The announcement earlier this week that Ryan Hall was withdrawing from next week’s ING New York City Marathon was met with dismay and disappointment in most quarters, but among some running cognoscenti the reaction was more of a head shake and “What, again?”
Hall had a brilliant start to his marathoning career, including a dominant 2:09:02 victory in the 2008 Olympic Trials race in Manhattan’s Central Park, and a mind-blowing (and admittedly wind-blown) 2:04:58 at Boston in 2011, part of a five-year streak in which he ran two world-class marathons every year.
But in 2012, that brilliance began to lose some of its luster. The first cracks in his marathon dominance came at the Olympic Trials race in Houston, where he finished second behind Meb Keflezghi, another American who has endured his own stretch of tribulations before reemerging as a top marathoner. Hall’s downward spiral continued at the London Olympics, where he dropped out before the halfway point, then accelerated with scratches from New York that November and Boston the following spring. The latest scratch makes it four consecutive marathons that he’s failed to finish, or even start.
Many observers posit this string to Hall’s 2010 decision to leave his training group in Mammoth, CA and Terrence Mahon, who had coached him during his string of successes, and strike out on his own, following a “faith-based” system in which he cited God as the major director of his training. While God might make a good co-pilot, there’s less evidence of His efficacy as a coach of world-class distance running, and critics found this an easy target when Hall’s performances began to founder. Indeed, Hall himself might have begun to question it, as he hired Italian Renato Canova, coach of many of the top African marathoners, to direct his workouts at the end of 2012. That association lasted only a few months, and by the middle of 2013 Hall was once again guiding his own training, initially to good effect but ultimately resulting in this latest injury-induced DNS.
At 31 years of age, Hall, while still boyish-faced, is no longer the Wunderkind of American marathoning. While he still draws the longest lines at his autograph sessions at pre-race expos, it may not be long before the “what have you done lately?” attitude of both fans and sponsors begins to erode that popularity, as well as the attendant endorsement and appearance fee earning power.
Perhaps Hall would best be served by looking at the career and outlook of his former Mammoth training mate, Keflezighi. In the same Trials race where Hall burst into the forefront of the American running consciousness, Keflezighi, who had won the silver medal in the Olympic marathon just three years prior, was laid low by an injury that made it almost impossible for him to walk, much less run high level workouts, for almost a year.
Like Hall, Keflezighi is a man of intense religious faith, but he also possesses a laser focus on his goals, and has been supported by working with the same coach, Bob Larsen, for almost his entire adult racing life. That enabled Keflezighi to pull himself off the competitive canvas and come back to win New York in 2009, and just miss another medal in London last year.
So, it may be too early to write Ryan Hall off as a marathoning super nova who burned brightly, but far too briefly. But even though Keflezighi has proven it’s possible to run at a world-class level into your late 30s, Hall has to realize that his competitive biological clock is beginning to tick more loudly with each passing year, and it’s time to heed the alarm bells