Gift of running leads Hall to lifelong dream -- the Olympics

A little more than a year ago, Ryan Hall had never entered a marathon. Now, he's headed to Beijing. Nick Laham/Getty Images

Ryan Hall always has had a longer view of life than the finish line of whatever point-to-point race he is running. At times, it has led him to doubt whether he should pursue such an all-consuming vocation.

"I do struggle with that at times," Hall told ESPN.com in a recent telephone conversation. "You find yourself questioning whether you're making an impact on the world, what lasting mark you're leaving."

Ultimately, Hall has concluded his talent for endurance running is a gift that deserves to be used to its fullest extent. And a considerable gift it is.

A little more than a year ago, Hall had never entered a marathon. Now, this modest, devout 25-year-old who grew up testing his legs in the pristine, wooded landscape and thin air of the San Bernardino Mountains has run three, each more impressive than the last, establishing himself as a medal contender for Beijing and one of the most promising homegrown American men ever in the event.

Watch E:60

One of the people Ryan Hall will be running for at the Beijing Olympics is Ryan Shay. Shay was a young man on a mission. An elite marathoner, Shay was trying to make the U.S. Olympic team. But, on Nov. 3, 2007, during the fifth mile of the men's U.S. Olympic marathon trials in Manhattan, Shay fell to the pavement, dead of a heart ailment. He was 28.

E:60's Lisa Salters sits down with Ryan's widow, Alicia, to explore Shay's promising career and sudden death. "I just think about him all the time," Alicia said. "I'd like to say that I feel his presence with me all the time, but in all honesty, there is a huge void of his presence ..."

Watch E:60: 'Born to Run'
Salters: Behind the scenes

Hall set a U.S. record for a debut marathon (2:08:24) last sping in London. This past November, he won the U.S. Olympic Trials in New York City, exhibiting an almost surreal, effortless late kick by clocking a blistering 4 minutes, 32 seconds between mile markers 18 and 19 in Central Park. However, his celebration was immediately muted by the news that his friend and competitor Ryan Shay had collapsed and died of a heart attack early in the race.

Earlier this month, against a deep field that went out at a world-record pace on a flat course in London, Hall held his own in the first half of the race. He then miscalculated, asking the pacesetters to go faster, and fell behind, but he kept his composure, continued to run at his own tempo and latched back onto the leaders in rainy, windy conditions. He fell back slightly again after a final surge but still finished fifth in 2:06:17, the third-best showing in history by a U.S. man.

Marathoning is a more global sport with a deeper talent pool than it was when the exploits of perennial world-class contenders Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter captivated a generation of Americans in the 1970s.

"I like that Ryan's not fazed by that," Rodgers said. "He's lifted the level of expectation -- only a few people in the sport have been this fast. Now I hope we don't put too much pressure on him. He's in a good spot."

Hall's coach, Terrence Mahon, said Hall has covered as much ground psychologically as physically in the two years since he left Stanford University to turn pro and now is confident he can think his way through a race that never is predictable.

"His goal was to win an Olympic medal, but we weren't sure that would happen in the 5K, which was his college event," Mahon said. "Over the first year of training, we saw what excited him, and it was clear he had the delayed-gratification mentality of a marathoner. You have to look through a big window and be willing to commit four months of grueling training for one day.

"He's very passionate, always wants to push the envelope and see what's humanly possible. Our challenge has been to take that enthusiasm to run as fast as he can and parcel it out a little bit."

Hall's driven nature manifested itself early. The middle child of five in a close-knit family, he first dreamed of playing professional baseball. His father, Mickey, went to Pepperdine University on a baseball scholarship and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles but chose to go into Christian education instead. Ryan was 3 years old when the Halls moved to Big Bear, Calif., after Mickey decided to switch gears and teach special education in a public school.

Ryan was small for his age in eighth grade and found himself riding the bench on the basketball team. His father -- by then the track and cross country coach at Big Bear High School -- suggested he take up running. Characteristically, Ryan plunged in and asked Mickey to take him on the 15-mile loop around Big Bear Lake, which happens to lie at 7,000 feet above sea level.

I was struggling with my personal worth. As an athlete, it's easy to associate how valuable you are with your performance.

--Ryan Hall

"You don't start out running that way, but he was a pest and drove me crazy," Mickey said. "He was a strong-willed little guy."

Ryan tired after the first 12 miles, but his father sternly forbade him to whine, and he finished the run.

"After that, there was nothing else," Mickey said. "He was like a wild stallion. You had to hold back the reins."

All these years later, Ryan still looks back on that day as the moment "God opened up my eyes to running."

"I got this idea and I acted on this one idea, and it changed the whole trajectory of my life," he said.

It wouldn't be his last act of faith.

Young Ryan quickly fixated on the Olympics, carving the iconic five-ringed logo into a Halloween pumpkin and writing his athletic goals in freshly poured concrete. Mickey said his son never missed a practice no matter the weather. Ryan built a stellar high school running career, winning state track and cross country titles and excelling in particular at the mile distance.

He met his future wife, Sara, at a regional prep meet; by fate, they both were Stanford-bound. They began dating the first week of their freshman year and have been inseparable since. Sara Hall is a candidate in her own right for the U.S. Olympic team and will try to qualify for the 1,500-meter event at the U.S. trials in June in Oregon.

Yet, Ryan's first two years at Stanford proved to be rocky terrain. When his competitive results didn't live up to his own high standards, he felt unmoored. He and his younger brother Chad, also a talented runner, camped out to watch the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento; Ryan described himself as depressed and out of shape at the time, disgruntled he was a spectator instead of a participant.

"I was struggling with my personal worth," he said. "As an athlete, it's easy to associate how valuable you are with your performance."

He took a break, went home and, in his words, "re-evaluated where I was finding my identity. I decided to make faith the center. Things didn't instantly get better, but I felt Stanford was where I was supposed to be."

Ryan Hall finished his four-year college career as the NCAA champion in the outdoor 5,000 meters (and later completed his degree in sociology, as well). He and Sara married in 2006 and moved to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., to train with an elite group of U.S. runners, including two Olympic marathon medalists, Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor. Hall's family used to vacation there, and it's an environment much like the one in which he grew up, including the altitude.

Mahon said all the miles Hall logged at high elevation as a teenager formed a valuable foundation.

"The challenges of altitude honed his form because of how taxing it is," Mahon said. "It taught him how to be efficient."

Once it was clear Hall could handle the stress of marathon training, Mahon strove to give him the kind of strategic experience that could help him in Beijing. London's cool weather and fast course lent itself, both this year and last, to a swift pace. This year's race showed Hall what it's like to deal with ebbs, flows, surges and drops rather than the consistent, rhythmic pace he prefers and that served him so well in New York.

"I know I'm still kind of a rookie out there, but I'm going to go in with an open mind, ready for anything," Hall said. "I've learned how to think on my feet, and that's much better than having a plan that you absolutely execute."

Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon gold medalist, said he doesn't think Hall's relative lack of marathon experience will hurt him in China. "It only takes one race to find out the other runners are human, and he's found that out," said Shorter, who also likes the chances of another somewhat-untried U.S. Olympic marathon team member, Dathan Ritzenhein.

"Now the trick is to stay healthy and not believe everything that's written about you."

The humble Hall is trying to keep a broad perspective even as he narrows his focus on the Olympics. He and his wife have signed on as spokespeople for a Christian relief organization called World Vision, which supports developing communities in battling issues of poverty and disease.

On the start line, he also will be mindful of the great loss that came the same day he had one of his greatest wins.

After the U.S. Olympic Trials, Hall and his wife -- a close friend and former Stanford teammate of Shay's wife, Alicia -- took time to reflect on a vacation to Israel, then spent three weeks with Alicia at her Arizona home.

Hall clipped an achingly poignant newspaper photo of himself and Shay that was taken just before the starter's gun went off in New York and keeps it between the pages of a book he uses for Bible study.

The image isolates two young men in a group, one blond, one dark-haired, looking poised, tense and, endearingly, boyishly eager all at once. It is a captured instant that one can stare at forever and still not grasp what happened next.

"I'll definitely be thinking about him on the start line," Hall said. "That's where he was hoping to be. It would be awesome if I could do something special there for Ryan. The picture reminds me it could have been me. I'm doing my best to see the Olympics as an awesome adventure and not pressure."

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at bonniedford@aol.com.