In January, rising American distance star Ryan Hall said he wanted to take on arguably the greatest distance runner in history at the marathon distance, Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie.
Hall gets his chance Sunday at the London Marathon.
But with one of the deepest elite fields ever, he picked a doozy of an event for his introduction to the marathon distance.
“This field that’s been assembled is amazing,” Hall said last week from his training grounds 8,000-feet high in the mountains of Mammoth Lakes, Calif. “To be my first time out is amazing.”
Hall is only 24, but don’t let his age and inexperience detract from his talent. Three months ago, Hall became the first North American to run the half-marathon in less than an hour when he won the Aramco Houston Half Marathon in 59:43, beating the 21-year-old U.S. record by 72 seconds. He also defeated training partner and Olympic marathon silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, who also will be in the London field.
Others scheduled to run London include world record holder Paul Tergat, reigning world champ Jaouad Gharib, 2004 Olympic gold medalist Stefano Baldini, 2004 New York City Marathon winner Hendrick Ramaala, U.S. record holder Khalid Khannouchi and 2003 New York City Marathon/2005 London Marathon champ Martin Lel.
“I’m pretty confident I will run well and mix it up with the best in the world,” Hall said.
While most athletes would attempt a more low-key venue for a debut, Hall purposefully chose London because he feels perhaps he will be lost in the crowd and will not feel pressure as a race favorite.
“I think that’s the reason I chose London,” the 5-foot-10, 130-pound California native said. “It’s about as pressure free as I can find. There are enough guys out there who will run fast enough. I don’t even think some of them will know who I am. The only pressure is the pressure I put on myself.”
Hall has ulterior motives for running against the best at London: He wants to be prepared to run against some of these elite athletes in the Olympics next year.
“The real goal is 2008 in the Olympics,” said Hall, a 2006 Stanford grad. “This is my only chance to race these guys before then. The course is fast, and I like to run fast. The recovery should be good. It shouldn’t beat me up because it isn’t a hilly course.”
While Hall has never raced over the 26.2-mile distance, he said he ran approximately 26 miles in a workout last week. He said his concern isn’t about going the distance; rather, it is about having the discipline to pace himself while the more experienced marathoners are more aggressive in the early goings.
“Being young and all, I need to be really smart in the first half,” Hall said. “If they go out in world-record pace, I won’t be in that group. In the end, I want to be picking people off. In the Hungary 20K world champs, I was picking people off and getting as many guys as I can. I want to have a good last 10K.”
“If he does well at his age, it would be a big boost to his running career,” said Khannouchi, who set the then-world record of 2:05:38 in London five years ago in what he still considers the toughest field in marathon history. “He shouldn’t try to go out with the leaders. He should stay behind and let the experienced guys take it out.”
Hall believes he can challenge Khannouchi’s times one day, but he is unsure how fast he will go on his first try.
“I really don’t know,” Hall said. “I’ve prepared to run really fast. It’s hard for me to say time. I’m really scared to say time. With my half-marathon time in training, I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t run 2:07 or so. All my tempo runs have been under 5-minute pace at altitude. That’s like 4:50 pace at sea level. I’ve trained at 2:07 pace. [At London] anywhere between 2:06 and 2:12. Someday 2:06-2:05 but not on my first time out.”
The fastest U.S. marathon debut is 2:09:41, tied by Alan Culpepper and Alberto Salazar. The fastest debut ever was by Kenyan Evans Rutto, who ran a 2:05:50 in Chicago in 2003.