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All in stride

Hall doesn’t feel burden to become the first American winner since ’83

By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 10, 2011

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The title of his new book is “Running With Joy,’’ which is the feeling that Ryan Hall wants to recapture. The way he felt four years ago when he loped along the streets of London and New York like a thoroughbred freed from his stall, unsaddled and unreined. The way he felt last fall when he and wife, and fellow runner, Sara decamped for Hawaii and Belize for some overdue R&R.

“I realized during that break how much stress I was carrying around,’’ says Hall, whose loose and laid-back demeanor is a throwback to California circa 1967. “I had to kind of reset myself. It was a huge thing just to be away from running. That carefree, easy mind-set I had on vacation, I need to have that all the time.’’

Now that he has been running free for six months, Hall is ready to take the line a week from tomorrow for the 115th Boston Marathon, where he’ll be the top domestic contender in a race that no US male has won since 1983.

“If I have a great day, this would be an amazing place to win my first major marathon,’’ muses the 28-year-old Hall, who has been fourth and third here the last two years. “I see it as more of an opportunity than a weight.’’

The challenge for Hall, as it has been for every contending countryman during the last quarter-century, will be to find a way to run without being shackled by star-spangled expectations.

“I had that feeling that I was assumed to be outclassed by the Finns or the Japanese or the Koreans,’’ recalls John Kelley, the 1957 champion who was the top homegrown runner for more than a decade. “I was running into that national prejudice. It’s a challenge because you want to prove that it isn’t true. But the only way you can prove it is to win.’’

When Kelley did it, he was the first US winner since John (The Elder) Kelley in 1945 and the last until his own pupil/protégé, Amby Burfoot, in 1968. Kelley and Boston University buddy Nick Costes used to kid each other about being America’s Only Hopes. “We’re America’s lonely dopes,’’ Costes told him. “We’re doing this for a bowl of beef stew, Kelley.’’

The payoff is $150,000 now with a $25,000 bonus for a course record but the field is far deeper, loaded with top-level Kenyans and Ethiopians who’ve won all but two of the last 23 races.

“There’s almost too much pressure with the foreign thing,’’ observes Bill Rodgers, who won the race four times between 1975 and 1980. “But Ryan doesn’t seem to let it bother him, which is incredible. He’s very self-directed.’’

Which is why Hall decided last fall to leave the Mammoth Track Club and coach Terrence Mahon after five years and pave his own path. After his Boston effort, where his 2:08:41 was the fastest ever here by an American, his year went downhill. At the Philadelphia half marathon in September, where he was defending champion, Hall was 14th in a time (1:03:55) that was more than four minutes off his US record (59:43) and nearly that much behind winner Matthew Kisorio.

As he was building up to the Chicago Marathon in October, Hall could feel himself wearing down. “I couldn’t even finish workouts,’’ he says. “Every week that went by it was worse. In September things were looking pretty bleak for Chicago. That got me thinking outside the box instead of continuing doing what I was doing, because it wasn’t working.’’

So he pulled out less than two weeks before the race then announced a fortnight after Chicago that he was leaving club and coach. “I was very happy and content up in Mammoth,’’ says Hall, who grew up in Big Bear Lake in the mountains east of Los Angeles. “I loved that town and the team and my coach. I had the best races of my life in that environment.’’

But with the pre-Olympic year coming up and his performance going down, Hall decided that he needed a shift both of milieu and mind-set.

“The way things were going I almost had to change,’’ he says. “I knew it was time to move on.’’

To skeptics, going off on his own was the latest head-scratching development in the “What’s Wrong With Ryan?’’ saga. “I do hear those voices and feel those expectations,’’ he acknowledges.

But the voice that Hall is most attentive to is divine. At the Houston half marathon in January, he wrote “God’’ next to the blank for coach on the doping form. “Let’s not get into a theological discussion of whether God is real,’’ Hall responded when told that he needed to list a real person. “He is my coach.’’

Hall says that he prays for daily guidance before training, then ponders how to interpret the response. “I’m learning not only to trust God but I have to trust myself to be smart about my training,’’ he says. “It’s not always clear. I think God sometimes directs my workouts. Sometimes he asks me the question, how is my body feeling?’’

For months, it had been feeling decidedly less than robust. “I’ve been pounding myself into the ground for years on end,’’ Hall said. So his focus now is on less quantity and more quality with rest days built in. “I was ready for a fresh change and trying some new things,’’ he says. “It’s been rejuvenating.’’

The results, he figures, will come as they come and so far the improvement has been modest. Hall ran 1:02:20 in Houston but was outkicked in the final 200 yards by Mo Trafeh. Last month in New York he was 21st in 1:03:53, more than three minutes behind winner Mo Farah in what Hall chalked up as a training run.

“Keep the main thing the main thing,’’ is his mantra and Hall’s main thing has been the marathon ever since his London initiation in 2007 where he ran a best-ever debut by an American (2:08:24) while finishing seventh amid a monster field that included Haile Gebrselassie, Paul Tergat, Stefano Baldini, Martin Lel, Meb Keflezighi, and Marilson Gomes dos Santos.

Seven months later, Hall earned a ticket to Beijing after running away with the Olympic trials in New York, then placed fifth in his London return and 10th at the Games. In 2009, he was third here and fourth in New York. Last year, when he chopped six seconds off Bob Kempainen’s 1994 time (2:08:47), Hall said he experienced “complete overflowing joy that had nothing to do with my performance.’’

Hall hasn’t run a marathon since and unless he decides to make up for his Chicago absence, he likely won’t run another after Boston until next January’s Olympic trials in Houston. That’s where this odyssey began for him four years ago when Hall became the first American to break an hour in the half marathon, prompting a gaggle of clockers and watchers to speculate about how he’d do over the full 26.

Only Khalid Khannouchi (2:05:38) ranks above Hall on the all-time domestic list and no Yank ever has been faster from Hopkinton to Copley Square. “Ryan has yet to run his fastest race in Boston,’’ believes Rodgers. “He can certainly run 2:07 here, maybe 2:06.’’

But to those who’ve waited for the better part of three decades for a Yankee Doodle Dandy to win on Patriots Day, time is not of the essence. A trophy is. “Second doesn’t count for anything,’’ testifies Kelley, who was runner-up here five times and has likened it to drinking vinegar. “Second it’s, what happened?’’

America’s Only Hope of 2011 insists that he doesn’t feel the burden of 27 years on his shoulders. “It’s more exciting than weighty,’’ Hall says. “It would be pretty powerful to come out on top. But I don’t think it’s my job to resurrect American marathoning. I feel American distance running in general is getting better. We clearly have the ball rolling. I don’t have to be the one to push it by myself.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.