Last we saw Ryan Hall, America’s fastest marathoner, he was sporting some 40 pounds of new muscle after retiring from running in January. This week, Hall toed the starting line at his first race since walking away from the sport, and it was far from his usual pavement. Hall hit the steep alpine terrain and snow-covered routes of Europe, testing his endurance for ASICS’s Beat the Sun relay race. Part of a six-person team representing the Americas, Hall ran about 20 miles of the 140-mile route around Mont Blanc that passes through France, Italy, and Switzerland. At more than four hours of time on the course — thanks to 8,000 vertical feet of climbing — it was his longest day of running, ever.
So how did the jacked 165-pounder — up from the spindly 127 pounds of his racing days — fair on mountain trails? According to Hall’s friend and training partner Jaap Berg, who joined Hall for part of the second leg, he looked strong — but there was some suffering.
“Because of weight lifting, he has more of a kick, more power, but he’s lost some endurance,” says Berg. Andrew Kastor, one of the trainers for the race who also worked with Hall when he was at the Mammoth Track Club, shared a similar sentiment. “He’s been building his engine for 20 years,” says Kastor. “He had the strength, just not the miles.”
Hall’s new strength and explosive energy carried him most of the way through the Alps, but that reduced training mileage caught up with him in the end, resulting in dead legs for a final climb.
“I felt like I was in reasonable shape, but after racing against some of the top trail runners in the world, I was humbled,” says Hall, who was happy with not crashing on any of the technical sections. “This is a whole different kind of sport than road running.”
The 34-year old, who grew up Big Bear, California, is no stranger to trail running. During his days of track and field and cross-country at Stanford, Hall and his teammates would even “sneak off” for trail runs without telling their coaches. His training for Beat the Sun included daily trail runs near his home in Flagstaff, Arizona, but the terrain in the Alps was unlike any he had ever run.
“From running through lush green valleys to stunning glacier-filled mountain tops, my breath was constantly being taken away, not so much from lack of oxygen but more so from the amazing views,” says Hall of his runs, which included glissading down snowfields and even clocking a 4:57 mile (that’s with the altitude, hills, and rocky terrain).
Since retiring from racing professionally, Hall has focused on getting healthier and boosting his energy, sapped by low-testosterone, through lifting weights. He’s keen to share the strength-training for runners message, even encouraging his wife, professional runner Sara Hall, to add more weights to her routine for extra leg power. He thinks “track power” is the reason many runners' second or third marathon is their fastest and then their speed tapers off — they’ve transitioned from shorter, faster track races, but then they eventually lose the power. According to Hall, the same can also be said for athletes as they get older.
“As a marathon runner, I think you should stay close to the track to keep the power, and incorporate weights,” Hall says, and believes that doing so could have extended his professional running career.
Hall's squad finished fifth out of eight teams, but the experience has helped reenergize his running.
“I still want to bench, squat, and deadlift, but I’m seeing a little of the vanity of weightlifting,” Hall says. “It’s all going to go back to just being me, and it’s time to start running more.”