An ode to Ryan Hall: consistency vs. risks in marathoning

With the news that Ryan Hall is retiring from running at the age of 33, I had a lot of feelings and thoughts I couldn’t share in 140 characters.

Watching Ryan run was frustrating as a fan who wanted to see Americans win because of the way he ran insanely fast early in a marathon and nearly always faded back a bit. But I also respected the hell out of his guts and his insistence on running his own way.

As an atheist, I admit I wanted to hear about running from him without hearing about his religious beliefs, but that’s not who Ryan is, and I respected that, too.

Ryan retired Friday, Jan. 15 after dealing with low testosterone, which has plagued him for the past several years. He’s been training hard since the age of 13.

I’m not the only one to wonder—how much of his health problem is related to training like that?

And he’s not the only runner to go hard because he loved going hard, getting great results, and then crashing and burning early. Famously Alberto Salazar did it. And Alan Webb. And Adam Goucher. And it seems like Chris Solinsky, of whom I am a big fan.

Meanwhile, there are guys like Meb Keflezighi and Bernard Lagat who have taken much more measured approaches. They rest when they need to and have been consistent with one coach for the entirety of their careers. These guys had have amazing careers and are kicking ass as masters. They have Olympic medals and major victories to show their success, which Ryan Hall doesn’t have.

There are marathoners like Shalane Flanagan and Desiree Linden who have had masterful careers with few injuries and incredibly consistency. Shalane, who crashed and burned during races early in her career, found a way to channel her racing intensity into Olympic and World medals, American records and podium finishes at major marathons. Desi did the slow and steady progress route for years until she was memorably duking it out with Caroline Kilel in the final miles of the Boston Marathon in 2011, and has run some of the fastest marathons of any American women.

It’s much easier for me to understand the work these four do; it makes sense to me. Take a slow approach, be patient and consistent. Don’t go so hard your body falls apart.

Yet, I will not sit here and criticize runners like Ryan. Some people only know how to go hard.

Running and other endurance sports are not sports of moderation. They are sports of extremes. You don’t run a marathon by staying safe, you jump into the deep end.

Consistency and patience are the keys to success for many of us, but we also need a bit of that spark exemplified by runners like Ryan and Adam. We have to be willing to take big chances and go for it with three or six or eight miles to go.

We have to dare greatly and risk failure so that we may never know a cold and timid existence.

This is an ode to those runners who make us realize there is more to racing and running than victory or a medal. There is greatness in giving everything of yourself on the journey.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” —Theodore Roosevelt

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2 thoughts on “An ode to Ryan Hall: consistency vs. risks in marathoning

  1. This is a really lovely post. I am like you in that I have more in common with the Mebs and Shalanes – and by the way, this is the ONLY context in which that previous statement would ever be reasonable – than with the Ryans and Albertos (and also the Pres) of the racing world, but I do respect what those kind of racers bring to the sport.

    Your post actually reminds me of something Sebastian Kienle said during the 2015 IM Kona special, about how some guys would rather play it safe and get a podium spot but that he was willing to “screw up his whole race” for a shot at winning. I found that super endearing. :D

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that. There comes a point at which we take those huge risks, but we have to be smart about how often and when. I appreciate the art of trying to find a balance and when to throw balance out the window.

      Liked by 1 person

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