Ryan Hall Mania
Fact: Ryan Hall’s 59:43 for the Half Marathon in Houston on January 14, 2007 was, in addition to being an American Record, a truly noteworthy performance in American distance running history.
Up For Debate: Where this ranks in American distance running history. For one, I don’t think it should be compared to great performances in championship races (i.e. Olympics and World Championships). Gold medal performances like Dave Wottle (800-1972, Munich), Billy Mills (10,000-1964, Tokyo), and Frank Shorter (marathon-1972, Munich) are clearly of a different sort due to the pressure and high stakes. What is fun to speculate on is how it compares to Bob Kennedy’s 12:58.21 in the 5,000 meters (1996), Bill Rodgers’ 2:09:55 at the 1975 Boston Marathon, Khalid Khannouchi’s 2:05:38 World Record at the 2002 London Marathon (let’s not go into is he or isn’t he really an American), 20 year old Jim Ryun’s 1967 World Record 3:51.3 mile (a record that stood for 9 years) or any of Steve Prefontaine’s US records between 2000 and 10,000 meters from 1974-75. This all makes for fun comparisons, but in the end, there is no real answer (and there doesn’t have to be).
Nice to Consider: Hall’s performance follows in the footsteps of some other noteworthy performances of the past few years, leaving me to wonder, not so much, “Can the Americans beat the Africans?”, but “What great feats are still to come?” It doesn’t have to be about beating other people (from other nations). I was just at a coaches’ clinic where someone talked about running as “God’s Sport”. In every other sport, success depends on preventing someone else from having a strong performance. In running, the ultimate race is when everyone in the field works together to run to their fullest ability.
The Runners and the Breakthroughs: In my opinion, the recent surge in American distance running is the result of many things. Good coaching, funding, group training for post-collegians, and a real focus on developing elite distance runners are some of the reasons. But here are some other things that immediately come to my mind that have sparked US runners and shown others that great performances can and will happen:
- The amazing high school class of 2001, included three phenoms from different parts of the country who would not only do great things in high school, but would also continue their success and have their names linked for years to come. At the Foot Locker National Cross Country race their senior year (December 2000), the top 3 were:
1. Dathan Ritzenhein
2. Alan Webb
3. Ryan Hall
Less than four years later, two out of the three of them were Olympians.
- Alan Webb, South Lakes HS (Virginia) – 2004 Olympics, 1500 meters
- Went on to set national prep records by running 3:59.86 for the indoor mile (first sub-4 indoors by a high schooler) and then really got everyone’s attention by breaking the long-standing mile record by running an electrifying 3:53.43 (first sub-4 by a high schooler outdoors since Marty Liquori in 1967). For this, Webb became a household name and was pictured on the cover of many national publications.
- Dathan Ritzenhein, Rockford HS (Michigan) – 2004 Olympian, 10,000 meters
- A 2-time Foot Locker National Cross Country Champion. To earn the title senior year he had to beat his two peers, Webb and Hall. He had a high school best of 8:44.43 for the 2 mile. As a high school senior, he placed 3rd at the IAAF World Junior Cross Country Championships, earning the US’s first medal at that meet since 1981. In that race, the winner was an Ethiopian who, 4 years later would become a World Record holder (Kenenisa Bekele). Ritz and fellow high school senior, Matt Tegenkamp, were a very respectable 3rd and 5th to help the US team to 4th place (just 3 points out of 3rd).
- Ryan Hall, Big Bear HS (California)
- The least heralded of the three, Hall had a 1600 meter PR of 4:00.52.
- 2004 Olympic Marathon
- Mebrahtom Keflezighi wins the silver medal.
- Deena Kastor wins the bronze medal.
- At the London Marathon, Kastor breaks the elusive 2:20 barrier, winning the race and setting an American record in the process (2:19:36). This makes her the 4th fastest female marathoner in history.
- The track season kicks off with a bang in late April at Stanford, as Webb and Ritz participated in one of the greatest 10,000 meter races on US soil. They alternated leading over the last half of the race to insure that the pace stayed strong. In the end, Webb won and set a US record for a debut 10,000, running 27:34.72. Ritz was 2nd with a World Championship A standard, 27:35.65. Those marks were the 8th and 9th fastest times in US history. Back in 3rd place, running the second fastest debut 10,000 ever (behind what Webb did) was Olympic steeplechaser Anthony Famigletti, in 27:37.74.
- Dan Lincoln, a former walk-on at Arkansas University, breaks the 21-year old American Record in the 3000 meter steeplechase (8:08.62).
- Matt Tegenkamp, just one year removed from college, runs 13:04.90 for 5000 meters, making him the 4th fastest American of all-time.
- Kara Goucher runs 31:17.12 for 10,000 meters, the 2nd fastest time in US history.
- And now Ryan Hall shatters the US Half Marathon record, taking it down from 60:55 to 59:43. (Ed. Note: Another breakthrough performance took place on January 27, 2007, 2 weeks after Hall’s race. Shalane Flanagan set the American record for the indoor 3000 meters, running 8:33.25 and challenging the 5000 meter World Record holder, Ethiopia’s Meseret Defar, in the process.)
Ryan Hall’s Future: Now that the dust is settling from Hall’s half marathon, there has been some great speculation as to what the future holds for him. Only he and his support team (coach Terrence Mahon and agent Ray Flynn) know the real answers but I will speculate below with some thoughts on the different directions he can go and what the pros and cons of each are.
I feel there are 6 things he should be considering right now when making training and racing decisions:
1. Spring 2007 Marathon – After the race in Houston he said he is planning a spring marathon. Various race calculators have predicted a 2:07-2:10 based on his half marathon time. With all of the media attention from the American Record, he would command a high appearance fee for making his marathon debut in a big race like London or Boston. Boston, because of its hilly course has apparently already been ruled out. London is known as the best paying in terms of appearance fee bonuses. There is also strong speculation that he could end up at the Los Angeles Marathon (possible best pay out due to under the table payments). The London Marathon is also a possibility since Team USA Mammoth Lakes teammate Meb Keflezighi is racing there and there will be good pacers, etc. To give an idea of what kind of money we are talking about for appearance fees, Paula Radcliffe received $500,000 for running the 2005 London race. Haile Gebrselassie was to receive $400,000 if hadn’t pulled out due to an injury. Kenyan Paul Tergat, received $300,000 for, after a highly successful track career, making his marathon debut in London in 2001. These are of course, some of the legends of distance running. Olympic medalists usually command an appearance fee of $200,000. Hall is neither a legend, nor an Olympic medalist. But speculation is that excitement from his recent American record would net him an appearance fee offer in the six figures range.
2. Track Season 2007 –I have read calculations that predict him to run:
- 5000 – 12:42-13:05. The American record is Kennedy’s 12:58.21. Sub-13 is sort of a magical mark to US distance fans. Hall’s current 5000 PR is 13:16.03.
- 10,000 – 26:42-27:15. The American record is 27:13.98 by Meb. Hall has not run a 10,000 on the track yet.
No pace/training calculator is precise. There are numerous factors to consider in predicting your 5000, 10,000 and marathon times besides your half marathon PR. However, if you believe the projections, Hall is on the cusp of setting American records in the 5000 and 10,000.
3. Fall 2007 Marathon – If he wants to run a marathon this year, he could also do it in the fall (after focusing on track during the summer of 2007). He has said he wants to make the US Olympic Marathon team. That means running the Marathon Trials in New York on November 3. But that would mean no appearance fee. Thinking outside the box, I have read speculation that since all the big name US marathoners will be running the Trials in NY, the Chicago Marathon would pay big bucks to get Hall in their race to represent the US against the foreign athletes they will still have (if you do this, Ryan, ask Robert Cheruiyot about the slippery logo in front of the finish line).
4. 2008 Olympics – What is the goal? To make the US Olympic Team? To qualify in the event he can perform at the highest level at come September 2008? To compete in the event that gives him the best chance at a medal in Beijing? Right now, Hall is saying his goal is to make the Olympic team in the marathon. If that is the case, then money aside, the spring marathon is the way to go. Otherwise he will be trying to make the Olympic team in the marathon (i.e. running a do-or-die race) in his debut marathon in NY.
5. 2012 Olympics – He’s 24 now. He’ll be 29 at the 2012 London Olympics. What event does he see himself running in 5 years?
6. Cross Country – A final consideration is cross country. Hall is currently entered to defend his title as the 12K cross country national champion at the US Nationals on February 10 in Boulder. But even if he qualifies for the US team, will he even go to Kenya for the IAAF World Championships on March 24? I think Hall’s primary decisions are the first five factors listed above. Based on those decisions, he plugs in any cross country races that fit training and race schedule wise. Cross country is just not high profile enough in the US to warrant him sacrificing money, Olympic goals, and track races for. A sidebar to cross country, however, is the anticipated Cross Country Round 3 match-up with Dathan Ritzenhein. As stated above, in high school (2000), Ritz won Foot Locker Nationals with Hall 3rd. In college (2003), they battled it out at the NCAA Championships before Ritz pulled away in the final straightaway, 29:14.1 to 29:15.4 over 10K. Now as post-collegians (2007) they will meet again.
It’s important to keep in mind that physiologically, the half marathon is not the same as the 10,000 meters or the marathon. Although there is some crossover, a great half marathon means you are in shape for….a great half marathon. But it doesn’t mean you are destined for success in the 10,000 or the marathon. The marathon is run at an aerobic pace, burning fats and lasting for 2 hours. The half marathon is run closer to lactate threshold, using carbohydrates for the 1 hour race. The 10,000 meters takes someone like Hall less than 30 minutes and lactic acid accumulation is a factor. It makes sense that Hall, with his 1500/5000 background, would be pretty good at the half marathon. But the marathon is another story.
Unfortunately, so far all Hall has shown is that he is the best the US has ever had for races that last about 1 hour (American record 57:53 for 20K on October 8, 2006 in Hungary and now the 59:43 half marathon). But last time I checked, those are not Olympic events. For Hall to get respect at the international level and to be regarded as a great distance runner, he needs to have some great races at either 10,000 meters or the marathon. Hopefully, with proper training geared specifically to either the 10,000 or marathon, he can race a great 10,000 or marathon. There is no reason to feel he can’t perform at the world-class level for the 10,000 or marathon. Others have done it:
- Paul Tergat – 12:49 (5000), 26:27 (10,000), 59:17 (half), 2:04:55 (full)
- Haile Gebrselassie – 12:39 (5000), 26:22 (10,000), 58:55 (half), 2:05:56 (full)
Hall needs to prove he can do it.
With that in mind and given my knowledge of things, I think Hall should focus on running some fast times on the track. The reason I think that this is the way to go is, at his age you should focus on “speed”. Speed in Hall’s case is the 10,000 meters. He has already said it was a mistake for him to focus on the 1500/5000 in college because those are not events his body is built for. Come 2012, I think that is when Hall will really be ready to come hard at the marathon. Again, I am biased by the idea that marathoning should be avoided early. For what it’s worth, Matt Tegenkamp, whose name comes up when talking promising young American distance runners, agrees, “…I say skip the marathon and get back to the track and let’s make some noise,” says Teg, “Let’s develop our track potential first. The longer stuff is always going to be there.”
If Hall feels a spring marathon would adversely affect his ability to run a fast 10,000 on the track this summer, I think he needs to be strong and turn down the big money from a spring marathon. Not an easy thing to do as a distance runner who doesn’t get paid a lot of money as it is. And if he never is able to run an outstanding race like he just did, he may never get an offer again like he is now. But training for a spring marathon (and the recovery involved with the marathon) could adversely affect his ability to race fast on the track this summer.
If he does focus on track, he can target a few races only. 1. Qualify for the 2007 World Championships by placing in the top 3 at the US National Championships in June (not worrying about time…just qualifying for the World Champs). 2. Try to run a fast 5,000 meters at some point to build speed. 3. Then target a 10,000 in Europe in late July/early August as well as the 10,000 meter final at the World Championships in September as races to run fast. If they feel the World Championship Final will be a good race to run fast, maybe just focus on that one. The problem is that World Championships Finals can be slow and tactical and not conducive for fast times. Maybe the solution is to focus on a fast time in July/August and focus on racing a tactical race at the World Champs.
There is also a school of thought that Americans wait too long to move up to the marathon. This “build speed first” theory, is the thinking that led to the woeful US marathon performances of the 1990’s. Those same proponents say that that is why we don’t produce great marathoners. That if we have someone suited for the marathon, start running them early. Meb even pointed out that when he won the silver medal at Athens, it was only his fourth marathon. The gold medalist, Stefano Baldini, was running his sixteenth. There is something to be said about being a marathon veteran come championship time and you don’t get to be a marathon veteran by avoiding the distance at an early age. Also, Hall has said all along that his plan is to run a spring marathon, then make the US Olympic team for the marathon and go for a medal in Beijing. If that is the plan, then certainly his training has been geared towards that set of goals and this successful half marathon should only confirm that training is going well and that they should stick to the original plan.
If Hall does focus on track this summer, it would not leave him much time to train for a fall marathon. It’s 9 weeks between the World Championships and the Olympic Marathon Trials. It’s possible, but is it an intelligent decision? Or one that could lead to an injury. If his goal is just to get on the Olympic Team, then I guess there is no harm in going for it at the Marathon Trials in NY. But does he really want to run 26.2 miles in Beijing given the air quality issues? If a pay day is in order, the Chicago Marathon idea could come into play at this time. If he has a successful track season, he would be just as marketable and command as great an appearance fee (if not greater) by the end of track as he does right now.
X-Factors: A lot depends on the goals and also how Hall does on the track over the summer. Right now he is stating his goal is to make the US Olympic Marathon team. If he shows he can contend for a medal in the 10,000 in Beijing, then maybe they forego the marathon for 2008.
Some things to keep in mind in terms of medaling at the Olympics:
- On the track, it is not necessarily the fastest that wins. It’s the one that can handle the race tactics the best. And that’s not always the same skill set.
Olympic Finals tend to be slow and tactical early on. Almost always it’s a negative split race. At the 2003 World Championships, the last 5000 of the 10,000 was run in 12:57 (that’s faster than the current American record for the 5000). In the end, it’s all about closing speed. Kenenisa Bekele is clearly the top 5000 and 10,000 runner in the world right now (World Records of 12:37 and 26:17). But even he, in championship races, does not pull away from the pack until the very end. To win medals you have to be able to run the last 400 in 53 and the last 200 in 26 as Bekele has. Bekele’s winning times at the 2004 Olympics and 2005 World Championships were 27:08 and 27:05. That is what Hall is up against in the 10,000….not only does he need the ability to run a low 27:00 but he also needs to be able to run it off of a slow pace with a monster kick, not in a race with even splits and pace setters.
- The marathon is often a crapshoot. You never know what will transpire over the 26.2 miles. Was Meb really the 2nd best in the world in 2004? Not necessarily, but he was the 2nd best able to handle the conditions and rigors of the course at Athens on that day. That’s what the marathon is all about.
Back in 2004, before the Olympics, I heard Meb’s coach Bob Larsen, talk about the preparations they were making for Athens – complicated physiological concepts to prepare for the heat and course. I know Larsen from my UCLA days, and was unforgiving in my joke telling for the month leading up to the Olympics, “Typical USA attitude – applying all this science. I bet all the Kenyan coaches do is show their athletes the starting line, point towards the finish line and say go.” But as Meb’s race unfolded, I must admit I was awestruck. Larsen was right! They were prepared! And Meb ran himself to the silver medal! I now have full confidence in Larsen and his knowledge (he practically called Hall’s performance in Houston at the pre-race press conference). If there is a (fair) advantage to be gained by coaching in preparation for the conditions of the 2008 Olympic Marathon in Beijing, Larsen and Team USA will be on top of it.
Given that and the natural unpredictability of the marathon (you never know how your competitor is going to race), Hall could stand a better chance at “pulling an upset” in the marathon than he would on the track. Maybe his better medal opportunity in 2008 is the marathon?
What Will Happen: Who knows? I certainly don’t. But it will be exciting to follow over the next few months and years.