Solitude suits marathoner Ryan Hall

CHICAGO -- Ryan Hall leaned back in a director's chair as if contemplating another Sunday morning cup of coffee as opposed to his fifth-place finish in Sunday's Chicago Marathon.

"I'm tired, but I'm pretty caffeinated," he said with a smile about a half hour after crossing the finish line. "Usually my energy is really good after a marathon."

The blond-haired, blue-eyed Californian is this country's best medal hope in the marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, which would be the first for an American-born runner since Frank Shorter won a gold and silver, respectively, in the 1972 and '76 Games.

But after Hall finished behind three Kenyans and one Ethiopian runner on Sunday, the questions persist whether winning a medal is possible for him or any other U.S. runner, for that matter.

Growing up in Big Bear Lake, Calif., Hall pursued baseball, basketball and football. In eighth grade, he was most concerned with being in the "cool crowd," he said, and that fit in nicely with playing America's big three.

But then one day on his way to a baseball game, Hall suddenly saw Big Bear Lake differently than he had before, the fixation popping into his head that he wanted to run all the way around it.

In Africa, where kids run to school as a matter of routine, this would not have been so awe-inspiring. But here, where buses and car pools and video games reign, it was a sizable goal.

Running in basketball shoes, Ryan stopped just once as he scampered the 15 miles, his father told Runner's World magazine in 2008. He promptly quit the big three.

As the saying goes, long-distance running is a singular and lonely pursuit. But as an adult, that seems to suit Hall perfectly. He is certainly no longer interested in conforming to the cool group.

A devout Christian who left his coach to train alone, he now uses God as his guide, he explained. And he ran Sunday, just four months before the U.S. Olympic trials, against the sensibilities of all other elite American runners.

"It got to the point where I wanted to be more desperate for God; I wanted to be on my knees training for God, and that's what I'm doing," said Hall, who pulled out of last year's Chicago Marathon about a week beforehand citing fatigue from overtraining.

It's pretty hard to second-guess his decision to go it alone when he ran his fastest marathon at Boston in his first race without a coach. His time was an American-best -- although not an official U.S. record because the course does not meet the proper specifications.

"God gave me a gift that day in Boston," Hall said. And Hall does not question God's will, even on a horrible day in New York three years ago, when he ran his previous best at the U.S. Olympic trials.

Hall had crossed the finish line first, gleefully pointing to the heavens. But literally moments later, he learned that his fellow competitor and former training partner Ryan Shay, an NCAA champion for Notre Dame in the 10,000 meters, had fallen dead 5½ miles into the race.

Shay's wife, Alicia, was a former Stanford teammate of Hall and his wife, Sara. And Sara was a bridesmaid at the Shays' wedding the previous summer.

The tragedy still weighs heavily on the Halls.

"It's something we think about quite often because we live in Flagstaff [Ariz.] with Alicia, at times in the same house, and it definitely puts things in perspective when we see how her life has been totally altered," Sara Hall said.

"It was definitely a breakthrough moment for Ryan in his career. He was excited to be in the Olympics. It was his dream come true. But it does remind both of us to value family and relationships."

Hall would finish 10th in the Beijing Games, a performance with which he was dissatisfied. Thoughts of his friend helped keep him grounded.

"It's easy as a professional athlete to get tunnel vision and forget what's really important in life," Hall said. "But [Shay's death] is always a reminder to me that what's really important is the relationships you build and that running is just a part of life."

Focused heavily on the plight of poverty and famine in Kenya, the homeland of so many of Ryan's competitors, the Halls have founded a charity that recently funded a hospital there, and they have encouraged other runners to give as well. Sara Hall said they are donating Ryan's proceeds from the Chicago Marathon in the name of last year's champion Sammy Wanjiru, the defending Olympic gold medalist who died in his native Kenya this year after falling off a balcony.

Hall is believed to have received a guarantee in the six-figure range for his appearance Sunday and said his performance was exactly what he envisioned.

"It's my third-best marathon ever," he said. "… I know I learned a lot in training leading up to this, and I know I learned a lot in the race itself. I mean, there's not too many Americans out there running 2:08.04."

When a local reporter pointed out fairly indelicately that running a best U.S. time doesn't mean that much, Hall replied, "Well, it doesn't mean that much to you, apparently."

"As a matter of fact," the reporter replied, "it really doesn't."

And that is a problem, because despite the 37,400 runners who competed and the estimated 1.7 million spectators, Ryan Hall and his brethren are not exactly household names. Nor is Sunday's highest American women's finisher, 10th-place Jeannette Faber.

An Olympic medal by Hall in 2012 certainly would help visibility here. But African runners like Kenyan champion Moses Mosop, who set a course record in 2:05.35 Sunday at "85 percent," tend to run like they did darting to school as children, which is precisely what makes them so good.

"It's not because they train any harder or any better [than anyone else]," said Steve Jones, a British marathoner who set a world record in his first of two Chicago Marathon victories in '84 and '85. "But they have no barriers in mind, no inhibitions. They're just running free, not thinking how fast they're running or even their times. They just want to beat everyone else.

"They're not couch potatoes up in their house watching TV and playing video games."

But if anyone is expecting Hall to be the flag bearer of marathon running in this country, well, he explains, that is not what motivates him to try to win.

"I love America. I love our country," he said. "I love having the opportunity to represent our country in the Olympics. But I typically have a more global outlook on things. I want to see how fast humans can go, and I want to be a part of that. Right now, Africans are guys going fast. I want to inspire American kids not to view themselves in light of their performance but to make the most of life and to experience life to the fullest. Not just by winning the race but in how you win the race."

It's hardly just a lesson for young runners.

"Standing on the starting line in the Olympics," Hall continued, "all 150 guys worked really hard and envisioned winning the gold medal. But only one person is going to experience that."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.