Benefield: USA marathon champ Sara Hall defies convention

This is not how it’s supposed to be done.

Elite marathoners are not supposed to race major events less than six weeks apart. Runners are not supposed to shine at such disparate distances. Mothers of four children are not supposed to be at the top of their athletic game.

Don’t tell any of this to Sara (Bei) Hall, the new USA Track and Field national champion in the marathon. With her win Sunday in the 35th annual California International Marathon in Sacramento in a time of 2:28:10, Hall became the first American to win national road running titles in both the mile, which she won in 2011, and the marathon.

The marathon crown comes in her final event of 2017 and marks a fall season of racing that is nothing short of phenomenal. But for a coach who saw what she was made of early on, this stretch of success ?is not surprising.

Joe Walsh, who coached and taught at Slater Middle School for 32 years, knew he had a talent in Hall, who was then a seventh grader named Sara Bei.

Hall’s versatility - and her incredible drive - were apparent when she was 12, Walsh said.

The coach lined Hall up in the 800 meters and the mile, after which he handed her the baton, running anchor no less, for the 4 x 100 sprint. She barely had time to take a breath between events.

“I knew she had the drive that wherever she got the baton, she would take care of business,” he said.

In cross country, Walsh remembers Hall lining up to race against a nationally ranked junior. He didn’t tell her how fast the other girl was because he didn’t want her to feel added pressure.

But the tight race triggered something in Hall. Even a mismarked course that put her behind her competitor didn’t deter her, Walsh said.

“That’s when I knew she was driven,” he said. “She had an excuse to lose really, but she didn’t think twice about it. The rest was history.”

Today Hall, 34, is continuing to make history. The second half of 2017 points to a runner whose already sparkling career is far from over.

On Sept. 4, Hall, a Montgomery High grad and seven time All-American at Stanford, ran a personal record of 67:53 to finish third in the U.S. 20k Championship. On Sept. 17, she ran another PR of 69:37, this time at the Copenhagen Half Marathon where she finished 10th. On Oct. 1, she won the U.S. 10 Mile Championship with a time of 54:30.

On Oct. 29, Hall ran a personal best of 2:27:21 in the Frankfurt Marathon to finish fifth. Now, five weeks later, she ran the second fastest time of her life to become the new national champ. She just missed the course record while running the entire race alone. No other female competitors were even close.

Hall’s times in Frankfurt and Sacramento are the eighth and ninth fastest marathons by an American woman this year. And they are the two fastest of her life - posted back to back - and an unheard of five weeks apart.

And it was just last July that Hall was in the Olympic trials, competing in the 5,000-meter race.

She was a high school All-American, a collegiate All-American, won a gold at the 2011 Pan American Games in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and was the 2012 national cross country champion.

Her versatility and resilience are astounding. But it seems like the marathon is her future. She’s eyeing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as the biggies: New York, Boston, Berlin and Chicago.

For a runner with a resume like Hall’s, it’s hard to narrow down the greatest performances of her career, but this stretch of success this fall certainly has to be high on the list. And she says she’s having the most fun she’s ever had in competition.

“It’s definitely fun to win,” she said.

For Hall, it’s less about bragging rights than affirmation that her journey, although unique, is the right path for her.

“I feel like my career has taken a lot of different paths,” she said.

And that, at times, has led to doubts. But her recent run of success, and doing it on her terms, has fostered a sense of confidence that, though unique, her way is working for her.

“In my mind, I flash back to times that you are thinking you aren’t even good at this sport,” she said. “It makes you realize that, wow, when you hear those voices, don’t believe those voices.”

Hall is now being coached by her husband, Ryan Hall, U.S. record holder in the half and full marathon. Ryan Hall retired in 2016.

But even Ryan Hall wonders a bit at Sara’s race schedule. When she said she wanted to run both the Frankfurt and Sacramento races, coach raised his eyebrows, Sara Hall said.

“He wasn’t really a fan of the idea originally,” she said. “No one really does that at the elite level, running so close together.”

Apparently Hall does. And it’s bringing her incredible success. She acknowledges her formula runs “counter to American elite running culture.”

Hall regularly trains for long stretches in Africa. In 2015, she and Ryan adopted four girls from Ethiopia and the family spends extended time there. She has watched and learned from her African counterparts.

“I think that has helped me have an open mind in my career,” she said.

And Hall is no longer worried about toeing the line in a race and having things not go well. She says racing is an opportunity to learn every time out – especially in a race like the marathon in which an athlete doesn’t get a ton of chances because the event is so grueling.

“It took a lot of failure to realize, ‘OK, this isn’t going to kill me to fail,’” she said.

And it sure helps that her ability to race and recover quickly is becoming near legendary in racing circles.

“I don’t really make decisions on fear that much,” she said. “I have had few injuries, so I don’t fear getting injured.”

So Hall races when her body tells her it is ready. She calls it more art than science.

“I think there is a freedom in not taking myself too seriously,” she said.

And there is some freedom in the distance of the marathon. Hall said 26.2 miles is a long time for things to go wrong, but it’s also long enough that there’s room to fix things mid-race.

And there is something else about road racing. The crowds. She can see people, can hear what they are saying.

“I think that is what’s fun about the marathon, you are not as focused as on the track,” she said.

And so it was, that at mile 25 on Sunday, Hall spied her old coach and his wife on the side of the road. Walsh has been “a constant pillar of support in my life,” and a guy who “fanned into flame my love of running.”

“I distinctly remember seeing him,” she said.

I asked Walsh about that moment, watching Hall race by, on her way to yet another national championship, running at the top of her game at 34 years old.

“We both cried,” he said of he and his wife.

“We just wanted her to hear us rooting for her,” he said. “You just want to be a fan.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 and at Kerry.benefield, on Twitter @benefield and Instagram @kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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