Opinion on Ryan Hall (…is that he sort of isn’t worth opining about)

 Hall and Ritz
(Dathan Ritzenhein about to beat Ryan Hall… again)
Recently a few publications have run articles about Ryan Hall (presumably planned before he dropped out of the NYC marathon), and I have a fair number of thoughts about him as a runner and an athlete, so why not share.  For those who don’t follow, he has been “America’s most promising marathoner” for the past ~7 years, and has the fastest marathon times of any American born runner (Khalid Kannouchi, who initially competed for Morocco but became a US citizen, has run faster).  Hall has bounced around professionally, working with a few different coaches (sometimes with no coach), but has probably never quite reached the heights people expected.  My question is a simple one — when you (or Hall) look back at his career, what do you think was his greatest victory?  I’m not sure there is one.  Let’s get to the thoughts:
  • Ryan Hall is a very good, but not great, long-distance runner.   None of his PR’s is ‘spectacular’, and for the most part his PR’s are ~5-10 seconds per mile slower than the truly world class runners at shorter distances (i.e., 10K and half-marathon), though he doesn’t go out of his way to race these often.
  • Ryan Hall is not a good long-distance racer.  This is probably my most important point — Hall has rarely (if ever) shown an ability to race and beat a close rival in a contested race.  You’ll notice the two results I list above are only sort of races — One he lost, and one he won, though really was one of three winners (no difference between 1st and 3rd in Marathon Trials — they all qualify).  For comparison, do you know who won the 2012 Olympic Trials?  I did not.  (It was Meb).  So let’s go through Hall’s career and try to identify competitive races where he truly beat a rival (i.e., people he was competing against for the same prizes)
    • High School:  Hall was winning most meets, including California state championships.  In a surprise, Hall did not win the Foot Locker West Regionals that year, though he still qualified for a major national showdown: His biggest race was the 2000 Foot Locker National Championship, which I’ve written about before, where he ran against Alan Webb (more of a miler, always) and defending champion Dathan Ritzenhein.  Ritzenhein had been training at 80-100 miles a week all summer, and had running commentators saying things like: “Dathan races like Prefontaine and Salazar… He’s willing to kill himself. You hate to race those kinds of guys, because they will make you hurt really early and really bad”.  Nobody ever said this sort of thing about Hall.  Anyhow, Ritzenhein stayed within himself for the first mile, then just started sprinting, obliterating the field for the title (Hall 2nd, Webb 3rd).
    • College:  Hall went to Stanford, where he raced cross-country, 1500, and 5,000.  His best result in cross-country, where he finished 2nd in the nation as a junior, losing to Dathan Ritzenhein.  There’s a good clip (bad video) of the race with interviews with both guys.  Ritzenhein talks for about two minutes about how he felt unwell, had side stitches, didn’t like his race plan, and had trouble with the weather.  He finishes with “My racing this year… it’s been a heard season… I mean I won them all, but…”.  He comes across as totally honest, but also totally focused on winning, a perfectionist insistent on picking apart his own flaws.  Hall, whose team won very easily (24 points — even if he hadn’t been there, they’d have won very easily), sounded a different note:  “Just to be there [running] is such a pleasure — there’s never any ‘I’m gonna try and win this’ kind of thing, it was always ‘where are my [teammates]?'”.  Really?!  You lose by one second and you’re ‘just happy to be there’?  He did end up winning one individual national title, in the 5,000 meters the following spring.  His closest competitor was his own teammate.  You can only beat who you’re racing against (and there were some good runners in that race, for sure), but it’s much easier for an uncompetitive person to beat his own teammate, I think, than someone he doesn’t know.
    • Professional: Hall won the 2007 Houston Half Marathon in 59:43, the first American to go under 60 minutes, and beat Meb by 2:30ish.  Later that year, he won the 2008 trials by 2 minutes, though, again, the goal here for most people was top 3.  (Also, one of his closest friends, Ryan Shay, died of heart failure during this race — I have no idea how this affected the deeply religious Hall).  In Beijing, Hall came 10th losing by ~30 seconds to the 9th place Ritzenhein.  Since 2008, his major victories have been the Philadelphia Half Marathon and the USA 7-mile championship.  He’s had a smattering of top-5 finishes in Boston, NYC, and Chicago (but none higher than 3rd).  He did come 2nd in the 2012 Olympic Trials, where Ritzenhein came 4th (though he would go on to qualify for the Olympics in the 10,000 meters).
    • Which all prompts the question:  When you look back at Ryan Hall’s career, or when he does, what is the happiest/most impressive victory?  Frankly, I don’t really see any big ones.  Maybe the NCAA 5,000 meter championship?  Maybe the Houston half-marathon?  Probably making two Olympic teams?  Either way, it’s probably not “All-time great” material.
  • How does he compare to American rivals:
    • Meb has a 1st and a 2nd at the US Olympic trials (same as Hall, but in 2012 and 2004 respectively — he broke his hip during the 2008 trials, but also won the 10,000 trials in 2000), a 2nd and 4th at the actual Olympics, 4 NCAA individual titles in different disciplines (XC, 10,000, 5,000 indoor and outdoor), a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd at the NYC Marathon, and a boatload of US titles at strange distances (e.g., 15K, 7 mile).  This one isn’t even close.  Meb in a landslide.
    • Ritzenhein dominated Hall early in their careers (see above), but began developing pretty serious health issues during his sophomore year of college (he redshirted due to stress fractures).  After experiencing moderate success (top-5’s) as a Freshman and (redshirt) Sophomore, he decided to turn pro.  Since then, he’s competed largely on the European circuit etc., never quite hitting his potential due to chronic injuries.  I’m not sure Ritzenhein was definitely better than Hall, but he certainly beat him consistently for a while, and if you’re looking for a “what might have been” in American running, I think it’s Ritzenhein, not Hall.
  • Non-running:
    • Hall has done very well for himself with sponsors, part of which may have fed his lack of victories.  While he had (I imagine) a pretty nice deal with ASICS and other companies, Meb (who had a deal with 3rd tier company Skechers) had to run a lot of races to make money.  In the lead-up to the US Trials in Houston (2012), Meb told the NY Times that he had run the New York Marathon in November, two months before the trials, because he needed the money.  Hall isn’t so desperate, likely because he commands bigger appearance fees.  (I think if Meb’s name were “Tom Williams” and he were born in the US, he would have had an easier time making money, by the way…).  If he had needed the money, I think he’d have been a great race-pacer at the top professional level.  In fact, I think he’d have been an absolute stand-out, but he never needed to resort to it to make money.  (In fact, his best race, in Boston, he basically was a pacer for the first 16 miles and people loved him for it).
    • Hall is, of his own admission, deeply religious, and seems to be aware that there are things to value in life beyond running (God, family).  This has probably affected the way he trains and prepares for races (e.g., having God as his coach, believing that God has a hand in races).  I’m not sure if there is a God, or if she cares about who wins races, but if that is the case, I bet she prefers those who have trained the hardest.
    • Hall seems to be generally ‘happy’, even if his running career hasn’t been as successful as he’d hoped.  Good for him, and he’s had a conventionally successful career, I think, so I don’t want this to be unduly harsh, but let’s stop arguing about whether he is America’s greatest distance runner.
  • Last note on “Marathon PR’s”:  It’s a bit bizarre that we measure marathon runners by their best times, given the dramatic differences in courses and conditions.  I can’t think of any other sport that is measured so much by a relatively less useful metric, when things like “wins” and “placing” are available.  The only similarity I can think of is if we measured golfers by their lowest score on any course, regardless of context.  When in doubt, bet on the winner to win, I’d say.
Enjoy the November weather
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