She races more often than most other pro runners, but what really keeps this national road champion going (and going and going)? She fills us in on her marathon mind tricks and more.
One was for a fast time. Another was for the win. The next is to compete. Sara Hall wants to try a little bit of everything and regret nothing during this fall racing season and beyond.
On September 28 at the Berlin Marathon, Hall finished with a four-minute personal best of 2:22:16, the sixth-fastest American woman ever at the 26.2-mile distance. Then one week later she won the U.S.A. Track & Field 10 mile-road championships in Minneapolis. Next up is the New York City Marathon on Sunday.
“My excitement level just went way up for New York—now my time is among some of the top contenders in the race,” Hall said. “I’m excited to get in the race and not think about the clock that much and compete on one of the greatest stages we have in the U.S.”
Her racing schedule is jam-packed compared to than those of most marathoners. Hall battled injuries to her sacroiliac joint and peroneal tendon in 2017 and 2018 but has finally found healthy footing in 2019. She’s not wasting a second of it, either, setting ambitious goals, collecting national road-racing titles, and bucking the “two marathons per year” rule most mortals follow. Instead she’s going for a “two marathons in a month” attempt—along with Roberta Groner, who placed sixth at the world championships five weeks ago and is also racing in New York.
Hall said that her steady progression at 26.2 miles led to the big leap to 2:22 this year—it was a time she felt capable of for quite a while before it happened. It’s a boost of confidence heading into the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on February 29, in Atlanta.
“Before my injuries I had improved by about a minute every marathon,” Hall said. “Leading into Berlin, I saw good signs in training with my body absorbing the work the best it ever had. I was running my fastest workouts, but what I was more encouraged by was how I was responding afterwards. I wasn’t feeling really waxed from them.”
When all goes well during training, how does a pro like Hall translate it to a big performance on race day? She let us know how to best make hay out of a strong buildup, muster confidence from it, and spread it across a whole season of racing. Heed her running advice for a long career.
Don’t be scared to race tired along the way.
Hall doesn’t taper for much except for the marathon, so all those shorter national championships road races are won or lost on fatigued legs. She takes what her body gives her during 130-mile weeks, with the bigger goal in mind. When it comes time to taper for 26.2 miles, it feels more indulgent, Hall said.
“I feel more relaxed before marathons,” she said. “Those other races I just hope I run decent—I usually don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
Capitalize when you can.
Since Hall and husband (and coach), Ryan Hall, became parents to four daughters in 2015, time is precious and the priorities don’t always complement her rigorous training schedule. When she arrives on a starting line healthy and the weather is cooperating, Hall doesn’t want to waste the chance to do something special.
“Once I’m rested, I trust myself,” she said. “Especially being a mom, it’s hard to do what I’m doing. It’s not as much that nerves are getting in the way or I’m scared of the pain, but it’s more like I fought for the moment—I had to be really intentional to get the training done.”
Get into your own headspace before the race.
While she doesn’t pay much attention to her general mood leading up to marathon race day, Hall takes steps to minimize distractions. She reads less news, engages less on social media, and enjoys surrounding herself with her family.
“I like to spend time with people I love and enjoy beforehand,” she said. “But I get really tired of waiting and playing through scenarios. I just want to go do it. In Berlin I was just ready—not in a nervous way; I just wasn’t wanting more time. I had felt ready early in my training.”
It’s okay to lie to yourself a little.
Positive thinking is a powerful tool, but it’s not foolproof. If the training hasn’t gone well or the conditions are unfavorable, sometimes acknowledging that it isn’t the right day for a breakthrough is just realistic. Hall balances between internal optimism and pragmatism. If you’re going to race despite the doubts, it’s best to (at least momentarily) focus on the bright side.
“You get kind of good at lying to yourself at times, saying, ‘I’m going to be fine. This will be fun,’” Hall said. “But deep down, you know it’s going to take a miracle.”
You’re going to have to rally.
Although Berlin turned out to be the marathon of Hall’s career so far, it didn’t come without a few low moments—no 26.2 miles ever does. She dropped one of her hydration bottles and almost missed another one. During the second half, she was also delighted to catch some of the pre-race favorites. She got extra excited when she caught one athlete who had a pace car in front of her—and momentarily believed she had the lead.
“I was like, ‘That’s the leader!’ and I was gaining on her pretty quickly. I was like, ‘I’m going to win the Berlin Marathon!’” Hall said, laughing. “But then I saw Ryan out on the course and asked what place I was in. He said, ‘Fifth!’ and I felt totally deflated. I had also thrown down some too-fast splits when I was getting excited.”
Hall had to refocus on the objective she came into the race with, which was to finish in 2:22—a goal she had written on her mirror for an entire year.
“It’s funny in hindsight,” she said. “I was able to still get excited about my time and keep moving.”
Remember to have all the fun.
Hall never anticipated that her running career would last this long. The reason it’s still going strong isn’t complicated: she enjoys what she’s doing and feels liberated to go for goals that might seem outside the norm. If one race doesn’t go well, another one is coming, so she doesn’t throw too much weight at any one result.
“Sometimes I do wonder why I can’t just be chill and not take risks,” Hall said. “But I snap back into the fact that I have nothing to lose. This is fun. A more light-hearted approach to the sport has meant more longevity in the sport for myself.”
Failure isn’t fatal.
That nothing-to-lose philosophy is another reason Hall keeps moving, because before she developed that mantra, the self-imposed pressure “stole a lot of joy” out of her running. She went through a difficult period in the sport when she wasn’t reaching expectations—while competing at Stanford University, she often felt like she was letting her coaches down, Hall said, and it continued into the beginning years of her pro running.
“It’s my job to perform, but your body isn’t a machine,” she said. “Through all of those failures, I got my identity more secure in who I am apart from athletic success—that I’m worthy of love and have value as a person and these races are icing on the cake. They don’t define me, and my self-worth isn’t on the line. My spiritual life helped me with this. As a result, every year I’m freer to take big risks.”
Find outside motivation.
Hall’s daughters are the leaders of her fan club and have brought extra fulfillment to her athletic pursuits. When they can’t join her during travel, she imagines them watching her compete on a livestream from their Flagstaff, Arizona, home.
“I can’t do the sport the way that I used to in terms of the amount of time or focus, but the upside is there’s a bigger sense of meaning,” Hall said. “My greatest hope for my kids is that they find something that makes them come alive. I think all kids need to see their parents doing things that make them come alive—and taking risks and picking yourself up after failures.”
Have more than one basket.
As the 2020 Olympic Trials are nearly upon us, it’s difficult for many athletes not to place too much importance on making the 2020 Games. For Hall, it’s equally important to keep an open mind about what constitutes success.
“There’s a tension there because it’s the pinnacle of the sport and more than anything I’d love to have that experience for myself,” Hall said. “But I also think we do our sport a disservice if we make it only about the Olympics.”
In the beginning of her track career, Hall spent time at the Olympic Training Center, where she had the opportunity to focus solely on that goal.
“There was nothing to do but train and Olympic rings everywhere,” Hall said. “You didn’t have to do your laundry or dishes or anything. On paper that’s the best path to success, but I was miserable. There’s something to be said about being happy about the present and not living purely for an event in four years.”