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First things first

Making his debut, Hall hopes to end domestic drought

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By Shira Springer
Globe Staff / April 17, 2009
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MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. - The snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains plunge toward the valley where Ryan Hall runs on a deserted dirt road. Known for its rugged beauty and remoteness, the landscape once attracted miners and outlaws. Nearby Convict Lake hints at the area's Wild West history. Today, Mammoth Lakes offers elite American distance runners the perfect escape for high-altitude training.

Finishing a 90-minute morning run, Hall practically floats above the surrounding sage brush, striding with ease and efficiency at approximately 7,000 feet above sea level. His legs blur beneath his perfectly erect torso. He slows to a stop, then stretches his lithe 5-foot-10-inch, 140-pound frame alongside fellow Olympians Deena Kastor and Jen Rhines.

"It's very quiet," said Hall. "I can just get in my zone and rhythm here, go about my day-to-day life and do what I need to do. People here know what we're doing. There are medalists walking around all the time, but you don't feel like a celebrity up here. It suits my personality."

Driven by his faith and buffered from the outside world by nature, Hall appears unburdened by expectations as he trains for his first Boston Marathon. But he knows huge expectations come with the iconic territory of Heartbreak Hill, especially for America's best marathoner. He chose Boston for its history and tradition, calling the 26.2-mile run from Hopkinton center to Boylston Street "The granddaddy of all the marathons in the world." On Monday, Hall hopes to become the first American winner since Greg Meyer in 1983.

"I'm not going out to Boston to try and finish in the top 10," said Hall. "I'm going out there to try and take a swing at winning the thing. So, I'm going to put myself in a good position to do that."

Considering the career milestone, Hall wisely extends the baseball analogy. "When you're a kid watching baseball games, you don't aspire for Triple A," he added. "You want to make it to the big leagues. Once you're there, you want to compete in the World Series. This is the World Series of marathoning. In terms of making an impact, just doing something exciting, it's the most exciting stage you can compete on as a marathoner."

In recent decades, however, that stage has been dominated by Kenyans. While Hall focuses on winning his first Boston title, course record-holder Robert Kipkoech Cheruiyot looks to become the first man in race history to win four in a row.

But Hall comes to the 113th Boston with the fastest marathon time in the elite field, running 2:06:17 in London last year. Although it was only the fifth-fastest time that day, it stands as the second-fastest time ever by an American behind Khalid Khannouchi (2:05:38). Despite his speed overseas, a major marathon win on American soil would give Hall valuable exposure with the wider American audience.

"I'm still fairly new to the whole marathon scene," said the 26-year-old Hall. "It's just been a couple years now, but I love to learn about the marathon. I realize that sometimes ignorance can be bliss when it comes to tough courses, and maybe not knowing what lies ahead at Mile 19 and 20 can play to my advantages. Then, I realize I'm going to learn some important things when I go out and race the Boston course."

A course in running Boston
An eager student of Boston Marathon history, Hall has e-mailed four-time champion Bill Rodgers for advice and viewed the "Duel in the Sun" between Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar on YouTube. Watching the famously close 1982 finish down Boylston Street, where Salazar finally gained several strides of separation for the win, Hall "just couldn't believe it." But more than the race thrilled the young marathoner.

"I'd never seen that type of enthusiasm for any race anywhere in the world, any time," said Hall. "There's 10 people deep, totally crowded around these guys. They were right on top of them. So, I want it to be kind of the same way this year."

Workouts in Mammoth Lakes have simulated the topography of the Boston Marathon course and prepared Hall for the different strategies Cheruiyot and other title contenders might employ. The altitude and the isolation create favorable comparisons to the Rift Valley, the cradle of Kenyan distance-running dominance and Cheruiyot's training base. The steep terrain in the shadows of the Sierra Nevadas makes Heartbreak Hill look like a speed bump.

Running with former Boston Marathon participants and Olympic medalists Kastor and Meb Keflezighi, Hall gladly listens to how certain training terrain "is exactly like Boston." Rodgers advised Hall to "get your legs ready for the downhill." Hall smiles at the thought, remembering how he would climb up ski hills in his hometown of Big Bear Lake, Calif., and run down as fast as he could. He considers downhill running a hidden strength.

Hall started preparing for Boston in earnest in January, following two-week training cycles that progressively intensify and incorporate speed workouts, hills, and long runs. Some days Hall moves at a steady 10K pace. Other days his coach, Terrence Mahon, places an emphasis on changing pace to better simulate the marathon racing.

"For Ryan to win the race would not be that surprising and that's obviously the goal," said Mahon. "Now, there are a lot of guys who can win. Ryan is one guy lining up against 10 or 12 guys of that same caliber. But with home turf, there's going to be a little bit more motivation and emotional connection on his side of it. We're hoping that elevates him a half a percent."

The US Olympic Marathon Trials in November 2007 marked the only time Hall has raced 26.2 miles on American soil. Excitement helped push him to a record-setting victory with the fastest qualifier in US Trials history (2:09:02). Hall handled the undulating Central Park course in New York City with surprising ease in only his second marathon, showing himself and Mahon that he was ready to tackle Boston's tough course of steep descents and famous climbs.

Since running the fastest debut by an American in the 2007 London Marathon (2:08:24), Hall has proven a quick study when it comes to mastering different courses. Mahon was particularly impressed with "how he was able to adapt to being a rhythm runner in a non-rhythm race" in New York. The ability to shift gears depending on the course profile is essential for success in Boston. Elite runners cannot expect to cover the course in certain mile splits.

Hall ran on the Boston course at the beginning of March, learning what to expect. But he could not replicate the race-day crowds eager for an American winner. Hall cannot let the enthusiastic crowds propel him to a dangerously fast start. He joked about wearing earplugs until he reached the top of Heartbreak Hill.

"When I think about how I am as a runner, what I worry about most is going out too fast," said Hall. "I love running downhills. So, I know it's going to take a lot of self control to not just rip it the first half and go out really hard. I know I'm going to have to run with a lot of wisdom and discernment and humility out there because I've never run this course. I haven't [raced] Heartbreak Hill yet. I'm going to need to make sure I'm going to be able to make it through that tough section of the course."

Faith a constant companion
Growing up in the ski resort town of Big Bear Lake, Hall was the all-American boy next door with his blond hair, blue eyes, and passion for football, basketball, and baseball. An undersized, small-town kid, Hall claims he wasn't particularly good at any of them, though his father, Mickey, recalls that his son had a pretty good arm. (He will have a chance to test that arm tomorrow, throwing out the first pitch at the Red Sox game.) With his father drafted as a pitcher by the Baltimore Orioles, Hall originally dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player.

But that was before he experienced a vision driving to a basketball game. Hall looked across the pure, blue waters of Big Bear Lake and decided to run the 15-mile circumference. Initially, his father was against the idea, but Ryan's persistence prevailed. Mickey accompanied Ryan on the run with the insistence there be "no crying and no whining." There wasn't. And the Halls stopped only once.

"I don't know where the thought came from," said Ryan. "I think God kind of put it in my head because it was out of nowhere to run around the lake. It took forever because I wasn't in good shape. It was hard and painful and I remember just collapsing on the couch when I got home and thinking, 'This is what I'm going to do. This is what God told me to do.' That was my first day of training and I've been training ever since."

Not long after the 15-miler, Mickey would have his own vision where he saw Ryan competing internationally. Ryan thought the notion was crazy, though he would drop baseball to focus on track in high school. He was determined to keep improving his mile time and worried baseball practice would be problematic. Besides, the Halls are deeply faithful and sincere when they talk about Ryan using the gift God gave him to the fullest.

Ryan will sometimes pray on long runs or listen to the Bible on his iPod. The night before big marathons, he has watched Mel Gibson's "The Passion of The Christ."

"I don't try to force my faith on people, but at the same time I'm not going to hide it, especially because it's such a big part of me," said Hall. "It is who I am. It is impossible for me to talk about my running without talking about my faith because it plays into every single day, every single run and every part of who I am."

Ryan's faith was there when he lost his dream of competing in the Olympics during a rough start at Stanford. He wasn't running well and it colored his whole college experience. Every poor workout, every bad race he questioned whether he should be at the school. He returned to Big Bear Lake for an academic quarter to reconsider his future. At home, he kept coming back to one thought: God made him to run.

When Hall returned to Stanford, he slowly pieced his running career back together, focusing more on the 5K and winning the 2005 NCAA title in school-record time (13:22.32). Racing the 5K in Europe as a professional, however, Hall soon recognized he would struggle to be among the world's best. He tested himself at longer and longer races - a 20K, a half-marathon - and found success at every turn, setting US records at both distances.

With his laid-back personality and growing list of credentials, Hall was a perfect fit for the marathon. Looking back, Hall submitted he "was really stupid" not to realize earlier that his talent and temperament suited the marathon, especially since his career unofficially started with a 15-miler.

"He's very even-keeled in day-to-day life," said his wife, Sara, an elite distance runner herself. "He's patient, a good listener. He likes a simple lifestyle. He doesn't mind doing the same thing day-in and day-out. Those things all bode well for the marathon. He's also someone who's very passionate about what he does and willing to sacrifice and do all the little things right."

Legendary inspiration
At the Snowcreek Athletic Club, Hall usually spends a portion of every day working on his strength and flexibility with medicine balls, form drills, and balance exercises. And every day, he passes a photo of Rodgers winning the 1979 Boston Marathon. The word "Relentless" is printed across the image. Pointing at the poster, Hall commented, "This is what makes Boston so cool. They don't make posters of any other marathon."

When Rodgers heard about how the display inspires Hall, he called it "an honor," "kind of cool," and "a little strange." It was all of the above because Rodgers has such respect for Hall's talent and enthusiastic approach to the marathon.

"Ryan really goes for it," said Rodgers. "That's what you need to win. You've got to run strategically, but you've also got to run with that spirit. He has that."

Hall is eager to tackle the famed course, hoping his Boston debut ends in historic fashion. Many marathon fans hope Hall ends the historic drought in American winners.

"With our ability to prepare up here in Mammoth Lakes, I feel really confident," said Hall. "I just want an exciting race. I would love to win the race. But what I would like even more than that would be to have a special race where people will remember it 20 years later."

Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.