The trajectory of Sara Hall’s career wasn’t what she—or anybody else—anticipated. Now she’s the second-fastest runner on the Olympic Trials starting line.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, highlighting the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team. You can find all of our coverage here.
Had anybody attempted to predict four years ago who might seriously contend for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon team, few would likely have guessed that Sara Hall would start the Trials with the second-fastest time on the starting line, behind Jordan Hasay’s 2:20:57.
Back in 2016, she had yet to really prove herself at 26.2 miles—and the heat of Los Angeles took her out of the Trials at mile 17.
But here we are in 2020 and Hall, who trains in Flagstaff, Arizona, with her two-time Olympian husband and coach Ryan Hall, said she’s as prepared as she could possibly be to make the Tokyo Games. The top three finishers on Saturday in Atlanta go on to compete in August at the Olympics.
“I don’t think I could have trained any harder for this race, honestly, and not get injured,” she said. “That’s a good feeling to have. Now whatever happens in the race, I have peace that I prepared the best I could.”
In September she finished the Berlin Marathon in 2:22:16, a four-minute personal best and the sixth-fastest American woman ever at the distance. One week later, she won the U.S.A. Track & Field 10-mile road championships in Minneapolis. Then just a few weeks later, she started the 2019 New York City Marathon, though she dropped out at mile 18 after suffering from a stomach bug.
After an injury-plagued 2017 and 2018, treating a sacroiliac joint and peroneal tendon, Hall jumped on the opportunity to set ambitious goals while she was healthy—and she took the preparation for the hills of Atlanta seriously. She ran the Houston Half Marathon in January as at tune-up race and came away with a new personal best of 1:08:58.
“Pretty much everything I trained on was on hills at altitude, which are so much harder than hills at sea level,” she said. “The upside is that it made me a stronger athlete having to prepare for it. It demanded another level of me that I didn’t even know I could give. In that way, it will benefit future races, too, not just this race.”
Olympic Trials Qualifying Time: 2:22:16 (2019 Berlin Marathon)
Marathon PR: 2:22:16 (2019 Berlin Marathon)
Peak weekly mileage: An estimated 130–137 miles (“It’s not a metric we use a lot,” she said.)
Favorite workout: Hall enjoyed the 16-mile tempo runs on her schedule the most. She did three or four of them and the one she completed in Camp Verde, Arizona, about an hour south of her Flagstaff home (and at about 3,000 feet of altitude), was her favorite.
“It was nice to feel how the hills felt at a lower elevation—I could be way more powerful up them,” she said. “Instead of pace, I went by effort and practiced how to find the right effort.”
Best part of training for the Olympic Trials: Completing “density of intensity” within her schedule—she ran high mileage, but also fit in a lot of workouts.
“I was working out pretty much every other day, hard,” she said. “And a lot of those workouts are also really long. So when a 16-mile tempo just comes at the end of a long period of doing that—like 12 weeks—I was happy with that.”
Worst part of the training for the Olympic Trials: The day before she ran the Houston Half Marathon, where she set a new personal best, she wasn’t feeling well in the heat and humidity. Then the week after the Houston race, she also ran a tempo run—24 miles total with 10 at race pace, but she picked a road that was “way too hilly,” even though it was at low elevation in Phoenix.
“It was one of those workouts where you’re like, ‘Not sure if I just survived that without getting injured,’” Hall said. “I was really waxed. It was too steep to be able to run fast or enjoy sea level.”
Best piece of advice or encouragement given: Hall keeps a bit of advice that her former Stanford teammate and current Flagstaff friend Alicia (Craig) Vargo has given her: “Recently she said to me, ‘You know, you’re not cramming for a test. You’ve been putting this work in for years and that’s all still in you,’” Hall said. “That was encouraging because with it being the deepest field in history and the hardest course, sometimes that creates a pressure that you have to do everything perfectly.”
Taper tantrums: After all those miles, Hall embraces the tapering period.
“I respond well to rest and I have to with how dense my training is,” she said. “I can’t sustain this and race well off of it. What’s hard is that I start feeling good and I want to run more and faster—I have to hold myself back because it’s so enjoyable.”
Pre-race superstition or good luck routine: Hall gets into the zone by listening to the same music she enjoyed during the training cycle.
“I remind myself that this is what I enjoy doing and I like to run hard,” she said. “It puts me in that frame of mind.”
Race-day shoes: She’ll be wearing a new Asics show called the MetaRacer, which will be released to the public on March 24.
Looking forward to most on race day: Hall is excited to experience the atmosphere of the crowds out on the course, and assuming the outcome she’s hoping for, she is alsoo looking forward to seeing her family at the finish line.
“Hopefully with a flag and celebration,” she said. “That, to me, would be the moment I dream of.”
Dreading on race day: It’s not that she dreads it, but Hall knows that a hard, painful couple of hours are coming.
“I really like running hard, but I’m mentally preparing for that,” she said.
Impressions of the Olympic Marathon Trials course: She first ran on the course in Atlanta in May and came away “a little shocked.”
“When you run it easy, it doesn’t seem that hard, but just seeing the elevation was almost three times the uphill of Boston really put into perspective what that will feel like when you’re running fast,” she said. “I really put my head down from that moment on and did some really outside-the-box creative stuff to prepare for the hills specifically.”
Hall then went back in November to run on the course a little faster.
“That was a good confidence booster for me, because I felt really good and didn’t feel sore at all after running 18 miles on it,” she said. “It told me what we were doing was working.”
Support crew in Atlanta: Her husband and coach (and two-time Olympic marathoner) Ryan Hall, their four daughters (Hana, Mia, Lily, Jasmine), her parents, her brother and his girlfriend, and Hall’s junior high school cross-country coach
Morning routine for a late start time: Hall is going to sleep in as late as she can. She’s been practicing the routine throughout training—getting up, eating, and doing her longer runs later than she normally would.
Olympic Trials breakfast fuel: A shake with protein powder, and a bagel, probably.
“I picture the Africans and what they eat—they aren’t too fancy with nutrition,” she said. “Simple carbs.”
Race-day mantra: “Relax and roll.”
Walk-up song, if you had one as a pro runner: “Black Eyes and Blue,” by CryJaxx
Slow and strategic or fast and furious: Hall said she feels pretty confident no matter how it plays out.
“I feel the strongest I’ve ever been, so I’m good with either one,” she said. “Whether or not I’m the one dictating that we’ll see.”
How she’ll know that she did everything she could, even if she doesn’t make the team: She has learned over time not to doubt herself in the results, she said.
“It’s not always because you’ve collapsed across the finish line,” she said. “We kind of glorify that, but I feel like my best marathons are the ones I’ve finished strongest and the worst ones I’ve death-marched it in.”
Most looking forward to after the race: Time to visit friends and family—and an upcoming trip to Israel in March.
“The day after the race, we’re going to Harry Potter World with the kids, so please send good vibes for that—we’ll see how that goes because lots of coffee will be needed and possibly a wheelchair,” she said, laughing.
Celebration meal: Hall’s been sticking to a bland diet, so she’s ready for a spicy Thai dinner.