(Photo: REUTERS/Adam Hunger)
Olympic runner Ryan Hall holds the record for the fastest half-marathon and the fastest marathon ever recorded by an American, and now his only running coach is God.
After finishing as the runner-up at the 2011 United States half-marathon championships, Hall declared "God" to be his coach when filling out a standard drug testing form, The New York Times reported in a lengthy piece about Hall on Saturday.
After reading what he had written, a doping official told him he had to list a real person. Hall told the official, "He is a real person."
In 2010, after finding out he had an underactive thyroid and was dealing constantly with fatigue during workouts, Hall both withdrew from the upcoming Chicago Marathon and ceased training under his coach, Terrence Mahon, who had questioned if Hall was as motivated to win as he had previously been.
"Once I knew he kind of lost faith in me a little bit, that was a real shifting point," said Hall, according to the Times. "My coach has to believe in me. That's the most important thing, probably."
Today, Hall finds the inspiration for his training tactics from the Bible and from listening to God. He doesn't hear God audibly, he says, but as he thinks and plans out his training sessions he senses which course of action God would have him take.
"The Bible is not going to tell you how to be a good runner, just like it's not going to tell you how to build a computer," Hall's wife, Sara, said. "I don't think Ryan is looking at the Bible for a formula, necessarily. There are certain things that God highlights for him that he applies to his training. The majority is what he hears from God."
Sara, who is a track and field athlete and just missed qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in the steeplechase event, says this more spiritual approach to training has freed her husband from rigid training regimens, allows him to improvise in his training and she has seen him happier and more full of energy than before. He now only runs about 100 miles per week as opposed to the standard 120 that most professional marathoners will run during training.
Hall takes one day off a week as a sort of Sabbath from running, and he also spaces his toughest workouts three days apart – a number signifying both the Trinity and the number of days Jesus spent buried in the tomb. He rubs anointing oil on his legs at night, and has several other training methods inspired by the Bible as well.
Though convinced this program is to his benefit, there have been times when he says he has gone astray. He has, for example, fasted at times when he should have been trying to put on weight. At other times he has attempted certain training activities that may have done more harm than good, but he attributes these mistakes to his misunderstanding of what God would have him do.
As could be expected, Hall's approach to training isn't without its critics, and some are curious to see what kind of impact it will have on him come race day.
Bobby Curtis, a fellow runner who finished 15th at the 2011 New York City Marathon, told the Times, "He'll prove everybody wrong if for the next three years he's the same Ryan Hall. But it will be fuel for the fire for a lot of people who are critical of him if he doesn't continue at that same level."
In addition to running, the Halls are the founders of The Hall Steps Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to help fight global poverty, and are active members of Bethel Church in Redding, Calif.
In June, the Halls were interviewed by Bethel Church's senior leaders, Eric and Candace Johnson, about issues of running and faith during one of the church's services. With marathon training, Hall told the congregation, as with many things in life, the first steps toward the goal are always the most difficult.
"One step by itself doesn't mean anything, but you put all those steps together and it's absolutely miraculous what your body can do," he said. "So sometimes I don't even like to think about how fast I run ... because it just seems totally impossible, but it's just a testimony to the amazing bodies that God has given us."
Although both she and her husband are competitors, Sara said one thing they have learned is to root their identities in who God says they are instead of in how they perform as athletes.
"We're essentially in a career that's all about performance," she told the congregation. "We're learning that ... success is defined as being faithful with what you've been given, not necessarily how you perform."
Hall, who was expected to medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but finished in a disappointing 10th place in the marathon, will run for the U.S. again on Aug. 12 in London.