I recently read an interview with Ryan Hall, arguably the fastest American distance runner, who has run a marathon in under 2:05 and a half marathon in under an hour. In the interview, Hall describes not feelings of triumph and glory one would expect from such accomplishments during his career, but of feeling crushingly tired, weak and hungry. All the time.
He shared that he’d feel sore the next day from stirring a pot of stew and that his girlfriend had to carry his groceries for him. He suffered from low testosterone and could hardly get out of bed most days. He’d whittled his body down to only the muscle, bone and tendon necessary to run really really fast. Needless to say, his health and wellbeing were taking a huge hit, to the point that he described his overall health during his running career as “very poor”.
I’m not interested in glorifying the commitment or condemning the practices of elite runners. Instead I’m intrigued by what Hall is up to in his retirement, by his response to his chronic fatigue and poor health. Hall took up weightlifting, trail running and mountaineering. He has packed on 40 pounds of muscle and is virtually unrecognisable to those who knew him an an insect-like speed machine. Since this transformation, his fellow runners and members of the elite road running community called him “fat” or “too big to run”.
Rather than responding to the haters, Hall says he feels strong for the first time in his life and is enjoying running again. Although his elite racing career is over, he recently entered a trail running race in Hawaii, the Xterra World Champs, where he finished mid-pack. Instead of regretting missing the podium (by a long shot), Hall said that he’d a blast and felt great, that he loved the new challenges of trail running, as well as the support of the trail running community. His finish line grin confirms his story.
It gets better. Not only is Ryan Hall now running trails, he has taken up mountaineering. He was recently spotted in the French Alps wielding an ice axe and crampons. While in France, he also completed a mountain running race called Beat the Sun, a 140 km six-person relay race around Mont Blanc, with his former ASICS teammates. In describing his approach to the race Hall said, “I’ll run hard, because that’s what I like to do, but it will be fun. I’ll be looking around and checking out the scenery of this amazing place.” He goes on to say, “It’s nice not to have to worry about it being perfect.”
What Hall achieved in his running career is legendary, but if I’m honest his adventurous retirement sounds like a lot more fun than training 160 kilometres a week through crushing fatigue. I’m inspired by his decisions improve his health and wellbeing, to take up new challenges and set his ego aside, and to respect what his body and spirit needed. Although I’ve never been a road runner or anywhere near Hall’s stratosphere (or even sub-stratosphere), there is a small part of his story that I relate to: the loss of balance and strength.
When I started ultrarunning, I thought I had to be as small as possible to get faster. I was running 100 kilometers a week, but I still restricted my diet and rarely indulged. I was anxious, tired and hungry. Looking back at photos, I realize that I didn’t look particularly healthy, but I still thought at the time that I had plenty of weight to shed. Worst of all, I wasn’t having much fun.
As I started to compete in more steep, technical and mountainous running races, I reached a turning point. I was so tired of feeling weak and exhausted all the time. I stopped thinking about how much I weighed and starting paying attention to how I felt. I ate whenever I was hungry (which is always) and started feeling a lot stronger and happier on the trails. Running became fun again and the new feeling of power I felt in my legs was a treat. Running began to feel like a celebration of strength, rather than a relentless grind.
The question I’m left with is where is the balance? — the balance between passionately pursuing goals and respecting the body’s needs, between lightness and power, between seriousness and fun? Our culture, especially running culture, can be one of extremes, with runners seeking extreme distances, extreme speed, or extreme terrain as challenges. But within exploring those extremes, there must be a balance or perhaps a counterbalance, where the spirit of light hearted fun, reckless abandon and indulgence still have a place. This balance isn’t always easy to find and sometimes doesn’t last long, but finding the middle way is the best of both worlds, where we have both the thrill of reaching running goals and overcoming challenges while still having as much fun as Ryan Hall in his adventurous retirement.