Montreal Games and attends Bethel Church, compared Hall’s Olympic pursuit to that of Eric Liddell, a Christian runner from Scotland who won the 400 meters at the 1924 Paris Games. Liddell’s story was featured in the movie “Chariots of Fire.”
In the movie, Liddell is portrayed as saying, “I feel God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”
Hall is still learning to distinguish his own thoughts from what he believes are God’s words to him. And sometimes, he has done workouts that in retrospect seem unwise — a thigh-shredding hill run in Flagstaff, a bicycle time trial a week after the Boston Marathon.
But Hall has also found biblical reinforcement for his training. He takes one day off a week, just as God rested on the seventh day. Every seven weeks, for restoration he runs only once a day instead of twice, an allusion to Exodus 23:11 and the admonition that farmers should leave their fields fallow every seventh year.
He eventually compressed his training, placing two days between his hardest workouts instead of three. And he has quit wearing a watch while he trains, so he will not be discouraged by slow splits or inhibited by fast ones. He says he does not plan to wear a watch in London, either. He feels unbound this way, running for the joy of it, more closely connected with God.
What to expect now at the Olympics? Hall admits that he is hopeful and uncertain. He had hoped to be further along in training. It is difficult to gauge where he stands. But his marathon preparations usually coalesce in the final month. His wife did not qualify for London in the steeplechase, so Hall skipped the opening ceremony, spending extra time at altitude in Flagstaff.
He said he would arrive at the start line with “no expectations and zero limitations.”
His spiritual growth, he said, has freed him from caution and a dependence on results for his happiness.
“It’s going to take a special day,” Hall said of his gold medal chances. “But I feel like I went for it, regardless of how the race goes. I’ll always look back on this as a season of joy. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s part of the fun of life, taking some chances and seeing what happens.”