It's strange to call a guy who can run a sub-2:05 marathon an underdog. But that's exactly what Ryan Hall, American's great long-distance hope, will be in this 2014 Boston marathon. Hall spent the last two years plagued by injuries, and before that was all-too often an also-ran to his Kenyan counterparts. But fresh off a new training plan, he's ready to tackle Boston. It's a monumental race for him – it's where, in 2011, he recorded his fastest 26.2 at two hours, four minutes and 58 seconds – and last year's tragedy has given that much more weight to the race for everyone.
What does it mean to you to be at Boston this year?
This year it's not about any one person or performance. It's about the running community getting back up and showing the world how resilient we are as a group, and as a country. That in the midst of horrible things happening, we might get knocked off our feet temporarily, but we're going to get back up. I think it will be one of the most historic marathons ever run, and I can't wait to get to the starting line.
You recently spent a month in Ethiopia training at altitude. Why Africa?
Well, number one, I was just excited to get over there. I have always loved Ethiopian culture, Ethiopian people, and I'm friends with some of these guys from races, and have always been curious to go there. The training element was a huge draw too, especially before Boston. I typically train in Flagstaff, Arizona at 7,000 feet and we stayed just outside of Addis, at Yaya village, at 9,000 feet – that may not sound like a lot, but you feel those extra 2,000 feet; you're more uncomfortable on a daily basis, and running is so much easier when you come back down to sea level.
What was your strategy there?
I reduced the amount of running I was doing, simply because I wanted to prioritize high quality workouts for Boston. Quality over quantity. My longest session was 25 miles, but it was hard, intense, and one of the best 25 I've ever run. It makes me feel confident going in to Boston. I'm excited to test my new Ethiopian fitness.
What else did you do differently this time to prepare for Boston?
I did more in the weight room. Having run marathons for so many years, I had gotten away from the gym. I lost strength, and felt like that was contributing to the injury problems I was having, and more than anything, created a lack of power in my running. So I lifted three times a week, and did simple exercises: squats, step-ups, toe raises, hip flexion, and with heavy weight too.
What will you eat and drink during the race?
When you're running at our speed – about 4:46 a mile – it's impossible to actually eat anything. Even my gels are pre-mixed in water, and I just shake it up and drink, so I'm not actually ripping off the top and trying to squeeze it down. I'll take a Cytomax Electrolyte Drink every 5K – it's about 80 calories – up to 20K, and then I start taking in one 100-calorie gel every 5K after that through 40K, and to the finish line.
Do you have a race strategy?
Honestly? No. Races rarely play out how you think they will, and you never know how you're going to feel. So I think, well, might as well just go hard. Because I know that even if I'm going slow, it's still going to feel tough. Might as well be running fast, right?
Do you think your wife being a pro runner too makes it easier on your relationship?
Definitely. I don't know if it would work if I was married to someone who wasn't a runner. With this lifestyle, you have to understand why someone is tired all the time and why they're going to bed at 9:00 at night. If she wasn't doing the same thing, I think it would drive her mad, and rightfully so. We understand what each other is going through, and how we can support each other.
What do you think the future holds after racing?
I'm not totally sure. My wife and I started the Steps Foundation back in 2009, and we'd like to continue with that, and keep going to places like Kenya and Ethiopia and seeing how we can get involved and give back once we're not competitive anymore. But, to be honest, I don't spend a ton of time thinking about that. Because for both Sarah and I, our best running is still in front of us.