The voices in his head were getting louder, the pain getting worse. Then, just 11 miles into the 2012 Olympic marathon, Ryan Hall pulled up lame and clenched his right hamstring.
They weren't the same voices that had guided his faith-based training up until that point. He was only a year removed from finishing fourth at the 2011 Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 4 minutes, 58 seconds, and the fastest American marathoner in history had never pulled out of a major race, but he was making a descent to the lowest point of his career.
"Once you pull out of one race, then it's easier to drop out of another," Hall remembers the voices saying.
Now, in 2015, Hall goes well beyond the basic tenet that talent never fades, and his faith in his comeback is stronger than ever as he prepares for the 2015 ASICS LA Marathon on March 15.
"I feel closer than ever. I feel like to reap great rewards and experience the biggest breakthroughs of our lives, we have to go through the deepest valleys to get there," Hall said. "I feel like I've gone through the deepest valleys. In the process of going through the valley, you don't know how long you'll be stuck down there, when you're going to get out of there or if you're ever going to get out.
"I feel like I'm climbing back up to the mountaintop right now. I don't know when that's going to happen. I don't know when I'm going to reach my summit and see my full potential come out, but it feels to me closer than ever."
Helping America win
The voices were right.
The fall after the London Olympics, Hall attempted to return to competition at the 2012 New York City Marathon. He was dealing with plantar fasciitis ahead of the Summer Olympics, but it was tightness in his legs that forced him to pull out of NYC.
Hall would also withdraw from the 2013 Boston Marathon with a quadriceps injury. Training had been going well and Hall was doing all that he could, but the injuries returned at the most inopportune times.
"Looking back on things, I don't think I would do anything differently to be honest," Hall said. "It's an unfortunate part of our sport, where injuries happen and they throw off your mechanics. Next thing you know, you're in a bad cycle of injuries."
On the morning of April 15, 2013, because Hall was not running the race, he booked his flight out of Boston early to spend the day with his wife on her birthday. Upon landing back home, he was surprised when his phone was inundated with text messages asking if he was all right. Two bombs had gone off near the Boston Marathon finish line, claiming the lives of three people and injuring more than 260 others.
"I was gutted," Hall said. "Having just been there and running past that spot so many times, I wondered if all my friends in the marathon were OK as well. It was a crazy experience."
Among the deluge of text messages, Olympic teammate Meb Keflezighi was one of the people asking about Hall. Keflezighi stressed the importance of coming back strong in 2014 for the United States.
Another autumn meant another withdrawal, with Hall bowing out of the 2013 NYC Marathon, his fourth consecutive withdrawal from a World Marathon Majors race. He struggles to recall the injury. The way Hall's mind operates, past struggles and performances are quickly cast away.
"I think of it as 'sports amnesia' with bad performances," Hall said. "I can't tell you what any of my bad times are from any of my races. I don't look them up or try to think of them too much. I just move forward."
Heading into the 2014 Boston Marathon, the promise of an American victor seemed alive and well. Just a few weeks before the race, Hall got carried away while training at 7,000 feet in Ethiopia, cruising on a 23-mile tempo run while averaging 5:17 per mile. It was longer than his usual tempo runs (capped around 15 miles) and at a slightly slower pace, but he was healthy and feeling good. Most importantly, he made it to the starting line in Hopkinton, Massachusetts.
"On the starting line, I felt like we should be banded together as Americans more than any other time," Hall recalled. "My training had been going well, and I was feeling good. I was hoping to be the guy to break the tape first in the race."
Six miles into the race, it was apparent to Hall that Keflezighi also was feeling good. Keflezighi took the lead, and not many runners followed in pursuit. Hall and compatriot Nick Arciniaga were left dictating the pace of the chase pack and keeping themselves within striking distance of Keflezighi. Hall's legs were not as fresh as he hoped. The workout in Ethiopia had taken a toll on him, and he soon realized that a win for Keflezighi would also be a win for America and for him.
"I was thinking Tour de France style," Hall said. "If two guys from Garmin made a break, other teammates in the peloton would not try to keep the pack close. After a couple miles, it made sense to me. Why am I keeping these guys close to Meb? He was not only my fellow countryman, but a friend and someone I looked up to since I got into the sport."
He turned to Arciniaga and set forth the plan. When both let go of the lead, the pack hit the brakes and the pace slowed down. Hall shook his head in disbelief that the other runners were letting Keflezighi get away. Other Americans caught up to the pack and Hall let them in on the plan by telling them to back off the pace.
Hall did not know if Keflezighi was going to maintain his lead or eventually be caught. As runners began to string out and take off, he asked fans along the course how Meb was doing.
"When I crossed the finish line, the first thing I asked was, 'Did Meb win?'" Hall laughs as he remembers, "No one knew. I was like, 'How do you guys not know who won the race?' I started thinking there was a photo finish or something."
It took nearly five minutes, but eventually a volunteer confirmed the results to him. Hall was elated.
"As a team and as a country, we won," Hall said. "To be able to partake and celebrate in what he had done was pretty cool."
His own result read 2:17:50, and the euphoria wore off. It was a day for celebration, but not for Hall. It was time to re-examine his own result and pick up the pieces for the next race.
No trust issues
All of his shortcomings did not affect Hall's faith in his coach, known to all by the name of "God." Hall even listed his higher power on anti-doping paperwork after the 2011 U.S. Half-Marathon Championships.
"I was learning to communicate with God, which is like learning a different language," Hall reflected. "It's not easy."
Proverbs 11:14 reads, "In abundance of counselors, there is victory." Prayer was the biggest component for Hall as he wrote his own workouts, but there were many people at his side. His friend Billy Herman would come over and they would sit down with the calendar and ask God to plot out their training.
"There were no revelations or crazy visions," Hall said. "It was just a lot of hearing from God in a peaceful and quiet inner voice. He would highlight certain workouts that I had done in the past. He would lead me to talk to people or read books that highlight workouts."
Readings that instructed believers to take a day of rest on the Sabbath were applied by taking one day off per week. How Hall interprets that edict for a day of rest changes as he adds and subtracts from his training plan, and he currently is not taking a full day off to recover.
Hall was coached by Terrence Mahon for a short period and then went solo again, and then out of curiosity he consulted with world-renowned distance coach Renato Canova for a short while in.
"I felt like I kind of knew the African philosophy of training. Coach Canova's stuff seemed very different, and he had guys running really well," Hall said. "During the training, I had a good time. It was very aggressive and more than anything while I was self-coaching."
Hall was injured during Canova's rigorous training and preparation for the 2013 Boston Marathon. In the middle of the summer, he decided it was best to part ways and return to his faith-based training. It was nothing personal, nor was it based on results. Communication had dropped off between them while Canova also handled athletes for China, Kenya and Ethiopia.
"God was not telling me to throw everything out the window," Hall said. "He put me in a position and brought me up under all these great coaches. Now my job was to apply all that I've learned from them to what I'm doing now."
Before 2015, Hall announced he was seeking advice from coach Jack Daniels, who has coached and been a consultant for the likes of Jim Ryun, Joan Benoit, Magdalena Lewy Boulet and Amy Hastings.
The addition of Daniels has eliminated the internal deliberation of choosing his own workouts and overthinking things while self-coaching. The two exchange emails regularly, and Hall also makes his own adjustments to training, sometimes still consulting with God.
"The No. 1 thing is having a coach and trusting their judgment, and I have that with Jack," Hall said. "He's so humble and willing to make changes based on how I'm feeling. He knows that we're all unique and not everything is going to work for one person like for another."
Although Hall believes it takes about a year to fully adjust to a coach's training, questions have arisen about whether previous bad experiences or a psychological factor have prevented him from sticking with a coach. Hall is quick to dismiss that notion.
"I view it as going through a season of experimenting with my training," Hall said. "I'm one of those guys who likes to push the envelope, and I try to tweak things to get to the next level. I could stay in the same system, do exactly the same training since college and consistently run 2:08 to 2:06. I've already done that, and I know that's not the level that's inside me. When I ran 59:00 [for the half-marathon] or 2:04, those are the times I think there's something really special."
It has been a long season of learning for Hall. He's learned about himself and his body, and from the diverse set of coaches he's worked with. The disappointing performances have just been a part of the process for him to tap into his full potential, and God has remained with him throughout.
Hall opened his year with a 64:16 for a second-place finish at the 2015 Rock N' Roll Arizona Half-Marathon and appeared to pass his first test of the year with Daniels.
"When I'm out there running, I'm still guided by the same God, and I'm doing it with the same heart as my faith-based training," Hall said. "I look to Jack as a coach. Writing the workouts is an important part of training, but the most important part is what's going on in your heart and what you believe in yourself and why you're running."
Hall had never had sushi before, but he was willing to take a two-mile walk to and from the Japanese restaurant with Sara Bei during their first week as freshmen at Stanford. Running, faith and their California backgrounds dominated the first-date chatter.
On their way back to the dorms, they stopped at the Cobb Track on Stanford's campus and Hall felt comfortable disclosing his running aspirations.
"She was such an encouraging person for me from the get-go," Hall recalled. "I remember telling her that I wanted to set the American record in the mile my senior year on that track. Of course that didn't end up happening."
Upon dropping her off at her door, he worked up the courage to ask for a second date. She said no.
"It was the longest awkward silence ever," Hall said. "My heart totally sank. I was bummed and she started laughing. That was her sense of sarcasm, but I was sweating bullets. It was not cool."
After both earning All-American honors at Stanford, the two got married in 2008, and it's been happily-ever-after since then. In Los Angeles, they will toe a marathon starting line together for the first time.
"Going through each long run with her and having it be a big accomplishment reminds me of my first marathon experience," Hall said. "She's in amazing shape, and I'm really excited to see how she does. Guaranteed, the first thing I'll do after I finish is check up on how she's doing in the race."
Almost as important to Hall as watching his wife's first marathon is that he is now less than a year out from the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which will take place in Los Angeles in February of next year.
This journey has been much different from his previous two Olympic cycles, though. Hall put together arguably one of the strongest strings of marathons in the world from his 2:08:24 in London in 2007 to his runner-up finish at the 2012 Olympic Trials, and now he's ready to prove the past few years have been an aberration.
"I know I still have the same talent and the same capability," Hall said. "I know outside observers may think, 'Oh, he hasn't had a good race in a long time.' I know a good race is only a matter of waking up on the right side of the bed.
"I'm not at all worried about the Olympic trials."