Ryan Hall: Leader of American Youth Movement and Olympic Trials Marathon Champion
As has often been said, experience is an invaluable teacher when it comes to dealing with the pressure of a high-stakes competition such as the Olympic Trials Marathon, a one-shot opportunity to earn a place on the Olympic team. That is the prevailing wisdom anyway.
Posted Monday, 5 November, 2007
But for this year’s trials marathon at least, score one for fresh legs over experience. A pair of young aces, each running in their second marathons, left a group of hardened international competitors behind. Ryan Hall and Dathan Ritzenhein proved that one need not have years of experience at the 26.2-mile distance in order to excel in a high-level championship marathon.
Based on his audacious American records at both the half marathon and marathon earlier this year, Hall was one of the clear favorites, despite his relative inexperience, while Ritzenhein, who had battled to overcome injuries in recent years, came in somewhat under the radar, despite sporting an impressive list of accomplishments in cross country and on the track.
After a dawdling start that made the race look more like a group club run than a championship, the major players assembled at the front of the pack by 10 km, which was passed in a pedestrian 32:35. Brian Sell, another favorite, seemed to be anxious to make a move, although he kept his pace in check and stayed with the group.
At about 10 miles, the first decisive move saw a group of five establish a clear break from the main pack. Hall, Ritzenhein, Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman, and Dan Browne (who scrambled quickly to cover the move after falling behind) shifted into a higher gear. All of sudden it seemed as if the field got the news that this was an Olympic Trials race, not a training run. As Sell and former world record holder Khalid Khannouchi drifted back into the second pack, it looked for all the world as if the three Olympians would come from the big five at the front. Khannouchi certainly must have felt that way, as he eventually set out on his own to try to bridge the gap to the leaders, one that was growing at an alarming rate.
Hall took a look at the big video screen at mile 16 as he completed the third of the five loops through Central Park. Seeing the former world record holder Khannouchi desperately trying to make up ground, Hall decided not to wait around any longer. Loping along with a powerful yet relaxed stride, he moved away from the lead pack quickly and easily. Ten miles is a long way to run by yourself in the lead of the Olympic Trials Marathon, especially on a cold, raw day that saw headwinds of up to 20 miles per hour on the west side of the course. It is also along way to run by yourself when being chased by four former Olympians and a former world record holder. But the confident Hall appeared anything but bothered, clocking consistent miles in the 4:55 range with a 4:32 and a 4:34 thrown in for good measure. The race was his to lose, but he gave no indication he was going to do anything of the kind.
While Ritzenhein had secured a solid hold on second place with a move of his own, Keflezighi and Abdirahman were both in serious trouble, fading fast. Browne was third, but a calf cramp stopped him in his tracks suddenly at mile 20. He got moving again quickly, but was stepping gingerly. That offered a ray of hope to those behind, however it was not Keflezigi, Abdirahman, or Khannouchi who appeared in the rear view mirror, but Sell, who had earlier slipped to tenth place, more than 30 seconds behind. In the 2004 trials marathon, Sell had employed a front running strategy that yielded a spectacular crash and burn, but this time his tactics could not have been more different. Staging a come from behind that would have done the 2004 Boston Red Sox proud, Sell reeled in Khannouchi and then a faltering Browne to move into third place. With no one else in the field able to mount a serious challenge, Sell had erased the misfortune of 2004 to earn his place on the Olympic team, while scoring a big victory for the Brooks-Hanson’s racing team. When asked later about his seemingly curious race strategy, Sell replied, “The original plan was to let the field determine the pace for the first couple of miles. When we were out in 11 (minutes) flat for two miles, I knew I had to keep it honest to have a chance at all. Honestly, I was trying to run around five (minutes per mile). I didn't have too many miles above five flat. That tells you how fast these guys were up front. I was just fortunate to pick up the carnage from these two. I was just trying to keep relaxed until the last lap, then attack. When I saw them with a lap to go, I just didn't want to go too hard. I'm just happy I timed it right.”
Just ahead of Sell, Ritzenhein had earned some retribution of his own in finishing second and establishing that yes, he can indeed run a quality marathon. He commented afterward, “It (was) a very emotional experience for me. I had a very difficult time at the Olympics (in Athens, when he dropped out of the 10,000 meter final). This is incredible for me. It was an emotional release, more than anything. We put in so much effort to this that it's difficult to express how it feels after two hours-plus of that effort and seeing the fruits of that labor.”
Khannouchi was an unlucky fourth place, although upon finishing he dropped and kissed the ground, happy to have overcome years of foot injuries to once gain complete a successful marathon. After the race, an upbeat Khannouchi said, “My goal was to be top three, but I am proud of myself. I wish I had been more patient and had known that Brian (Sell) was going to be coming through, but this result gives me hope for the next season. I ran my best, and I wish I could have had more time, but you can only do your best. Nine weeks (of training) was not enough time, but that is all I had.”
In the end, this day’s race belonged to Ryan Hall, who has emerged as the premier marathoner in the U.S.—and not by a small margin. His 2:09:02 on a difficult course on a less than ideal day was a world class performance by anyone’s standards. The final result could easily have been 15 seconds faster had he not celebrated with high fives and fist pumps for the last half mile. Said Hall of his performance, “I was feeling really good, really fresh. (My) coach gave me phenomenal workouts to do. I was very well prepared out there. I didn't expect to run this fast on this course, especially after previewing it. I didn't care how fast we ran the first half, I wanted to close fast. It was a good run for me. I was trying not to get too excited too early, but I saw myself achieving my goal in the last lap. The last mile, I knew I was going to be o.k.. I know I can run considerably faster. There's definitely more gears in there. I'll get to test those in Beijing.”
Some 35 years ago, a young 24-year-old up-and-coming star running in just his second marathon won the Olympic Trials Marathon, thus establishing his world-class credentials. Frank Shorter went on to win the Olympic Marathon later that year in Munich, now regarded as one of the definitive moments in the history of marathon running. Whether Hall can enjoy similar success in Beijing next August remains to be seen. Despite the fact that the two marathons he has run have both been faster than Frank Shorter ever ran, he will face a much tougher international field at the 2008 Olympic Games. Don’t bet against the leader of the American youth movement, however. He has proven that he can handle any stage, no matter how bright the lights and how intense the pressure. And now he has just enough experience to go along with those fresh legs to run with anyone in the world over 26 miles.
Editor's note: All photos for this article are courtesy of Frank Georges and Jim Rhoades.