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.
"They were like my grandma's age," Hall said. "They would be almost doubled over, walking almost 30k (about 18 miles), carrying all this firewood, and they would make like five U.S. dollars off of that. They're accustomed to suffering."
Hall's sensitivity to the efforts of the women in Ethiopia, combined with the many hours of marathon-pace training he logged by himself while there, help him feel the pace he can safely go out at Monday without risking another DNF.
"You've got to run your own race," he said. "I think that is something I'm good at doing, I've done it so often. I know what I can take; what pace I have to let [the front-runners] go. I'm not going to commit suicide out there, but I might take a risk and I'm going to run to win."
During his struggles the past two years, Hall hasn't been deaf to the criticism of his training methods. He has been largely self-coached and he doesn't have a training group like many top American athletes do, but he has tried to tune out the naysayers.
"Was I struggling? Absolutely, and I knew that, too," he said. "I didn't need to be reminded of that by other people. I see it as part of the process. From 2012 to now, I think those years will be the most important part of my career. I'm going to see the fruit of those years in the years to come."
The payoff will start, Hall hopes, on Monday.