Running's Power Couple Pulled Off a Mind-Boggling Transformation—While Raising Four (!) Kids

Rachel Levin, Photography & Video by Jesse Rieser
·22 min read
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser

From Runner's World

Leap Day, February 29, 2020. Sara and Ryan Hall are in the backseat of an Uber, sitting in traffic—and silence—in downtown Atlanta. Shivering a little in her race kit, Sara accepts Ryan’s offer of his sweatshirt. The driver mutters something about road closures. It would’ve been faster to get out and hobble back to the hotel, but they just sit there. Staring out the window, in disbelief. “We were in total shock,” recalls Sara. “We just didn’t see this coming.”

Sara arrived at the Olympic marathon trials as the second-fastest woman at the starting line, favored to make the U.S. team for Tokyo. Confidence was high. The night before the race, Sara and Ryan told their four daughters, biological sisters adopted at ages 5 to 15 from an orphanage in Ethiopia in 2015: All of mom’s hard work will be worth it for this moment. Ryan, Sara’s husband of 15 years and coach for the last five, even teared up. “I remember…” Sara says. “He’d said, ‘Tomorrow is going to be your day.’”

Except, it turned out, it wasn’t. Atlanta’s tough course “obliterated” her legs, as Sara posted on Instagram. She dropped out at mile 22. DNF. Her dream—their dream—dashed.

Photo credit: Jesse Rieser
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser

Sara had made it to the Olympic trials five times before. But this time was different: “I’d never felt this prepared,” she says from her home in the hills of Flagstaff, Arizona. “It was the biggest heartbreak of my career.”

And then, ironically, she went to Disney World. Well, technically, Wizarding World, at Universal Studios. With Jasmine and Lily, her two youngest daughters, licking her wounds in the line for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure while Ryan went home to Flagstaff with Hana and Mia. A week later, the world shut down. With the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus and all the unknowns that came with it, there would be no more races. No redemption.

“It was definitely an emotionally hard time,” says Sara. “It’s tough to motivate without a race in sight.”

It was just as tough, if not tougher, for Ryan. A retired two-time Olympic runner, he knows disappointment intimately himself. Now that he’s a coach, he says the hardest thing he’s had to learn, especially as Sara’s coach, is to “be invested in the athlete, but not go on the same roller-coaster ride as the athlete.” And for Sara, for Ryan, for all of us, 2020 was a roller coaster. An emotional and physical roller coaster. It’s been a year of change for the Halls. One long-haul marathon of a year.

My button-down no longer fits!” says Ryan, over the phone, from a hotel room in Tucson, where he and Sara are getting ready for a dinner function during the pandemic. It’s a fundraiser for Lifesong for Orphans. “It’s like Tommy Boy!” he laughs. “I’ll be twirling around singing ‘fat guy in a little coat’ all night.”

On the menu is steak, mashed potatoes, and asparagus, which Ryan will eat even though he isn’t hungry. He hasn’t been since summer, when he started taking in upwards of 5,000 calories a day. That’s a couple of thousand more than back when he was running 100 miles a week and eight races a year, including the Houston half marathon in 2007. He crushed it in 59:43, making him the first American to break the half’s one-hour barrier. In 2011, in Boston, he rocketed 26.2 miles in 2:04:58, becoming, to date, the fastest marathoner in America.

The fastest marathoner in America who, at 38 years old, doesn’t run anymore. Not competitively. Not weekly. Though on a whim, occasionally: as in, maybe 25 miles in all of 2020. Well, not counting the 43 he ran in September, from Crested Butte to Aspen, in 12:47 with a 6,000-foot elevation gain. “I just hopped in,” he says, about the Grand Traverse Mountain Run. His first. For fun.

Photo credit: Jesse Rieser
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser

And his body has changed substantially since his marathon days. He’s gained a ton of muscle. Since retiring from professional running in 2016, the 5'10" Ryan has gone from 127-pound waif to 200-pound weightlifter. “After depleting my body of so much strength for years and years with intense training and dieting, my body was craving an activity that was anabolic,” Ryan explains. He also just fell in love with “the sensation,” he says, of pulling something so freaking heavy off the floor that he previously couldn’t budge.

He noticed it in his face first. “A marathoner’s face is gaunt,” he says. “Right away, I lost that. I was retaining a ton of water. My face got so bloated. My arms just kept getting bigger and bigger,” he says, not boasting but as a matter of fact. “I barely recognized myself!” Sara and others barely recognized him, too.

“It was a big transition,” says Sara. “I like his physique now, but it took getting used to.” Ryan had looked “emaciated” since they first met after the Foot Locker West Regionals outside L.A., senior year of high school, at 17. But now his body was completely different. “We were in an elevator and this guy walks in who’d known Ryan for years. He was like, ‘Hey, Sara. How’s Ryan doing?’ And I was like: ‘He’s standing right here!’”

In his old life, Ryan was long and leggy, with the kind of natty, sun-bleached blonde mop you’d expect on a kid who grew up in Southern California. Clean-shaven with concave cheeks, he had a boyish, Oliver Twist look about him. He used to gallop the streets with the speed and light and grace of a gazelle. Now, bearded and buff, he spends one to two hours a day working out in his garage. He hoists and huffs, presses and puffs. Veins pop from his neck. Pecs bulge beneath his T-shirt. “Happy Birthday Hulk!” one of his 65,000 Instagram followers commented, with a biceps emoji, beneath a chronological series Ryan posted of bare-chested, six-packed, painstakingly sculpted selfies. A virtual flipbook of his physical transformation over the past five years.

Unlike most of social media, though, it doesn’t come off as a gross display of vanity. Ryan isn’t saying, “Hey, look at my body!” He’s saying: Hey, look at the body. Look at what the human body can do.

As a runner, Ryan used to hate lifting weights. And as a typical baseball- and basketball-obsessed kid, he hated running. Until, at 13, gazing out the car window at Big Bear Lake, God urged him to run around it. And so, a boy of faith, who’d never run more than one dreaded mile in PE class, he begged his dad—and ran 15 miles. From then on he never stopped running, racking up four state championships, a track scholarship to Stanford, and two Olympic teams. Until, at 33, tired of injuries and low testosterone, and just plain tired, he rather abruptly did.

In their old life, before kids, Sara and Ryan traveled the globe to training camps and races with nothing but each other and their Asics. (The company has sponsored the couple since they both graduated from Stanford and turned pro.) In their old life, they concentrated day-in, day-out—like all elite athletes have to—on themselves. In their old life, whenever they were not running, they were in “energy conservation mode,” says Sara. Expending as little energy as possible: literally lying on their couch, watching movies, reading books. The antithesis of parenting, essentially. “With kids, you can’t live that way,” says Sara. “You’re constantly doing things and sensing things and listening to them talk for hours about Harry Potter.”

And talking to them for hours, too—about Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In May, when Floyd was murdered by a white cop in Minneapolis, the world erupted, and the Halls awoke. “Coming from Ethiopia, the girls had never seen themselves as Black before,” says Sara. They didn’t know about racism, let alone systemic racism. Arbery’s murder was especially disturbing, and confounding, for the girls. Why was a man shot and killed while he was just out running? “Suddenly, they were learning what it means to be Black in America. It was new to them. It was new to us,” says Sara. “The family spent the summer having hard, deep discussions. “I had to tell the girls, ‘This country I brought you to, that you’d idolized in your minds as this idyllic place…is not.’”

Photo credit: Jesse Rieser
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser

Motherhood takes up mental space formerly fully reserved for running. That is not necessarily a bad thing, says Sara. “I’m not sitting around overthinking running,” she says. It doesn’t mean she’s leading a balanced life. She wishes she had extra energy to go on a hike with the girls. Or kick around the soccer ball without worrying about getting injured, she says. “When you’re trying to be the best in the world at something, your life is never going to be balanced.”

Being a mom motivates her as a runner, she explains. It has made her value, even approach races differently. “I think: I really fought to create the time and space in my life for this opportunity. I’m going to take advantage of it.”

Ryan, too, has turned his formerly laser self-focus on his daughters, of course. Driving them to the dentist, helping with homeschooling, coaching Hana and Mia, the two eldest, during the pandemic, before team practices resumed. He also personally coaches a dozen or so amateur athletes through Run Free, the online holistic coaching company he cofounded in 2018 with his friend Jay Stephenson. Ryan and Sara have worked on behalf of millions of women and children living in extreme poverty in Ethiopia through the Hall STEPS Foundation, the development organization they established in 2009, most recently raising $50,000 to fund a home for homeless girls in Addis Ababa.

But Ryan’s attention these days is, most acutely, on Sara. Riding a bike beside her as she runs, he watches her every move: How is her breathing? How is her form? Her pace? Her knee drive?

When he was a pro athlete, Ryan never wanted to be a coach. “It always just seemed like what all pro athletes do after they stop competing.” He aspired to no part of that cliché. But soon after retiring in 2016, he received a cold email from a runner in New York City looking for a coach. David Roeske, a fellow Stanford grad, had always admired Ryan’s “gutsy” approach to racing from afar. Recently back from climbing Everest without oxygen, Roeske’s body was wrecked. He hoped to PR in the upcoming NYC marathon that November. He also wanted to PR in the Fifth Avenue Mile, and win or PR the Empire State Building Run-Up, where he’d placed eighth in the past. “I thought Ryan might understand my weird set of goals.”

He did. Ryan took him on. For no other reason, really, then, well, what else was he doing? Plus, Ryan says, “he sounded like a cool guy.” Within a few months, Roeske accomplished several goals, if not those, including cutting his fastest marathon time from 2:37 to 2:34. Ryan told him, ‘Run the first 20 miles with your head, and the last six with your heart,’ Roeske recalls. “As I ran those last six miles I kept repeating, ‘With your heart! With your heart!’ as a mantra, and it fueled me through the finish.”

Photo credit: Jesse Rieser
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser

Ryan and Sara realized he should coach her, too. “It just made sense,” they both say, in separate conversations, like melded couples do. “You want your coach to know everything about you. How you sleep, how you eat, what makes you tick,” explains Sara. Ryan, obviously, knew it all. “He’s always been that person for me, even when he wasn’t my coach.”

Ryan and Sara, both devout Christians, bond over the Bible and statistics. Their lives are steeped in both scripture and the stopwatch. Luke 1:37. Sara 2:20.

Sara says she’s often felt misunderstood by her past coaches. She likes to experiment with her workouts and training. Ryan gets that. “We have a mutual trust. He trusts that I’m in tune with my body,” she says. “That’s allowed me to be more aggressive in my training than a coach would normally be.” Which means: Ryan lets her do crazy, unconventional things professional runners don’t typically do. Like, say, take relatively few rest days and run back-to-back marathons.

“Ryan’s goals are Sara’s goals, and Sara’s goals are Ryan’s goals,” as elite runner Rachel Johnson, 27, puts it. The fellow Christian athlete moved to Flagstaff in 2018 for its “skinny air” and the opportunity to train with Ryan Hall. His was a name she’d first heard from reading magazines like Runner’s World, back when she was a high school track star in Plano, Texas.

Photo credit: Jesse Rieser
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser

After just two phone calls with Ryan, she was sold. “I was like, I’m going to Flagstaff!” She could just tell: “He’d put everything into running himself. It was clear he was going to put everything into coaching, too.” He did. Johnson set several PRs and represented Team USA at the Great Stirling XCountry International Challenge 2019 in Scotland. “He’s made me a better runner,” she says. As well as a dedicated coach herself. In 2019, she moved to Virginia to coach cross-country at Liberty University; she also works for Run Free as a virtual trainer. She often hears herself sharing what she’s learned from Ryan with her own athletes. “He talks a lot about heart goals,” she says, “about how everyone has time goals, but you also need a heart goal.” To run a race with joy, perhaps; or to run without comparing yourself to others. “You may not achieve your time goal, but you can still feel good about achieving your heart goal,” says Johnson. “And you usually end up running way better than if you didn’t have a heart goal in the first place.”

Goals—time goals, heart goals—are what drive all the Halls. You can’t be a Hall (or for that matter, human, really) without them.

Back in 2019, plagued by injuries, Sara started writing her goals on the bathroom mirror, in erasable marker. 2020 Olympics… 68 half ... 2:22... It helps focus her attention, she says. She likes how it shows her girls how you go after goals, how to tangibly put them front and center. After failing to make the Olympic team in February, she came home and immediately wiped off “Olympic marathon trial champion” and replaced it with “America record holder.” It was her way of moving on, of looking forward.

There’s very little room left on the mirror. “Can I have some space to look at my face?” Ryan joked not long ago, then squeezed one in: 200 pounds, he scrawled. “That one was clearly his,” Sara laughs.

Achieved. Ryan recently indeed tipped the scale over two hundred. It was a “soft 200, though,” he says. He wants “a lean and cut” 200—muscle, not fat. Bulking up is not as fun as it sounds, he says. But bench-pressing 325, deadlifting 510, and squatting 470 and counting is. The other day he came across some dude on Instagram, from San Diego, who deadlifted 500 pounds then dropped it and immediately ran a 4:49 mile, a world record. It’s a rather niche record relative to the kind Ryan used to shatter, but still: He plans to beat it.

Maybe it’s Ryan’s easygoing yet self-assured tone, or his seemingly innate sincerity, or his guiding belief in God—or just the credibility that comes with super-heroic athleticism. But what in another messenger might be construed as self-help BS comes off as inspirational. “Anyone can be good at something,” he says, invoking wisdom gleaned from his father, who coached him as a kid. “But if you want to be great at something, it’s about finding what you’re made to do, and doing that.”

And Sara, it seems, is made to run. After taking some time off after her Olympic trials heartbreak, she got back in her Asics. And Ryan got back on his bike, pedaling alongside her, shouting “Put yourself there!” and “There is more there!” and “Make it feel easy!”—and, as her tempos and times continued to improve: “New normal!” (As in: this—this!—is your new normal.) In June, she ran a half marathon on the treadmill at her chiropractor’s office, setting a treadmill world record at 1:09:03. In August, in a solo time trial, she ran 13.1 miles along a bike path in Eugene, Oregon, in 1:08:18, a personal record—and beating her mirror goal.

Photo credit: Jesse Rieser
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser

It was just the boost Sara needed going into October’s London Marathon, a windy, rainy, pandemic-style bubble production. It was to be run by some 40 COVID-tested elite men and women, on a 1.3-mile loop, without spectators. Unless you count the cardboard cutouts of Queen Elizabeth and Prince William, complete with thumbs-ups, lining the course.

The first 13.1 was tough. “I was running alone in the silence,” says Sara. Which is not how Sara likes to run. She took it one lap at a time, spending most of the first half somewhere in the middle of the pack. Because of the loop route, she passed Ryan every six minutes or so. He was going crazy. “I was like a caged animal!” he says. “I had all this energy and nowhere to go. I’d see her come around and start screaming super loud.” Soon, Sara started to catch people, including Ethiopia’s Ashete Bekere, winner of the 2019 Berlin. As she moved from ninth place into fifth, then fourth… the switch was flipped. “I wanted the podium,” she says. Heading into the final lap, she found herself in third.

Watching her pain and effort and superhuman humanity, it was as if she had channeled not just all her training but all she’d been through, all we’ve all been through, all year. “I wanted to do something inspirational in London,” she says. She did.

Sara killed it, coming in second and completing the 26.2 miles in 2:22:01, the fastest of her career by 15 seconds, at age 37. Her kick-finish—a surge of the very best kind—blazing past Kenya’s Ruth Chepng’etich, 2019 marathon world champion, brought her, and Ryan, their daughters watching on TV, and people everywhere, runners and not, who happened to see the clip come across Twitter, to tears.

She came home to Flagstaff to flowers and chocolates that the girls had gone out and bought with their own money.

Photo credit: Jesse Rieser
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser

In late December, a mere 11 weeks after London, Sara wowed the world again at the Marathon Project: running circles around the three dozen competitors and mostly spectatorless 4.263-mile loop, finishing first with yet another personal 26.2 mile best: 2:20:32 — on the heels of Deena Kastor’s 14-year-strong 2:19:36.

And yet, Sara’s mirror doesn’t lie: “American record holder”—and breaking 2:20—had been her goal. Crossing the finish line, “the prevailing emotion I had was just disappointment,” she says. Though for the rest of us mortals watching, it was anything but. Instead, we saw a woman rise up, from the biggest blow of her career, during a goddamn pandemic to, once again kick butt, and become the second-fastest female marathoner in America.

People age. People change. Most people do it at a slow, steady clip. Not the Halls. Clearly, they move at a different pace. Over the past five years, all six have undergone transformations of epic proportions. Not to mention the fact that under Ryan’s tutelage, Sara, just keeps getting faster, it seems.

In 2015, back in Ethiopia, the girls were prohibited from leaving the orphanage. But the eldest, Hana, had always wanted to be a runner, like the elite women runners of her birth country, and then, of course, like her adopted mom. Three years later, as a junior at Flagstaff High, she became the third Hall to win a state cross-country championship. (And win again.) In November, Mia, still a sophomore, became the fourth state champ in the family. “She took it from a minute in and never looked back,” Sara posted on Instagram, to her 133,000 followers.

Watching their daughters quite literally follow in their footsteps fills Sara and Ryan with immense joy. But so does watching the girls work hard in school. And master the English language after knowing not a lick of it. And rap every single word of “Hamilton” while playing on the banks of Colorado’s Slate River during a family vacation. Hana attends Grand Canyon University with a track scholarship. She’ll compete on the Division 1 squad, pandemic permitting. Mia is chasing PRs in the mile and 2-mile. When Jasmine grows up, she wants to be a Hollywood actress, but in the meantime she has joined the soccer team. Lily, age 10, wants to be a scientist.

Photo credit: Jesse Rieser
Photo credit: Jesse Rieser

“I just hope to show our girls what it looks like to come alive,” says Sara. “The world needs more people doing things they love.” Or as Ryan put it: people doing what they’re made to do.

Was he made to be a runner or a coach? “I was made to do both,” he says. “I think this is a common life experience, where one's first life purpose is primarily ego driven. It's about an individual trying to maximize their own potential, which gives way to a second purpose that is ‘other driven,’ where the goal is to help others maximize their own potential.” There is nothing wrong or better about one stage compared to the other, he adds. “They are both necessary and good.”

Helping others, as it happens, requires Ryan to do something he’d never done much of before: sitting. At his computer: at 5 a.m., writing his first book, Run the Mile You’re In: Finding God in Every Step, a religious-running memoir published in 2019. Typing up personalized workout programs for the dozen or so runners he trains virtually through Run Free. Sequestering himself in his garage, recording the weekly companion podcast, on which he chats effortlessly and honestly with guests like his younger brother Chad about booze and body image; with fellow runners Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Webb, about their high-school heyday when they were dubbed “the big three”; and occasionally with his wife, about training and breakthroughs and his famous high-protein pancakes. He has also sat on his couch watching The 41st Day, the new documentary about his career, from first-time filmmaker Tim Jeffreys. Three times.

“It was hard to watch,” he admits. “I felt like I was just watching a lot of failures, my failures, being played out on the big screen.” The pulled hamstrings and plantar fasciitis, the low testosterone levels, the fatigue that plagued his final years—years he practiced “faith-based coaching.” God was his coach. But even God couldn’t save him from the biggest failure of his career: his 11th mile walk-off and DNF at the 2012 London Olympics.

“I’d so clearly missed what God was telling me,” he recalls. In the months, leading up to the games, he’d had a vision. God had told him about a golden puzzle, which, of course, Ryan interpreted to mean a gold medal. Who wouldn’t?

It wasn’t until his third time watching the documentary—the final scene with Sara and their newly adopted girls—that it all came together. “I had this aha moment,” he says. A healing moment. “Wait a second…God never said it was a gold medal, he just showed me a golden puzzle, put together.” The golden puzzle, he realized, was his family, two families brought together into one.

Ryan may have symbolically—and literally—left his sneakers at the finish line in Sydney, after completing the World Marathon Challenge in 2017, a mind- (and body)-boggling seven marathons on seven continents in seven days, but as a husband and a coach and a father, he runs on. Through Sara who’s not slowing down; through Hana and Mia, who are just getting started; through David Roeske and Rachel Johnson and all the athletes who Run Free.

“Running isn’t meant to last forever,” he says, almost shrugging through the phone. “That’s what makes running special. That’s what makes life special.”

Still, don’t most runners want to run until we can’t? Doesn’t every runner but Ryan dread the day our bodies tell us to hang it up? I ask Ryan: Does watching Sara run—watching her arms pump and her chin lift and her legs churn in long, strong strides, in the prime of her career, vying for a 67-minute half marathon in February, and poised for her seventh Olympic trials, in June, and a second stab at the Tokyo Olympics—ever make you jealous?

He pauses for less than the three seconds that gave way to his famous sub-2:05. Maybe it’s their faith in God, or their faith in each other, or their faith in training—but envy is wholly absent from their relationship. He cites a Biblical verse (Mark 10:9) as a way to describe their marriage: “And the two will become one flesh.”

Sara’s hopes for 2021 are concrete, clearly spelled out, right in front of her face as she stares into it every morning. What about Ryan’s? Apart from breaking the scale, I ask him what everyone asks themselves, in their own way, in the final days of December. “What are your goals for the year ahead?”

At first, it seems as if he misinterpreted the word your—until I realized: no, I did. “Aw, man, there’s so much more there,” he says. “We still don’t know how fast Sara can go. I want her to finish her career knowing.”

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