Two-time Olympic marathon runner Ryan Hall and his elite running wife, Sara, have adopted four sisters from Ethiopia, fulfilling a desire for a family.
Tom Tingle, The Republic | azcentral.com
FLAGSTAFF — Monday is a big day for Sara Hall.
She turns 36, and will celebrate with some 30,000 runners at the 123rd Boston Marathon, which Hall will be running for the first time.
It’s a important business trip for Hall on her path toward the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, now less than 11 months away. Competition will be fierce for the three women’s spots in Tokyo. Hall is seeking a standout performance at a major marathon to reinforce her Olympic contender status.
But it’s never just about running for the Halls, Sara and her husband Ryan. There always is a bigger picture, a greater goal and maintaining perspective in a sport that can become too singularly focused and was for a time for two-time Olympian Ryan before he retired from professional running in early 2016.
“I felt a lot of guilt and shame like I was screwing things up with my training and my body,” says Ryan, one of America’s best marathoners for years despite chronic low testosterone levels. “I was trying everything I could think to get my body to respond to training and start having the same results I’d been having, and nothing was working.
“It felt like all this pressure and heaviness,” that also became a clear message to Hall, who like Sara is a devout Christian. “I felt like God was telling me it’s not meant to last forever. It’s not going to last forever for Mo Farah or Haile Gebrselassie or any of these guys. Everyone slows down. We all have our time. I’ve done everything I can do, and the ship is just not being turned around so now it’s time to move into the next season of life.”
It’s five weeks to the day before the Boston Marathon and it’s chilly in Flagstaff with snow in the forecast late in a winter that will be remembered for the record three-foot snowfall on Feb. 21 when it would have been near impossible to traverse the dirt roads to the Hall house in the woods above downtown.
Sara and Ryan are well into the routine of their next season, marked not only by Ryan’s retirement but in raising their adopted children, four Ethiopian sisters who they made apart of their family in 2015. After dividing time between Redding, Calif., and Flagstaff as they had since leaving Mammoth, Calif., in 2010, the Halls committed last summer to Arizona and a house large enough for six and three miniature Siberian huskies.
“There’s just a great community here that already knew us from running that has embraced the girls,” Sara says. “It’s been fun to see a little more of the heartbeat of the city now that we have kids because you’re more integrated into the community.”
Lily and Jasmine, ages 8 and 11, attend an elementary charter school. Mia, 15, is in junior high and Hana, 18, is at Flagstaff High School, where she won the Arizona Division II high school cross country title last fall for the Eagles.
Dad and mom are up by 6 or so in the morning. “Ryan is in charge of breakfast,” specifically pancakes (mocha for her), Sara says. “We get them off to school then we have a nice block of time to train, but that time goes really quick until they’re back home. Then it’s a lot of helping them with homework, which is probably our least favorite part of parenting because they were so behind coming here.”
The girls had no formal schooling and did not speak English before coming to the U.S. “They were all basically at a kindergarten level,” Sara says.
“We actually learned a little bit of Amharic (one of Ethiopia’s languages) just so we could make that transition a little bit easier,” Ryan says. “We got back and by the next week they were in full English school with no other Ethiopians, full on immersion. It was amazing to see how quickly they did pick up the language, but for the older girls it’s been a big challenge.”
One that seems to have been predestined.
How they met
Ryan Hall and Sara Bei knew each other only by running reputation going into the California high school cross country championships in 2001.
After winning the Division IV boys title for Big Bear High School, Hall signed some autographs with a Bible verse under his name. One of those circled to Bei to sign after her victory in the Division II girls race for Santa Rosa Montgomery High.
A few days later, Hall’s mom came downstairs to tell Ryan that an e-mail for him had arrived from Sara.
“I thought my mom was pulling my chain because Sara is a super famous California runner that every guy in the state liked,” Hall says. “Ha, ha mom, super funny. I still remember the first line — My name is Sara Bei, I run for Montgomery High School” — as if Hall didn’t already know.
Sara knew, from God she says, that she would marry Hall before they both began their college careers at Stanford. Maybe that gave her the confidence on their first date to bring up the idea of adopting.
“I figured I had to scoop her up quick if I was going to have a chance because she was highly sought after on the cross country team,” Hall says.
They walked more than a mile to and from a sushi restaurant and in between Bei told Hall about her adopted cousins and how she’d wanted to adopt since she was a little girl.
“It was more offhanded but it caught my attention, kind of like a little wake-up call,” says Ryan, who was more put off by Sara’s reaction when he said he’d like to go out with her again.
“No,” Sara said in calm, even voice followed by a long awkward pause before the realization that his dream girl was more of a joker than his mom.
Passing marathon torch
Ryan Hall is a two-time Olympic marathon runner and his wife , Sara Hall, is an elite runner in her own right. Sara is running the Boston Marathon.
Tom Tingle, The Republic | azcentral.com
Ryan and Sara married in 2005, after their All-America careers and as they were moving into professional running.
Sara remained in track at first while Ryan took to the roads, running a stunning 2:08 in his 2007 marathon debut in London. He followed up with a victory at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials and 10th place finish at the Beijing Olympics. At age 25, almost everything seemed possible for Hall.
The career build was slower and more normal for Sara.
She was eighth in the 1,500-meter at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Track Trials then at the 2012 trials ran in the steeplechase, again finishing eighth. Ryan returned to the Olympics in 2012, after taking second at the marathon trials, but dropped out due to a hamstring injury, a precursor to the remainder of his career.
Sara’s marathon debut, in Los Angeles in 2015, was Ryan’s farewell, a symbolic passing of the torch leading to a role reversal that continues today with Sara’s marathon ascension and Ryan serving as her coach.
“I didn’t think I would be good at the marathon,” says Sara, who was unable to finish at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials and then finished 14th in the 5,000 at the track trials. “I thought I was more middle distance, but as soon as I did my first marathon build-up, I fell in love with the training up here in Flagstaff and in Ethiopia. After that, I was hooked. It’s brought a real freshness to my running and also with the girls, the roads are a more sustainable lifestyle for having a family.
“They see me go through the highs and the lows and have to pick myself back up again. The character things like perseverance and hard work, I get to actually dialogue with them about it and model it in person. I get to show them what it means to be a strong woman going after things she’s passionate about.”
Running was far from her oldest daughter’s mind when she was living in an orphanage in Addis Ababa and worried about adoption splitting up her sisters. “Most families don’t adopt four kids,” Hana says. “I was bummed about that. But this time, God helped with that.”
Struggling at first to complete two laps on the track, 18-year-old Hana now is a college-caliber runner. She not only is a state cross-country champion but recently was third in the 3,200-meter at the prestigious Chandler Rotary track meet.
“I want to be a good runner because of my mom and dad,” Hana says. “They inspire me to run and work hard. To see her working hard and winning races, I kind of want to do that one day.”
It’s been a steady but not straight-line rise for Sara in the marathon, typical of stress that comes with elite training and racing at that distance.
She was able to complete three marathons in 2017, two of those just five weeks apart capped by a victory at the U.S. Championships. Then in 2018, injuries prevented her from starting at Boston and forced her to drop out at Frankfurt. Still, she ran a personal best 2:26.20 at Ottawa in May 2018 and a 1:09.27 half marathon PR in Australia in July.
“It won’t surprise me at all if she runs sub 2:25 (at Boston),” says Hall’s agent Josh Cox, a former elite distance runner. “Ryan has her really ready. It’s tough to reign her in and get not to race.” Hall has remained in training mode since October, working with renowned Chandler chiropractor John Ball to regain full health.
Ryan says Sara is “in the best shape I’ve ever seen her in. How that translates in Boston where it could be raining like last year against a major championship level field including defending champion Desiree Linden and prior winners Edna Kiplagat and Caroline Rotich is an open question.
Ryan’s 2:04.58 at Boston in 2011 still is the fastest marathon ever by an American although the course is point-to-point with too much elevation loss to be eligible for records. Still, three top-five Boston finishes qualify him to give Sara expert advice.
“I just kind of give her own advice right back to her,” Ryan says. “She told me to be bold, and that’s what I always did when I was at Boston. I went straight to the front, pushed the pace, got everything I could out of myself.
“We’re two different people. I don’t necessarily tell go the front and hammer, ran exactly how I did. She needs to be the best version of her. But there is a boldness you have to take to the Boston Marathon course,” on the first-half downhills and the famed Newton hills.
No matter how Boston and for that matter the 2020 Olympic Trials go, Sara and Ryan will be leading what they describe as an “unconventional Christian pilgrimage” to Israel in March 2020 for the Jerusalem Marathon. The Hall Steps Foundation was created in 2009 to fight global poverty. Sara envisions eventually living in Ethiopia doing development work to fulfill what she says was her “original vision” for her life.
“I respect them so much for the way they lead their life,” Cox says. “The script has really flipped for the two of them. They were both competing at a super high level, but Ryan was the guy (before retiring). Now Sara is able to continue and perform at such a high level, and Ryan is able to come along and be her rock and support.
“One book closes and the second it does, the other book opens up.”
Sara Hall’s marathon record
2015: Los Angeles, 2:48.02; Chicago, 2:31.14.
2016: U.S. Olympic Trials, DNF; London, 2:30.06, New York, 2:36.12.
2017: Tokyo, 2:28.26; Frankfurt, 2:27.21; California International (U.S. Championships), 2:28.10.
2018: Ottawa, 2:26.20.
Reach the reporter at email@example.com or 602-444-8053. Follow him on Twitter @jeffmetcalfe.