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Benefield: Sara Hall stays on course for Olympics after dropping out of NYC Marathon

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The New York City Marathon did not go as planned for Sara Hall.

Brimming with confidence after a spectacular 2019 so far that saw her post the sixth-fastest marathon time for any American woman ever, Hall, 36, flew her four daughters with husband and two-time Olympian Ryan Hall to New York to see her race Sunday on one of the grandest stages in the sport.

“I have only dropped out of three races in my whole life. They have been at two of them, which is crazy,” Hall said of her two eldest daughters, Hana, 19, and Mia, 15.

Hall, a 2001 Montgomery grad who went on to be a seven-time All-American at Stanford, was among the pre-race favorites.

She was just five weeks removed from a massive personal best at the Berlin Marathon, running to a fifth-place finish in 2:22:16 that put her front and center among favorites to make the 2020 U.S. Olympic squad for the marathon.

The Olympic Trials in Atlanta in February have always been the target. A super fast time at Berlin was a goal and a competitive performance on New York’s hilly course — similar to what runners can expect in Atlanta — was the next box to tick.

So her daughters traveled to New York. The two eldest daughters were on the course, somewhere in East Harlem with their dad, when Sara Hall made the rare call to pack it in.

An upset stomach from the previous day had left her feeling less than her best. She felt well enough to start, but not well enough to finish. She posted on social media that she felt “weak & wobbly” on the course.

With the Olympic Trials four months away in February and with nothing else to prove in 2019, she let go. Somewhere just after mile 18, she stopped.

“It was back and forth,” she said of the conversation she was having with herself as she ran low five-minute splits on national television. “There were moments when I was like, ‘This is not how I felt in Berlin at this point. I don’t feel like my normal, strong self.’ But then we were still running at this pace, I’m still at this pace.”

But it started to feel like a hole she was digging. And frankly, the New York City Marathon is not the end game. The Olympic Trials are.

There was solace in the fact that Hall could pinpoint the source of her woe that day. Her stomach had been off since the day prior and it never fully came around. She was left feeling weak. It wasn’t a mystery she had to unravel about what had happened.

“There are reasons the race didn’t go well,” she said. “I am able to see it for what it was, adjust and move on.”

Hall has the tools to move on. She has more race-day experience than your average bear. Her relentless racing schedule is not the norm, even among the most aggressive pros. She and Ryan Hall have described her training and racing regimen as high risk, high reward.

In 2019, she raced three marathons, two half marathons and five races between seven miles and 25K. It’s not just her race calendar that garners attention among run watchers. Her training schedule is also legendary. If she’s running that far and that fast in the hills around her home in Flagstaff, Arizona, she might as well toe the line at a race, right?

A shift in attitude has also helped Hall take on more races than typical. She doesn’t need to win. She doesn’t need to feel perfect when the gun goes off. What she does need to do, she said in Ryan Hall’s most recent episode of his Run Free podcast, is show up.

“If you don’t show up, you don’t know,” she said. “You can’t just wait. If you wait all the time for everything to be perfect, there’s not really any courage in that.”

Less than two weeks after she crushed her personal best in Berlin, she raced — and won — the U.S. 10-mile championship in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. It’s a rhythm that is working. She is getting faster.

Hall also credits some of her most recent success to her growing ability to let go — of other’s expectations, of her own, of the natural tendency to tie who she is to what she does.

“I had experienced so much success early in my career, it was really hard to experience failure,” she said. “Your body is not always a machine.

“Running is something I do and it’s my passion and I’m doing it for the joy,” she said. “My identity is not on the line. I am not trying to win praise or approval.”

But that resolve can be brutally tested when you drop from a massive race on one of the sport’s biggest stages. And the painful irony is that because Hall has had such a standout year, people were indeed watching her more closely on the streets of New York. She is a big name on a big stage.

Just after the race, Hall told Runners World magazine that it would take her some time to rebound from the result. When I talked to her Tuesday, it sounded as if that process was already underway. And part of that process was having her daughters on hand to witness, yes, her disappointment but also her ability to cope.

“They see me go through failures like New York and pick myself back up and have setbacks and be courageous,” she said. “I’m seeing that play out in their life. They have internalized a lot of those character traits that you can get from running.”

On Wednesday, Hall posted a picture of Hana and Mia just after they qualified for the Arizona state cross country championships, running for Flagstaff High.

Being a mother — she and Ryan adopted four sisters from Ethopia in 2015 — has changed just about every aspect of Hall’s life, including her running.

“Motherhood is not performance enhancing,” she said, letting out a slight chuckle.

But it is paradigm shifting.

“When I didn’t have kids, I could really give more focus and just do things, be more mobile,” she said. “Everything about your day can revolve around your training.”

Now she and Ryan have four school-day schedules, four homework loads, and yes, four sports and activities calendars to maintain.

That almost selfish hyper-focus a professional athlete can have, or needs to have, to truly excel? Motherhood makes that nearly impossible.

“There isn’t as much time to myself,” she said.

But what do kids give her career? Perspective.

“I feel like I have more meaning to my running,” she said.

She knows people are watching what she does, how she races and how she goes about her business. Not just race fans, but her kids. So she tries to put her best foot forward — to model work ethic and perseverance, she said.

When Hall returned from Berlin, the girls had written “Done!” next to the note on her mirror on which she had inked her marathon-time goal of 2:22. New York didn’t provide those kinds of celebrations. But it did provide valuable lessons and a real-life example in real time of how to fall and get back up.

Hall doesn’t teach her daughters that things will always be easy or that they won’t ever fail. But she does try to show them what it looks like to keep getting after it.

“They also know there is another race around the corner.”

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

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