She says running has “broken my heart a hundred times,” but each moment of heartbreak would have seemed worthwhile as Sara Hall moved into second place on the final straight of this year’s London Marathon.
The dramatic finish saw a surging Hall overtake Ruth Chepngetich in a sprint finish having made up 40 seconds in little more than a mile by her husband’s calculations.
Her time of two hours, 22 minutes and one second improved her previous personal best by 15 seconds, and her second-place finish made her the first American to mount the podium at London in 14 years.
The performance would have gone some way to atoning for the disappointment of pulling out of the Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta earlier this year – likely one of the heartbreaks she had been referring to as she took to social media after the race.
“This is the highlight of my career so far,” Hall tells CNN Sport as she reflects on her London Marathon performance.
“I feel so, so grateful to be enjoying the sport the most I ever have at age 37. It’s been kind of a surprise to still be improving at this age, and I just feel so grateful that I got the opportunity to race.
“It was just a long year of training and faith that there would be an opportunity at the end of it. I put in a lot for this race and to have it all come together and have the race of my life that was just a dream come true.”
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Running ‘completely alone’
The circumstances surrounding this year’s London Marathon, which was moved from April to October and staged only elite races due to the coronavirus pandemic, were unique.
Competitors were tested multiple times before traveling and also upon arrival in the UK.
Wearing social distancing devices that would sound if they got too close to another person, athletes stayed in a bubble in a hotel the week leading up to the race with “a little, tiny grass loop” to train on, according to Hall.
For the race itself, each athlete had their own Porta Potti – “every runner’s dream,” says Hall, rather than waiting in a long queue before rushing to the start line.
Rather than start in Greenwich in south London and finish in The Mall in the center of the British capital, the course was also altered to 19.6 laps of St James’s Park and no crowds were in attendance – something that posed a significant mental challenge.
“There were times I could just hear the echo of my footsteps out there because I was running completely alone,” says Hall.
“I really just had to self-motivate a lot out there because it was a lonely, very quiet run without spectators.
“And I just tried to remember how grateful I was to be competing and (to) have an opportunity in Covid … and it was really that gratitude that kept me moving forward and then eventually catching people.”
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‘Adoption is kind of like running’
Hall is now preparing to compete in the Asics World Ekiden in November, a virtual marathon broken up into different legs with runners taking part all over the globe.
Ahead of next year’s postponed Olympics, she will turn her attention to competing on the track in a bid to racing the 10,000 meters at Tokyo.
“I’m training in faith right now … and then you hope that it all comes together in the end, just like London did,” says Hall.
Away from running, Hall has a busy family life to keep up with.
Together with husband Ryan, who holds the American marathon and half marathon record having retired from the sport in 2016, the pair adopted four biological sisters from Ethiopia five years ago.
“It’s been a wild ride,” says Hall, adding that two of her daughters have also discovered a love for running.
“Adoption is kind of like running. We’re training for a marathon and it’s a long grind and it’s a lot of paperwork. It’s a lot of hoops you’re jumping through. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the process.
“Ryan and I … we were kind of uniquely qualified in a way to do it, because we know what it’s like to persevere.
“Fortunately, they’ve adjusted to life here way easier than we would have imagined. It’s been a lot easier journey than we thought, but it’s still our challenge and it’s been really rewarding to see them just thriving where they’re at right now.”
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The Halls’ connection with Ethiopia dates back to before 2009 when they founded The Hall Steps Foundation.
The charity aims to support vulnerable women and children living in poverty in Ethiopia, where there is thought to be 36 million children under the age of 18 who are deprived of basic goods and services, according to Unicef.
Adoption, Hall says, has “increased our passion for helping people in extreme poverty even more.” The family has been unable to travel to Ethiopia this year due to the coronavirus but hopes to once normality resumes.
For now, Hall has races to train for – the Asics World Ekiden in November, a marathon in her home state of Arizona in December and perhaps even an Olympics Games next year.