March 29 was a busy day for Ryan Hall, the fastest American marathoner ever. He was 137 days and roughly 2,100 miles of road training away from representing the country in the London Olympics. He had to be up early for drug testing.
"Luckily," he wrote on Twitter, "my coach and I had a meeting from 3-5 am. Not a lot of sleep going on."
Hall's coach is like that—always up for a chat. He's also full of lessons.
A few days later, after a workout, Hall tweeted, "Today, Coach showed me that when I am weak, He is strong."
It is not what you'd call a conventional coaching relationship, but it has its benefits.
"It's pretty cool to be on the starting line," Hall told the San Jose Mercury News, "and think the guy who is my guiding coach is the creator of the universe."
Oh yeah: Hall's coach is God, the Almighty. He split with his previous coach, a human being named Terrence Mahon, in late 2010. A few months after, in Boston, Hall ran a sub-2:05 marathon, making him the only American ever to do so and seeming to vindicate his approach.
So he's moved away from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where the rest of the Olympic team trains. Lately, he's been attending classes at the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry, where students learn "how to cast out demons, witness, heal the sick, prophesy, preach, pray, practice His presence and much more," according to the school's website. Among the miracles that members of the Bethel Church say they experience during spiritually intense moments are clouds of gold dust floating down from above.
His races since the Boston triumph have been solid but uneven, but Hall has stuck to his path. He doesn't keep track of how many miles he runs; he works out and rests when God tells him to. The resting, in particular, tends to worry some people who pay attention to running: Hall, 29, said he is running fewer miles than he has since high school, when he burst onto the scene as California state cross-country champion.
"He highlighted the need for me to take one day a week as a day of rest," Hall wrote in an email to Deadspin, "in the same way that God took a day of rest after creating the universe."
It seems to have worked for God. But for an endurance athlete trying to compete with a troupe of very fast, very motivated East Africans? Is this any way to train for the Olympics?
Athletes make lots of religious displays—basketball players making the sign of the cross before free-throws, baseball players pointing at the sky, Tim Tebow Tebowing. Many of Hall's fellow runners testify to their own faith, like Wesley Korir, the Kenyan-born winner of this year's Boston Marathon, who writes on Twitter, "i love God, my wife and running in that respective order."
Then there's the vague, spiritually inflected greeting-card stuff that suffuses all of American culture. God is my co-pilot, one set of footsteps on the beach, that sort of thing. None of this is what Hall (who, at about 130 pounds, is just over half Tim Tebow's size) is talking about. When he says God is his coach, he means it in a strikingly literal way.
"Usually the workouts He gives me are pretty specific, with specific times and distances," he wrote in an email, "although sometimes I feel like He is just asking me what sounds like fun for me and He gives me the freedom to do what sounds fun."
A person might wonder just how and where these conversations happen. "Sometimes someone will say something and it will hit me really hard with this sense that this word is from God," Hall wrote. "Its kind of hard to describe but certain words bring peace, hope and joy with them. Then I also hear from God when I read my Bible. Again, He will sometimes highlight certain passages that really strike me and speak to me and I know they are for me."
He added, "Sometimes God wakes me up in the middle of night and speaks to me as a voice in my spirit. For example, He told me to rest a lot more before the Olympic Trials then [sic] I usually do before a marathon."
Hall finished that race, in January, in 2:09:30. That time put him in second place, 23 seconds behind his friend and fellow Christian Meb Keflezighi—though, for what it's worth, it was several long minutes slower than the times runners will likely need to win medals in London. After the race, Hall told USA Today that, given the pleasant conditions, he had started out feeling like he would run faster—but by mile 20, when it was clear he would make the Olympic team, the pace eased.
"It was very tough to keep the pace going the whole time," he told the paper. "I was just sick of leading. I just wanted to, like, rest."
This is the kind of thing that drives people crazy about Hall, and makes him such a mystery heading into the Olympics. The potential is there, and to an extent the results are there—but the monomaniacal drive to win seems, at times, to be missing.
Joe Battaglia, a track and field producer for NBC Sports and a columnist for the network's Olympics website, was one of Hall's most vocal critics after the runner dropped his coach.
"I firmly believed that he had lost his passion for winning and was more interested in the sense of 'spiritual euphoria' and existential rewards," Battaglia wrote in an email. But Hall, he added, proved him wrong. Part of it was his Boston time—which, even considering the tailwind and favorable conditions that day, was very fast—but it was also his demeanor that day.
"He actually dug down and competed at the end," Battaglia wrote. "He showed a determination that had been absent in some of his prior races."
Yet there are still flat days, like last year's Chicago Marathon (fifth place, 2:08:04) or the marathon trials, which Battaglia rated as "OK, not great."
"What is frustrating about Ryan," Battaglia wrote, "is when he goes to pre-race press conferences and talks about winning races or setting American records (as he did in Chicago) and when he comes up 3 minutes short [and] seems perfectly at ease with it. He is untroubled at all times, which is hard for people (myself included) to grasp when the object of the sport is to run faster than the next/last guy."
In the long term, winning a marathon on the elite level takes steady determination—normal preparation means being willing to run 120 miles or more every week, along with strength training. In the short term, winning requires a certain kind of fire, to push your body through two hours at a pace that most people couldn't sustain for a city block.
There's a tendency, in the common parlance, to think of a marathon as something that takes a long time. When we say some task is "a marathon, not a sprint," we mean that it's something to be approached gradually. But the way the sport's top athletes run it, a marathon is a sprint. Marathon champions run with fury. Sammy Wanjiru, the Kenyan great who died a mysterious and violent death at age 24 last year, filled his short life with defiant performances: outdueling a fitter, healthier countryman in Chicago in 2010; winning the Beijing Olympic marathon in heat and smog that knocked out other runners (Hall finished 10th).
Hall has run with fire plenty of times—most visibly at the 2007 Houston Half Marathon, where he set an American record, and the 2007 Olympic trials in New York, where he blew away the rest of the field in Central Park and finished the race waving his arms and pointing skyward.
The look on his face, anything but placid, shouldn't have been a surprise—Hall's competitiveness had long been one of the defining elements of his personality. Early on, after losing a tough race, Hall would sometimes take off on a furious run by himself, just to work out his emotions. This isn't something he's proud of: He told the New Yorker in 2008 that it was his least favorite part of himself, adding, "I just have a hard time seeing Christ being competitive."
That was back before Christ became his chief running advisor. Managing emotions is the kind of thing a corporeal coach can help with, which is one reason why even elite runners tend to have them.
Keflezighi has been with his coach, Bob Larsen, for 18 years. While their relationship and his training regimen are flexible, Keflezighi said in a phone interview, there are some things only a coach can provide.
"I know what my body needs and doesn't need," he said, "but I still like to have that official coach to say, 'Hey, don't make that crazy mistake.'"
Dathan Ritzenhein, Hall's 2008 Olympic marathon teammate and his rival since high school, wrote in an email that athletes don't always have the clearest view of their own efforts.
"A coach can be objective and look past what you think you want to do, and see what it is that you actually should do," he wrote.
"Some people struggle with intrinsic motivation and some people don't," Ritzenhein wrote. "But no matter who you are, there are times when you need help. Having someone there to support you when you are at the track is huge. An important part of being a coach is not only being able to motivate and push an athlete, but also when to hold an athlete back."
Ritzenhein's own history, parallel to Hall's since he won the Foot Locker National High School Cross-Country Championship over Alan Webb and a third-place Hall in 2000, is instructive. He's finished steadily in the top 10 of distance races ever since, though he has never broken through to the level of the African runners in the top tier.
In the 2008 Olympics, fighting muscle tightness, he finished ninth, just ahead of Hall. Later that year he began working, with marathon great Alberto Salazar as a coach, to overhaul his running form. At this year's Olympic trials, Ritzenhein finished in a personal-best 2:09:55 but placed a heartbreaking fourth, eight seconds out of an Olympic spot. He's now taking a break from the marathon, but has qualified instead for the Olympics on the track, in the 10,000 meters.
The energy for all this can be hard to sustain over a long career—though a mutually respectful relationship with a coach can help. "As I get older I know my body better, but I still need the emotional support of having someone else there," he wrote. "I am a pretty self sufficient person but it is still a lonely game by yourself."
Ritzenhein, who is Catholic, wrote that religion helps him, too—though he added that there are differences, in that realm, between him and Hall.
"I don't ever have direct conversation with God," he wrote. "At least I never see or hear him telling me anything. I am the one that does all the talking. I ask for help in the struggles, and grace and humility during the great moments."
Distance runners are alone for long, intense stretches with their bodies and thoughts. And, believers say, with God. Keflezighi, who trains at Mammoth Lakes, where Hall used to be based, said the two of them would often find themselves on long runs marveling at their surroundings.
"We appreciate nature and the creation of God, the mountains and things like that," he said. "It's not just one foot after the other."
Hall's interests, in recent years, have steadily broadened beyond running. In 2009, he and his wife, Sara, a fellow elite runner, founded the Hall Steps Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to fighting global poverty. The organization has focused especially on Africa, raising money to build a hospital in Kenya's Rift Valley and donating money to drought relief.
Hall now trains in Flagstaff, Ariz., and in Redding, Calif.—home of the Bethel Church and its School of Supernatural Ministry. Hall told me he's never heard the school's teachings described as faith healing; still, he wrote, "We believe that God wants to heal people, so we pray that He will."
One beneficiary, he said, was Sara Hall herself. "It was pretty crazy," Ryan Hall wrote. "A couple of years back she had an Achilles injury that was pretty gnarly for a couple of months. She went to Bethel and had it prayed for. A couple of hours later she was at a track doing all out 200s with no pain at all."
Hall wrote that he and Sara still use traditional medicine, and that he has yet to be healed by God for a running injury. Still, he rejected the notion that faith healing might be merely a placebo effect.
"The mind is obviously a powerful thing that God has created and given to us," he wrote. "The placebo effect happens in both traditional medicine and non traditional medicine so to say that the placebo explains all faith healings doesn't make sense. I've heard testimonies and seen videos of people being raised from the dead, deaf ears being opened, blind eyes being healed, all of which would be hard to explain beyond the healing hand of God."
Sara Hall has even invoked that healing hand over Twitter. In response to one person who requested a retweet for a boy whose cancer had returned, she wrote, "Be healed!" To another, who asked her to "send some of the lord my way to heal me," she wrote, "Be healed in Jesus' name!"
Meb Keflezighi, too, has been the focus of their healing attentions.
"Ryan and I are good friends, and Sara, and there have been times that they've prayed for me, when my knee was swollen, or my Achilles," he said. I blurted out what seemed like the logical follow-up question: Did he think it helped?
"Do I think it helped?" he repeated, a little incredulously. A couple of seconds passed.
"That's a personal question," he said.
It is and it isn't. Hall treats his religion as a very public matter, as in his book, Running With Joy, and a planned documentary, "The 41st Day," that will focus on his faith-based training.
After Hall announced the movie on April 5, its producers, raising money on Kickstarter, exceeded their initial $30,000 goal in just over two days. Of the 800-plus people who donated to the film, 23 gave $500 or more, enough to earn a signed pair or shoes, or a jersey, or, in the case of one $5,000 pledger, an entire day with Ryan Hall. The new fundraising goal is $75,000, which the producers hope will pay for the rights to footage from the Olympics.
About the Olympics: What can sometimes get lost, amid the hoopla surrounding Hall's training methods, is the race itself. It's marathon running's premier event, and no one is quite sure how he'll do.
"Ryan is a very consistent marathoner," Ritzenhein wrote. "I am sure he will do the best he can, but who know what that outcome will be. What makes the Olympics, and the marathon in particular, so exciting is that you have one chance on that day and so many circumstances can impact what happens."
Battaglia, for his part, said Hall has already proved himself to be "a unique individual," one self-motivated enough to succeed on his own without a human coach acting as instructor, psychologist and motivator.
"I also think Ryan is proving the power of belief," he wrote, "be it spiritual or in one's own abilities."
Hall's past finishing times and his relatively young age seem to make him the American favorite to compete against the Africans. Still, Battaglia added, "when it comes to pure desire to win, I am not sure."
Hall said he is running faster and feeling better than before, by obeying God and hearing his own body's cues.
"God has given us our bodies and I believe to maximize the potential of my body I do need to check in with my body and ask it what it can handle and what types of workouts it is craving," he wrote "I believe my body wants to run an amazing marathon but that will only happen if I respect my body and listen to it."
Hall has been running for 16 years, since he was in eighth grade, accompanying his father, Mickey, through a 15-mile course at 7,000 feet of altitude. He's won championships, set records, competed in one Olympic marathon and qualified for another. He's gotten married, helped the poor, worked through injuries to himself and his wife, and had a friend, Ryan Shay, die suddenly in the middle of a race from a heart condition.
It's easy to see how anyone, religious or not, would want to ease back after all of this. It's just that, if you believe that more training miles equals faster marathons, the timing is not great.
Hall disagrees. "I believe 100% in what I am doing as well as my closest friends and family members, which is the support I really need," he wrote. "I am not afraid to risk it all because I already have the greatest prize: Jesus. Anything else is gravy." Nobody from the Olympic team or otherwise has tried to convince him to change his approach, he said. He wouldn't do it anyway. God tells Ryan Hall to rest, so he rests, and the only gold he needs will rain down on him from the heavens.
Jake Mooney lives in Brooklyn and tweets occasionally at @jakemooney4real.