It was the 2011 United States half-marathon championships. Ryan Hall just finished second. As is standard procedure nowadays, he was escorted to a back area to take a drug test. There, he had to fill out a form and list his coach. Hall, a person of deep faith who is known to sing praises to Jesus during his runs, listed "God." Officials told him he had to list a real person.
"He is a real person," Hall retorted.
That's just one of the nuggets revealed in the lengthy, fascinating profile of Hall from the weekend's New York Times. The 29-year-old with windswept, blonde hair looks 10 years younger than his actual age. He attends Bethel Church in Redding, Calif. And he's running with a purpose: not only to win gold this summer in London, but also to bring glory to his creator.
And he really does get training guidance from the Almighty. From the Times piece (emphasis added):
“I feel like I’ve experienced God in a lot of ways, but I’ve never seen a sign like that in such a tangible way,” Hall said. “I was like so sure it was God, that it was him doing it, because there was no explanation. I almost feel like we’re kids and he’s our dad and he’s kind of like having fun with us.”
Hall said that God spoke to him regularly, giving him training plans, even a race strategy for the London Olympics. He does not hear a voice; rather, he will pray or scroll through workouts in his head and a heightened thought will give him a sense of peace, grace, empowerment. Or a passage from the Bible will seem particularly relevant and urgent. Hall is still learning to distinguish his own thoughts from what he believes are God’s words to him. And sometimes, he has done workouts that in retrospect seem unwise — a thigh-shredding hill run in Flagstaff, a bicycle time trial a week after the Boston Marathon.
But Hall has also found biblical reinforcement for his training. He takes one day off a week, just as God rested on the seventh day. Every seven weeks, for restoration he runs only once a day instead of twice, an allusion to Exodus 23:11 and the admonition that farmers should leave their fields fallow every seventh year.
At night, he rubs his legs with anointing oil, another reference to Exodus and the belief that the human body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Hall bought — but did not immediately use — a weighted vest for uphill running, an idea gleaned from Judges 16:3 and Samson hoisting the doors of the city gate of Gaza on his shoulders and carrying them to the top of the hill facing Hebron.
In spacing three days between his most arduous workouts, Hall refers to the Holy Trinity and the time that Jesus spent in the tomb; for him, this period represents resurrection, completeness, new life.
“The Bible is not going to tell you how to be a good runner, just like it’s not going to tell you how to build a computer,” [his wife] Sara Hall said. “I don’t think Ryan is looking at the Bible for a formula, necessarily. There are certain things that God highlights for him that he applies to his training. The majority is what he hears from God.”
Not everyone, however, is embracing Hall's training or, specifically, his trainer.
“So he really thinks God is saying, ‘Run 10 times 1,200 meters today,’ or ‘Take tomorrow off’?’ ” Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished ninth at the 2008 Beijing Olympics marathon, told the Times. “Wow."
“I don’t believe God is necessarily interested in what workouts I should give my runners,” Alberto Salazar, a former American marathoner turned coach told the Times.
Still, Hall isn't deterred.
“I’m my own toughest critic,” Hall said. “I’ve messed up, but the mistake wasn’t on God’s end. I really believe God is always wanting to speak to me and reveal secrets to me and tell me what I need to be doing. I just mess it up sometimes.
“I’m very open about saying I don’t have it all figured out,” he added. “I don’t necessarily feel I’ve hit a marathon completely right yet. But I don’t think that’s a reflection of some character flaw. I’ve learned to see myself as God sees me. We believe God sees us as perfect, almost as if we have a Jesus suit on, because he died for us and took away our sins.
“If that’s how the creator of the universe sees me, that’s a very honoring thing,” Hall said. “It builds your confidence. It makes you see yourself in a very good light. I don’t have a lot of issues with my identity.”
And if you're interested in learning more about Hall's running (in addition to the videos above), watch Runner's World Associate Editor Peter Vigneron break down the form of one of the best marathon runners "in the world":
You can also "hangout" with Hall tonight at 5pm ET via Google and the New York Times. If he answers one of your questions, let us know.
This story has been updated with additional information.