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Benefield: Sara Hall calls gutsy London Marathon finish the highlight of her career

Twenty-six and two-tenths miles is a long way to run. And it’s a heckuva long way to run alone, in the cold wind and intermittent rain and hail, in what must have felt like endless loops, without so much as a single spectator to root racers on.

But 2001 Montgomery High grad Sara Hall was over the moon to be there. And for Hall to emerge from a stacked field (featuring the current marathon world record holder, as well as the 2019 marathon world champion) to take second place and set a new personal best at the London Marathon last week was astounding.

It wasn’t the finishing time of 2:22:01, really, that seemed to capture people’s emotions on this one ― it was the finish. And it was all that came before.

After running alone with not a single other competitor in sight for more than two-thirds of Sunday’s race, Hall found a way to pass runners one by one in the latter stages and fight her way up to the leaders in the closing miles. After picking off 2019 Berlin Marathon champ Ashete Bekere at the 24-mile mark, Hall had secured third place and a spot on the coveted podium with just two one-mile laps to go.

But she wasn’t finished. With a little over a mile to go, she was still behind the second-place runner by a pretty healthy 40 seconds. That runner? Twenty-six-year-old Ruth Chepngetich, the 2019 marathon world champion and owner of the fourth-fastest marathon time ever.

That gap was described by race announcers as an impossible one to bridge. One running website, in fact, posted video of the winner and current world record holder Brigid Kosgei crossing the line, noted the yawning distance between Chepngetich and Hall, and decided to log off. Their final report had Hall finishing third.

For a brief moment, so did Hall. With just a one-mile lap to go, Hall heard her husband and coach Ryan Hall call out from the coaches’ box the time gap between her and Chepngetich. Her heart sank.

“That was actually discouraging to hear him say that,” Hall said. “But I just chose to believe I could catch her.”

With 400 meters to go, she caught sight of Chepngetich on the final straightaway and that was seemingly all she needed.

“I started willing my body with everything I had to go forward,” she said. “I could tell I was gaining, but I would need every inch of distance to get to her.”

And she didn’t know how Chepngetich would respond when she passed. So Hall didn’t just pass Chepngetich; she flew by her.

In a clip repeated tens of thousands of times on race recaps, Hall sprinted to the line with a look of pure agony on her face. No cheering, no fans ― it was barely even daylight.

But it was redemption.

With that move and that race, Hall set her personal marathon best of 2:22:01, becoming the sixth-fastest all-time U.S. women’s marathoner and the first American, man or woman, to stand on the podium at the London Marathon since Deena Kastor did it in 2006.

But that is not what Hall talks about when she recounts the race, calling it redemption for all that came before, or, in the post-race tent, what made her put her face into her hands and just cry.

“It was just kind of tears of feeling so grateful,” she said. “You feel the weight of all the disappointment and all the things you fought through to get there, and then to have it be a dream?”

Let us remember that it was just last February when Hall came into the Olympic marathon trials in prime shape and with the second-fastest qualifying time in a stacked field. She was a prerace favorite to make her first Olympic team at 36. Then she dropped out of the race after 22 miles.

“That was really heartbreaking. I put a lot into it,” she said. ”I felt like everything in my career had been leading up to the Olympic trials. I felt like it was hard, but I felt like I had what it took.

“I love the roads and I love the marathon,” she said. “I kind of put all my eggs in that basket.”

And when she tried to shake it off and aim for the Olympic track trials in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, those were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Suddenly there were no races to help wash the bitter taste from her mouth or help her process the heartbreak. Like everyone else, Hall was stuck running alone with no true race to target, parenting her four daughters from home, and worrying and wondering when the world would right itself.

A devout Christian, Hall turned to her faith and she turned to her mentors.

“Just my faith in general and I had to reach out at times to mentors to really work through the disappointment and just having the kids home all time, relational issues. When you are just in not your best place mentally and emotionally, it kind of manifests in a lot of places in your life,” she said.

She may have stopped racing but she never stopped training. She ran the fastest half-marathon of her life, alone (barring a couple of pacers) in the woods in Oregon in August in the uniquely staged, socially distanced Row River Half Marathon. Her 1:08:18 was a personal best by 40 seconds and the sixth-fastest American time ever.

So when London called and said they were staging a meticulously crafted, socially distanced, live-in-a-prerace-bubble marathon, Hall was in.

She and her husband wore trackers that blinked if they got too close or were in the proximity of others for too long. She did prerace runs that never left the grassy grounds of the event hotel, and she prepped for a race with no fans that would be staged in a massive, contained loop around St. James’s Park.

And then the race started and every tactical thing that could go wrong did go wrong. It was dark, cold and raining, for one thing. The pack went out exceedingly fast, for another. And a pacer who was meant to keep time for a 2:18 finish blew up and fell back ― at mile four.

Hall was suddenly alone in the race, with nary a soul to run with for miles.

“It was pretty much the worst-case scenario for me,” she said. “I was running alone, there are no spectators and it was a mile loop. The marathon is a really long race and to do it in a mile loop makes it feel longer.”

On one stretch, it was so solitary that she could hear her own footfalls echoing from the wet pavement and off the nearby walls and became convinced someone was on racing on her heels.

“There were definitely moments where I would start to feel a little bit of self pity or feel discouraged and in those moments I really tried to focus on gratitude: ‘I’m so lucky to race, I love to race,’” she said.

In the days since what has been dubbed “the race of her life,” the seven-time All-American at Stanford said she’s gotten messages and calls telling her that her run ― and that gutsy finish ― brought people joy. And maybe even hope.

“For everyone, it’s been hard across the board,” she said of the pandemic. “They were saying how this moment has helped them during a hard year. That was really my hope. It feels really special to have that opportunity ― to have preparation meet opportunity here.”

And after enduring the most bitter disappointment in her career at the Olympic trials, followed by the unprecedented state of the world and the racing calendar in the months since, Hall calls her London finish the highlight of her career.

“There has been so much disappointment in my career at times,” she said. “So this moment took a lot of choosing to pick myself back up and figuring out, for a long period of time, how to move forward from that disappointment.

“To be resilient and persist, to get to have that moment, was redemptive,” she said.

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

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