The end of an era is upon us. And it is hard to believe, really. Ryan Hall announced his retirement from competitive athletics today at the still tender age of 33, leaving all who followed his career, whether as fans or reporters, feeling a little bit emptier upon hearing the news.
It seems like only yesterday that Ryan flew into our consciousness as one of the avatars of a new era of American running excellence. Along with Class of 2000 mates Alan Webb and Dathan Ritzenhein, Ryan Hall took on the world, giving as good as he got, inserting himself at the front of the pack while exciting American distance running to a pitch not felt in years. There were times — Houston `07, Olympic Trials/New York ’07, Boston `11 — when his flowing stride produced results that were downright breathtaking.
Now, at age 33, the Big Bear, California native has announced he is retiring from professional running as chronically low testosterone levels have hollowed out his legendary endurance and stripped away his most elegant speed.
Over the last few years it was almost painful to watch as Ryan fought as best he could against a body no longer willing or able to answer the special call of excellence that had previously been his hallmark. Thus, after four frustrating years of searching for the answer to his vexing health issue, Ryan has decided to hang up his racing flats even as the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon looms in Los Angeles February 13th, a team he might once have been favored for based on the last two Trials in New York 2007 (1st place) and Houston 2012 (2nd place).
But though his racing career may have been cut short in one respect, when combined with his and wife Sara’s work in their faith-based private lives, including the Hall Steps Foundation, the building of medical facilities in Africa, and their recent adoption of four Ethiopian sisters, Ryan’s legacy is both secure and lasting. No American runner outside Meb Keflezighi has made as great a mark on the sport over the last 15 years as has Hall.
When Ryan dropped out of last spring’s Asics L.A. Marathon just past half-way, after leading through five miles in what turned out to be his final competitive marathon, I wrote a piece called BIG THREE DOWN TO 1. In it I quoted Meb’s long time coach Bob Larsen about Ryan’s slump. Ryan had joined Meb on Team USA Mammoth Lakes after graduating Stanford in 2005.
“We know he can self-coach himself,” Bob said, “because he did it before Boston 2011. But he was pushed pretty hard in high school by Irv Ray and his father. Irv was coaching at Cal Baptist at the time in Riverside. So Ryan would go down and do intervals at low altitude with Irv, then return to Big Bear with his dad.
“He was essentially a 4:00 miler in high school and the Mt. Sac cross country course record holder. Irv sent me his workouts. They were at a very high level. I think he could have run close to a 2:10 (marathon) in high school. I had an athlete, Steve Ortiz, who ran 2:13 as a college junior, and Ryan was doing harder workouts in high school. And when he was at Stanford they ran hard, because of all the talent that was there.
“Ryan had a wonderful high school and college career,” Bob continued, “and has run all these great marathons (six top 5 finishes in Abbott World Marathon Majors). So the only reason he has to apologize for anything is because of other people’s expectations.”
Notwithstanding his laid-back California persona — the hang loose guy with the tousled hair and occasionally scraggly beard — Ryan Hall raced with a daring belief that “today could be the greatest day of my life!” Of course it didn’t always turn out that way, but, baby, when it did…With an eye cast upward, the wind in his hair and the grace of his God in his heart, his joys, and even eventual disappointments, touched people in a way that few athlete’s exploits can. He was what this sport had long prayed for, but rarely found, a genuine hero.
And because Ryan was seven years younger than Meb, we always thought it was just a matter of time before he rediscovered the magic that made him the most-feared American runner of his day. But as with all athletes it isn’t how old you are, it is how many hard miles you have in your legs.
So the question has been answered. At age 33 Ryan Hall is an old and tired runner whose high octane early years have now left him unable to undertake the training necessary to compete at the highest levels of world-class competition. He’s not the first to succumb this way. In the 1980s Alberto Salazar burned out before his time after equally majestic peaks and a similarly frustrating quest for answers that never came.
But today Ryan Hall rests easy. He has put on 20 pounds and focuses his attention on his four children and wife Sara, who he is helping coach toward a potential berth on the U.S. Olympic Marathon team, which will be selected in Los Angeles February 13th. It would be her first.
This probably isn’t how Ryan would have wanted his final career chapter to be written. But anyone who knows this good man even a little realizes what lies before him is simply another challenge, one he has more than enough fortitude and support to take on, and not even see as a burden, but as simply another gift bestowed by One with strength enough for all.
Good luck with it, Ryan. And thanks. We’ll not see one like you again soon.