Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Ryan Hall, Running Criticism, and What Our Sport Needs

The BAA recently announced that Ryan Hall was added to the elite field that will be running the iconic Boston Marathon in a year which will witness the largest entry field ever for this race come April 21.

Ryan Hall has not performed as well the last 1.5 or so years compared to his first five years following his American Record setting half marathon debut in 2007 at Houston running it in 59:43.

Later in 2007, Ryan Hall ran the London Marathon posting a 2:08:24, which was the fastest debut marathon ever by a U.S.-born runner. 

In Late 2007, Hall ran an American Trials record breaking 2:09:02, which earned him a spot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In early 2008, Ryan ran the London Marathon, which at the time was only his 3rd "go" at the distance, in 2:06:17, which is the fastest time ever posted by a U.S.-born distance runner.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics proved to be especially difficult that year with intense heat and poor air quality. Hall finished 10th in 2:12:13 finishing one spot behind U.S.-born distance runner for Nike, Dathan Ritzenhein. 

As it pertains to the Boston Marathon, Hall is still one of the best U.S.-born distance runners at this iconic race since the legendary days of Bill Rogers. In 2009 and 2010, Hall finished the Boston Marathon in 3rd and 4th place, respectively, against quality fields. 

It is during 2010 that we start to see some decisions that people tend to question today. In late 2010, Hall pulled out of the Chicago Marathon due to fatigue and later that year dropped his Mammoth Track Club coach and decided to start self-coaching himself.

Yet this decision initially brought great success. In 2011, Hall ran the Boston Marathon in an unbelievable 2:04:58, which again placed him on the podium with a 3rd place finish behind Geoffrey Mutai who ran a blistering 2:03:02. Although Boston times due not count for the purposes of records due to the fact that it is point-to-point and has a great elevation drop over the course, Hall's time is nevertheless the fastest ever at the distance by a U.S.-born distance runner- a time that most likely will not be broken by a U.S.-born distance runner for quite some time.

Fast forward to 2012 and 2013, and we see Hall qualify for his 2nd Olympic games only to drop out at the London Marathon (Olympic games) at mile 11 due to a hamstring injury. (I won't even address the completely silly comments that Hall quit at the London Marathon.) The next three marathons Hall registered for over 2012-2013 resulted in DNS's (Did Not Start) due to injuries and not being prepared coming back from those injuries.

What I have described so far is a brilliant professional running career--perhaps one of the best by a U.S.-born distance runner only behind the likes of Bill Rogers and Frank Shorter 30 years earlier, and he is certainly the FASTEST born U.S. distance runner at the half marathon and marathon distance. Ever.--with only a year and a half of set backs, yet I have been reading all over the internet, Facebook, and Twitter about how Hall has been "underwhelming" lately, hasn't "reached his potential," isn't "as impressive as I once thought he was," etc.

These are some of the most profoundly idiotic statements that I've heard in this sport in quite some time. The dude has a rough 1.5 years, and wants to race if he can race to his potential, and somehow he has bad decision-making skills? He's underwhelming? Really.... ? I mean, let's wait a bit longer than 1.5 years to cast such hasty judgment.

Let's be honest: People hate Ryan Hall for being vocal about his faith, specifically his faith-inspired running, which, let's just be honest, is really just Hall coaching himself using the tools that he's learned from high school, Stanford, and Mammoth Track Club, plus taking one day to completely rest each week. That's the only explanation that I can think of that allows me to view the people who bash Hall and his career as not being complete lunatics who have utterly lost the ability to think rationally. 

If you think Hall's faith-training is silly, that's fine. I get it. But honestly, you probably have no real idea what his training is like with what he's doing, which only further corroborates the stereotype that Americans have lots of opinions but are, rather, incredible ignorant and credulous.

But here's the problem, and this is what really irks me: most of the people who I see making these comments are those who take running super, silly seriously. The kind of people who are affiliated with running companies or on running teams as recreational runners who want to increase their pedestrian pace to a pedestrian pace that is a bit quicker. I fall into this category of runner, and there's no shame in admitting that any pace that's not an elite pace is pedestrian to people like Hall, Meb, etc.

And then there are the runners who are on teams which are a bit more competitive- the type of people who will do really well at local races, but nothing super impressive at large races with really quality fields. You know, the guys who run high-16 to 18min 5ks wearing their high school singlet or "team" singlet to those who are qualifying for Boston with times of high-2:40s to low 3:30s (and Age Group times....). Times that impress local runners, people like myself, and maybe a runner's mom, dad, and grandma. And because they do really well at local races, and OK (but not even sub-elite) at larger races, that somehow qualifies them to say that Hall has been under-performing or underwhelming or not consistent.

It's almost like a rite of passage among faster recreational runners: "Bro, Ryan Hall isn't as good as we thought he was. He needs a coach." "Yeah, bro, totally hear that. Underwhelming without a doubt."

I cannot help but chuckle when I see these types of interactions occur.

How about this: focus on your own damn race. Why? Because to the elites, the recreational runner and the runner a bit faster than the recreational runner fall into the same category: non-elite. Sad? I know.

Hall is enjoying his running and his life, and he's doing a lot of amazing stuff outside of running through his Hall Steps Foundation, such as building a new hospital in Kenya.

We become so freaking obsessed with results that we are willing to stone those who are not performing to our expectations of how they should perform that we completely forget that it's just running. Hall inspires people to get out and run; he inspires with his life well-lived helping others around the world; he's enjoying his running right now; he's a damn good representative for the sport; he is the fastest U.S.-born marathoner.

I hope Ryan performs well at the 2014 Boston Marathon; a race that will no doubt bring lots of tears and emotions for those of who were at Boston 2013 and experienced the Boston Marathon bombings, and the terrifying lockdown of Boston a few days later. What our sport needs is not people to criticize, mock, and castigate those who do not fit into the hegemonic, Protestant Work Ethic (and the spirit of Capitalism [1905]) narrative that the German sociologist Max Weber so astutely observed in the early 1900s.

What our sport needs is solidarity and a positive attitude. We constantly complain about stuff like the USATF's shady judging; how athletes aren't compensated enough, etc, that we forget that the one thing we can change is our attitude and how we approach the sport and those who are training their hearts out are from the couch-to-5k runner to the person trying for the first time to go sub-3hrs in the marathon to the person trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon to the person trying reach a new goal in the 2hr range.

The next time you bash another runner, professional or not, and I am just as guilty of this as anyone else, try to remember what the sport is really about- namely, participating in an activity that is relatively meaningless, but an activity that has the great potential of increasing the quality of one's life. 

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