Ryan Hall was the most dominant distance runner in the U.S. from 2007 until 2011. Hall set the American record in the half-marathon (59:43) in 2007 and went 2:04:58 for a fourth-place finish at the Boston Marathon in 2011, and in between, he was a consistent top-five finisher at international events, the only American who stood a chance of mixing it up with top talent from Kenya and Ethiopia.
That all changed in 2012. An injury forced Hall out of the Olympic marathon in London before the halfway point, and a string of other physical ailments kept him from starting the next three marathons he planned to run. Those injuries and a series of coaching changes made many wonder if the electrifying performances Hall had shown in his early days as a marathoner would ever be possible again.
The dark days of the past two years appear to be behind him, though. Hall, whose most recent injury to his left hip kept him from running between October and December, took a five-minute run right around Christmas. It was the start of a successful -- if shortened -- marathon buildup that culminated with a month-long stay in Ethiopia for training. On Monday, he said, he hopes to be in contention for the Boston Marathon win.
"This is my first marathon in a while, and I'll be happy to just get to the finish line and get another one under my belt," Hall said. "This is a big stepping stone. With that said, the obvious goal is to win the race. I'm not coming here to try and get top 10. I'm just going to be like all the other guys, sticking my nose in it.
"I'm gonna take a swing at this thing."
That confidence to position himself among the leaders on Monday comes from his month of training in Yaya Village, about seven miles north of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and situated at 9,000 feet above sea level. Some of his long runs took him as high as 10,000 feet, Hall said, noticeably more difficult than the training he does at his home in Flagstaff, Ariz., which is at 7,000 feet.
But it wasn't just the thin air that was different in his preparation for this marathon. Hall, a devout Christian, felt as though he had to spend extra time familiarizing himself with the unique suffering a marathon inflicts.
"I think what God was telling me in my preparation for this year's race was that I needed to go there a million times," Hall said. "Usually in training the longest I go at marathon effort is 15 miles. This time around, I needed to go longer."
Hall, 31, traded his traditional, two-hour long runs at an easier, steady pace for a series of marathon-pace efforts.
"Basically I was running marathon effort for 90 minutes one week, two hours the next week, an hour and 45 the next week," he said. "I would never go that long even once in the buildups previous to this, so I'll see how it plays out. I feel like I needed to experience the marathon pain over and over again, I needed to push my body way past 75 minutes of hard running in a training session."
In Ethiopia, Hall had a front-row seat witnessing the toughness that is part of daily life for many people there. He and his wife, Sara, would watch from their car while older women carried massive loads of firewood up a mountain. The image is burned in his mind.