REDDING — Sprinting seven miles down a 9,000-foot mountain and then running back up to do it again may not appeal to even the most self-punishing of athletes, but Ryan Hall believes it is the kind of “experimental workout” that transformed him into the fastest American distance runner in history.
It is also the kind of extreme training that is now driving him to abruptly retire, two decades into an audacious career that produced national milestones — his time of 2 hours, 4 minutes, 58 seconds at the 2011 Boston Marathon is by far the fastest for an American runner — but never a victory in a major race.
Hall, 33, who was one of the last remaining hopes for an American frontrunner in this summer’s Olympic marathon, is succumbing to chronically low testosterone levels and fatigue so extreme, he says, that he can barely log 12 easy miles a week.
“Up to this point, I always believed my best races were still ahead of me,” said Hall, who has faced a series of physical setbacks since the 2012 London Olympics. “I’ve explored every issue to get back to the level I’ve been at, and my body is not responding. I realized that it was time to stop striving, to finally be satisfied and decide, ‘Mission accomplished.’ ”
Testosterone is vital for optimum athletic performance, but that hormone’s levels can drop over time with extreme training, similar to how some female runners or gymnasts experience decreased estrogen levels. Hall, who at 5 feet 10 inches kept his weight consistently at a spry 130 to 140 pounds, said he learned of his low testosterone levels when he turned professional after college, and initially managed to hit top times nonetheless.
Supplemental testosterone is a banned substance, but Hall would be eligible for a medical waiver if he wanted to try to boost his levels. He said he had decided against that because of potential side effects (including dependency and infertility) and ethical concerns (some athletes use testosterone illicitly as a performance-enhancing drug). Natural remedies like the altering of his diet and lifting weights have not restored his strength, he said.
“As an elite athlete, when you get a bummer diagnosis about your physiological limits, you have two choices,” said Lauren Fleshman, Hall’s teammate when they were college track champions at Stanford. “You can adapt your approach or forge ahead as usual, hoping this time the giant chink in your armor gets missed by all the swords.”
Hall has generally forged ahead, aggressively, keeping his weekly mileage steadily above 100 miles and constantly pushing the boundaries of sustainability.
In retiring, he leaves behind an American track and field establishment in tatters from allegations of widespread doping and internecine politics. There is a dearth of emerging talent. The top contender heading into the U.S. Olympic marathon trials is Meb Keflezighi, who is 40.
It is a striking contrast to 2001, when Hall was at the fore of a promising crop of high school runners, including Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Webb, whose sub-four-minute-mile record in high school still holds. They were heralded as the future of American distance running.
“The three of them changed Americans’ expectations for our capacity to compete at the highest level of sport,” said Mary Wittenberg, the chief executive of Virgin Sport and former race director of the New York City Marathon. “Their rise coincided with the groundswell of interest in cross country and track that resulted from the explosion of the Internet and the first class of high schoolers that could really watch each other online, and not have to wait till results were in print. Kids across the country were talking about these guys; they wanted to be them.”