Sara Hall’s road to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials will be a bit more unconventional than most hopefuls training for next summer’s team racing in Tokyo. The 36-year-old California native is running the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 29 and then doubling back 35 days later to race the TCS New York City Marathon on Nov. 3. Then, the Olympics trials in Atlanta are only 118 days after that.
“I think I need the confidence from running fast in Berlin and having some more experience competing over a hilly second half like in New York," Hall says. "It’s fun to see how fast I can run and I haven’t been able to do that for a while. I’m also going to get the chance to race a marathon in the U.S. and in one of the greatest stages of our sport."
Hall is no stranger to racing very soon after completing a marathon. In 2017, she won the U.S. Marathon Championships, which were held in conjunction with the California International Marathon, just 35 days after taking fifth at the Frankfurt Marathon. This year, she raced the Boston Marathon and finished 15th overall (6th American) in 2:35:34 on a six-week build-up, after a peroneal tendons flare-up put her on crutches and then a stress fracture sidelined her from running for seven weeks. But less than three weeks after that, she competed at the U.S. Half Marathon Championships in Pittsburgh and took second overall. Despite some initial fatigue immediately after the race, Hall finds it easier to keep racing after a marathon than during a buildup.
The marathon is harder than anything Hall does while training in Flagstaff but not exponentially as tough.
“I run two and a half hours basically as hard as I can every week when I’m marathon training,” Hall says. “I’ve actually run a 2:31 marathon in trainers while in training. It’s business as usual for my body. It’s maybe not as much of a shock to my body as people think.”
Before finalizing her fall racing plans, she consulted with her husband and coach, Ryan, who many remember for his own unorthodox training that helped him run a 2:04 marathon in Boston in 2011. He says he would have never ran two marathons this close in proximity but he was a different athlete, who mainly stayed at altitude to train for longer periods of time before racing sparingly. They don’t see it as too much of a risk with the Olympic Trials looming, because a flat marathon may not take as much out of Hall. When she ran her personal best of 2:26:20 at the Ottawa Marathon in 2018, she worked out twice the following week. She did the same after running a personal best of 69:27 at the Gold Coast Half Marathon in July 2018.
“I think recovery is one of my strengths,” Hall says. “I see both of these races as building toward the trials. I don’t see a risk in running a marathon for myself.”
Most of the top U.S. marathoners decided to bypass a fall marathon in September, October and November 2015 before the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials were held in February. Many American marathoners hoping to make the Olympic team for Tokyo committed to fall races this year to chase time standards that were set by the International Association of Athletics Federation in order to qualify for the Olympics. (Men need to run 2:11:30 or faster while women must get under 2:29:30 in order to qualify.) The decision caused confusion and vocal criticism from coaches and athletes. However, the IAAF decided to grant the U.S. trials a “gold label” status that means the top three finishers at the trials will make the U.S. Olympic team, regardless of their respective finishing time on that day. For Hall, chasing the standard was never a concern or a factor into her decision to run the double marathon.
"I knew that she's going to want to run a fast time," Ryan Hall says. "I really believe that will be helpful for her. Standing on the starting line [of the trials], if you're a 2:22 or 2:23 marathoner, you feel like you should be up there in the mix and have a real legitimate shot at making this team."
Hall has run 10 marathons in her career since making her debut in 2015 and has incrementally lowered her personal best each year. Before focusing on the roads, she was a seven-time All-American at Stanford and three-time NCAA runner-up. As a professional, she was predominantly a middle distance runner with a focus on the mile, steeplechase and 5,000 meters. She didn’t leave the track behind until she finished second-to-last in the 5,000 meters at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
“I did genetic testing and it told me that I have Olympic-level fast-twitch muscle fibers that are seen in sprinters and power athletes,” Hall says. “I laughed, but I do feel like that stuff does come a little more natural to me.”
The transition to the marathon has put her husband’s career into perspective for Sara. In his debut at the 2007 London Marathon, Ryan found himself leading the race before finishing seventh in 2:08:24—the fastest debut by an American man in history. He made the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, finished 10th in Beijing, clocked the fastest marathon by an American (thanks to the windy conditions of the 2011 Boston Marathon) and made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, before a series of injuries derailed the final three years of his career. He retired in 2015.
“He just knocked it out of the park the first time out,” Sara says. “That’s what’s kept me coming back and kept me enjoying my career to the most I ever have. It’s this craft that I’m always perfecting and trying to get better at. I’ve been able to move the ball forward every marathon buildup. I’ve gotten a little faster in my long runs. I’ve been able to handle more volume. It’s been great to see that growth.”
Race execution still needs to be perfected. Since she is just three years removed from the track, the early race pace can feel slow, so she’ll find herself in a situation where she is leading early, as she did in this year’s Boston Marathon. The pace from those first few miles can feel sustainable, but with the marathon, it finds a way to sneak up on you. Hall went from running in the 5:27 to 5:45 per mile range in the first downhill, flatter portion of Boston, to running 6:05 or slower for the final seven kilometers of the race. Given her injuries in the lead up, she was at least able to put up a result, but a feeling of dissatisfaction lingers.
"I don't think I've been happy with any marathon I've run," Hall says. "I feel that I've yet to run what I feel I'm capable of."
In advance of the Olympic Trials, she'll have two chances to match her potential from training and catch the marathon she's been chasing.