Thwarted again at Olympic trials, Sara Hall is down but not out

Though Hall finished sixth at the Olympic trials over the weekend, another push at age 41 isn’t out of the question, Kerry Benefield writes.|

In the opening scenes of the broadcast of the women’s 10,000-meter race at the Olympic trials on Saturday, you couldn’t see her.

The commentators, grappling with an unprecedented 41 runners who were set to race in one heat in the blistering temperatures on the University of Oregon track, were not talking about her.

But when the gun went off, you couldn’t miss Sara Hall.

And you couldn’t ignore her: Blue top, pink shoes and a face that always seems to betray slightly more pain than her competitors. Hall, a 2001 Montgomery High graduate, forced herself into the conversation.

In the lead pack from the start, race commentators began telling Hall stories near the 6-minute mark of the 25-lap race. They even showed a picture from social media of her husband, retired super runner Ryan Hall, driving around Eugene in a U-Haul truck — proof that nary a rental car could be found during trials week.

“She’s one of the most versatile athletes,” announcer Kara Goucher said of Hall. “She is just a jack-of-all-trades.”

Goucher was not kidding. In her 17-year quest to become an Olympian, Hall has raced the 5,000-meters twice, the 1,500-meters, the steeplechase and two marathon trials. Her best finish coming into Saturday’s race was ninth in the 2012 steeplechase.

But these Olympics looked to be Hall’s time. In February 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic took hold, Hall was a favorite to make the U.S. team in the marathon. She had the second-fastest qualifying time. But on the hilly Atlanta course, Hall dropped out after 22 miles.

And then the world shut down. Hall had no races to help erase that bitter disappointment. And she couldn’t reset her sights on the 10,000-meters after the track trials, and the games themselves were postponed.

But as the world started to slowly open up, she stunned the running world with her sprint finish in brutal conditions at the London marathon in October to move to sixth-fastest all-time U.S. women’s marathoner before doubling down on her track training.

It was working. Eleven weeks after London, she ran 1:29 faster at the Marathon Project in Arizona, moving to second-fastest ever by an American woman.

Two weeks before Saturday’s race, Hall won her second consecutive New York Mini 10K with the fastest American time in the event’s 49-year history.

In the press coverage leading up to the trials, the New York Times declared “Never count out Hall.” On June 17, Runner’s World magazine issued its “Bold Predictions for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.”

They led with Hall.

“There’s no cheering in the press room, but a burner account with my IP address will surely be tweeting in support of Sara Hall to take (Molly) Huddle’s assumed spot next to Emily Sisson and one of the Bowerman Babes on the American team bus in Tokyo,” Runner’s World's Derek Call wrote.

(As an aside, I only left in the phrase “Bowerman Babes” to honor the quote. Otherwise: Gross.)

Another great story line crumbled when Hall’s teammate on Montgomery’s history-making 2000 state championship cross country team, Kim Conley, scratched from the 10,000-meter race. Conley, a two-time Olympian, announced via Instagram that she was out, citing an unspecified injury.

In the end, Runner’s World was right about Sisson (she won in convincing fashion Saturday) as well as the Bowerman Track Club: Karissa Schweizer took second. University of Wisconsin alum Alicia Monson took third.

Hall, who was in the lead pack much of the race, fell back with about eight laps to run. She finished sixth.

“I had high hopes that I could make this team,” she told interviewers after the race. “I made all the right moves I needed to, I just didn’t have it.”

“It’s tough,” she said. “I thought I had a shot at this team, but at the same time, that’s my highest Olympic trials finish.”

In an Instagram post a day after the race, Hall wrote that in the time between her disappointing finish in the marathon trials and this race, she got COVID-19. She wrote that it “derailed my training for months … but there was something that wouldn’t let me give up on giving this track team a shot, despite how unlikely it seemed.”

It would be a mistake to call the this race Hall’s swan song. Yes, she came in sixth, off the back to make the team.

Yes, she has never made an Olympic squad despite seven attempts.

Yes, she is 38 years old, putting her at 41 the next time the Summer Olympics in Paris roll around.

But Hall has, arguably, never run better. And her versatility, going from marathon-length road races to much faster laps around the track, all while dealing with COVID-19, is mind-boggling.

“I really surprised myself with what my body was able to do at 38,” she said about transitioning back to the track after focusing on longer road races the past five years. “I didn’t know if I could get back in contention.”

The marathon honors age and experience. The oldest Olympic champ in the marathon was Constantina Dita, a Romanian runner who won gold in 2008 at 38. Hall has repeatedly said she loves racing the longer distances on the road. She announced Tuesday that she’ll race the Chicago Marathon in October.

“I’m excited about the future on the roads,” she said. “As disappointing as this is and as much as I wanted to be an Olympian, I have so much to look forward to in this sport and I’m really excited to keep going after it.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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