Tucked neatly between peaks of California’s San Bernardino Mountains is the quiet reservoir town of Big Bear Lake, population 5,500. It is a cozy ski resort town full of log-cabin charm, the kind of place that begs visitors to forget that the turbulence of Hollywood sits at its feet only 100 miles away.
It was in this quiet town that an Olympic quest began. U.S. marathon runner Ryan Hall was only 14 years old when he stared out at the lake through his parents’ car window and was filled with a vision—a vision to run. His school had no cross country team at the time, but he’d seen his dad do it before. He wanted to run the 15 miles around the lake. But it wasn’t as much a personal challenge as it was a calling—a prompting of the Holy Spirit. "Do this, Ryan," He seemed to say. "Do this for Me."
So Hall ran. He ran down Big Bear Boulevard, across the bridge, up the north shore trail through Fawnskin, over the dam on the west side and back home. And the course of his life forever changed.
What had been a typical adolescence of basketball, school and popularity gave way to a life of endurance, discipline and faith: faith that he could always go one more mile; faith that he could always go a second faster; faith that his Father would run with him every step of the way.
Now a decade after that first run around the lake, Hall has emerged as one of the most gifted endurance athletes the United States has ever produced. After a notable cross country career at Stanford University, Hall distanced himself from the elite running pack when he broke the American half marathon record in 2005 with a time of 59:43. Then, in just his first attempt at a full marathon, Hall stunned the running world by turning in the fastest debut marathon time ever by an American athlete (2:08:24) at the 2007 Flora London Marathon—an event that he repeated this April only to beat his previous time by more than two minutes.
But it was his second marathon that truly captured the attention of his country and endeared him as the future of U.S. distance racing. On November 3, 2007, Hall took to the streets of New York City for the Olympic Trials and not only won the race by more than two full minutes, but also broke the U.S. Olympic Trials record. With arms lifted in praise to God, he blazed across the finish line and into an 11-year-old dream of representing his God and his country in the Olympic Games.
The Bible makes an incredible number of references to the sport of running, paralleling it to the lives of believers and the journeys of exhaustion, pain and dedication all Christ-followers must experience.
Ryan Hall has a favorite: Isaiah 40:31. “...but those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.”
“That embodies how I feel out there running,” Hall said, as he reclined in his deck chair on a chilly 40-degree day in Big Bear earlier this year. “I feel like it’s the Lord running through me, and I feel like I’m under His wings—like He’s the One doing the work and I’m just catching a ride.”
The mature attitude Hall carries about running is one that has been earned through trial and error. It hasn’t always been an easy downhill run with the wind at his back. Quite the opposite. If anything, Hall has endured many miles of his journey going uphill against the wind.
After earning title after title in high school and entering college with great expectations, Hall became single-minded in his pursuit of running goals, specifically qualifying for the Olympic Games. He started a physical countdown to the 2004 Olympics 1,100 days in advance and made it his sole purpose and passion to run in Athens.
"I feel like it's the Lord running through me, and I feel like I'm under His wings — like He's the one doing the work and I'm just catching a ride."
"I could sum it up in one word," he said. "Obsession."
But trying to handle the emotional and physical demands of his goal and still keep up with faith activities, academics and a social life was more than he could handle. It wasn’t long before his mind and body began to rebel.
Hall recalls with stark clarity being so burned out that he could barely crawl out of bed. There were mornings when he’d wake up, try desperately to go for a run only to get 800 yards, give up and walk back home.
“There wasn’t anything wrong with my body; it was just emotionally and spiritually I was wrecked,” he said. “The Olympics had been a dream that I’d had for a really long time, and this was my first real crack at it. I was at the age where I expected to be in the Olympics, and I was really optimistic about my chances. But that’s when my world just came tumbling down.”
Instead of competing in the 2004 Games, Hall—by that time, tired, frustrated and out of shape—wound up watching the Olympic Trials with his little brother from their parents’ van while camping along the Sacramento River—not the experience he had hoped for or expected.
TWO FOR THE ROAD
Distance runners are a unique breed. Largely a mental activity, running requires athletes to push themselves through pain and repetitive motion for long periods of time. Many who aren’t involved in the sport find it challenging to understand those who spend hours alone on the road, driven to keep going farther only by what is inside of them. Thus, when two runners enter into marriage, it can be a blessing to have a similar mindset regarding the sport.
Sara and Ryan Hall
Ryan and Sara Hall are currently reaping the benefits of such a relationship. The pair first met at a high school cross country meet in California. Sara saw her now husband attach a Bible verse to an autograph and, already a Christian herself, decided to encourage her brother in Christ. She got his e-mail address and the two began corresponding. Then, when Sara committed to run at Stanford, Hall soon followed, unaware of her decision.
“We joke because I signed first,” she laughed. “He followed me there.”
The two began dating soon after they arrived on campus and married in September 2005. Now almost three years down the aisle, the pair has discovered that one of the main benefits of a runners’ union is prayer. When it comes to intercession, Sara, a professional runner under contract with Asics, knows exactly what her husband needs before and during a race.
“The spiritual attacks really seem to come on Ryan when he’s on the verge of something great,” Sara said. “Because I understand, I am able to come against that. I always pray for him, but it’s different leading up to and during a race.”
This summer, the Halls are being intentional about preparing spiritually for the Olympic atmosphere.
“We’re reading books and really learning what we can,” said Sara, who will compete for a spot on the U.S. Track and Field team this summer. “Ryan will have a ton of time outside of racing, so we know we’ll be like missionaries over there.”
Both Halls covet your prayers for their time in China — a time when they will not only represent the United States, but also Jesus Christ.
But as the phrase goes, in man’s limitation lies God’s occasion. The plan had not changed. God’s calling on Hall’s life was still to run, but there were invaluable lessons that stood between where he was and where God needed him to be.
Step one of Hall’s journey was to remove running as an idol in his life. Instead of living, sleeping, eating and breathing to be the best runner in the world, he had to learn to live, sleep, eat and breathe for Christ above all. Having accepted Christ as a young man and being the product of a Christian home, Hall’s running had always been intertwined with his faith, but not to the point where it was a genuine offshoot of his devotion to the Lord.
At the end of a fraying rope, Hall removed himself from Stanford University for a semester to ponder his future.
“I needed to figure out where God was calling me to be and what God was calling me to do,” Hall said. “I wasn’t sure it was running anymore.”
His burnout continued back home in Big Bear, but slowly, things began to change. Away from distractions, Hall was better able to hear the voice of God, and soon, it all made sense.
What Hall realized was that it had never been about him or the goals he’d set—they never should have been the point. The Lord had given him the gift of endurance and had a plan to use that gift, but for His purpose. The only responsibility that remained on Hall’s shoulders was to run in such a way as to maximize that gift. In return, God would supply the results.
That decision also meant that Hall was free from the intense pressure to achieve anything. He simply had to run for Christ.
“I finally surrendered it all and said, ‘Whatever You want to do with it, do it. If You want to take me to the Olympics, great. If You don’t, that’s great, too,’” he said. “There was something very freeing about giving my gift back to God. I believe He’s given us all special gifts, but I don’t think we can develop them and enjoy them how we’re intended to until we give them back to Him.”
In almost every marathon, there is an invisible wall. Hall had just broken through his.
Hebrews 12:1, which paints a liberating picture of a runner casting off everything hindering his forward progress, suddenly came to life as Hall emerged from the bonds of pressure and began to run with freedom and joy.
Finally, he was back on track.
“Being free to run means not carrying the burdens of this world,” Hall said. “It’s the freedom to not have to achieve something—to be able to just go out and do it for the love of doing it. To do it because I feel like God’s created me to do it. To do it as my act of worship to God.”
New York City, November 3, 2007. It’s early in the morning. Most of the city is still sleeping off its Friday night, but there is commotion in Central Park. Thousands of spectators line the running path as a select group of the fastest distance runners in the country glide swiftly around the 5-mile loop.
The race has only been underway a short time, and the pack remains close together. It is doubtful that anyone hears the song of praise emerging from two of the lead runners.
"I believe He's given us all special gifts, but I don't think we can develop them and enjoy them how we're intended to until we give them back to Him."
Hall and fellow believer/elite runner Josh Cox are striding along together, in step with each other and in step with God.
"Savior, He can move the mountains. My God is mighty to save; He is mighty to save."*
They sing as best they can, exhaling a chorus of praise. It is a special time for these two men. They are doing what their Lord has created them to do in that moment: worship Him body, mind and spirit.
For Hall, it was a day he’d dreamed of for years, but it was nothing like he’d imagined. The victory he’d sought so passionately years ago seemed a minor footnote. He had a different purpose now.
“I honestly didn’t have the goal to win the Olympic Trials,” he said, throwing caution to every running stereotype. “My goal was to praise God. And that was very important because I still struggle with getting too into running and too obsessed with what I’m doing. I have to hold myself back from that, and the way I do that is to just have one single goal: to praise God with every single step and with every single race.”
Ryan Hall Q&A
All those miles on the open road left only to his thoughts have paid off for Ryan Hall. The guy is sharp! Check out some of the Q&A from STV’s interview:
STV: In the Bible there are so many verses about running, and it is used many times as a metaphor for our spiritual lives. Why do you think running is such a great spiritual parallel?
RH: I think it’s because it’s a challenge. Especially in America we want to be comfortable and we want to have things come easily to us, and running’s not like that. When you’re out there training, you’re pushing yourself through pain. That’s the whole deal with running: How hard can you push yourself and how hard can you train? I think that’s a lot like our spiritual walk. You have to continue to challenge yourself, and you can’t expect it to come easily.
And while there are times that are hard, there are also times that are just fun. Like for me, the Olympic Trials race was just fun. That was one of the most amazing races I’ve run; I felt awesome the whole time and enjoyed the entire race. It was one of the best two-hour time periods of my life. And I think it’s like that with our spiritual walks, too. We’re going to go through the valleys—the high times and the low times—but we just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
STV: FCA’s Camp theme this year is “Get Focused,” and it’s based on Philippians 3:12-21, which talks about forgetting what is behind and pressing on for Christ. What significance does that concept have in your life?
RH: That’s huge. I’ve come back to that over and over again—the concept of forgetting what’s behind. It’s a difficult one to master. Like, even this year, I didn’t have the race that I wanted to have at the Cross Country Championships. It’s easy to let things like bad races discourage us and make us give up, but if you’re able to forget and move on, you won’t give up on what God’s called you to do.
God’s given us all a task to do here on earth, and in accomplishing that task we need to put our failures behind us and continue to move forward. A lot of being a great athlete is just getting back up. I’ve always wondered what it was like to be an Olympian. What’s an Olympian like? What makes them tick? And now, [I realize] I’m a normal person just like everyone else. I’ve just gotten my butt kicked a bunch of times and gotten back up every single time. And that is a big part of running and a big part of life. It’s just getting back up.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Proverbs 24:16 (NIV), which says, “…a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again…” I love that verse, and I think about it all the time because I fall all the time. Whether it’s spiritually or physically or whatnot, I’m always challenging myself to get back up and move forward.
* “Mighty to Save” by Hillsong
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Photos courtesy of Asics, Sara Hall and Michael Hodges.