Running the Race, Keeping the Faith

By Richard Greene   •   August 31, 2009

“When I’m running, I’m doing what God has created me to do in this season in my life,” says Hall, who turns 27 in October. “As I do it unto Him, I’m able to worship Him.”

On the road, the wind whipping his face, Hall feels a sense of freedom. Mustering all of his strength, he reaches the rhythm of his stride. And right then and there–under the wide open heavens–he senses that he is in tune with God’s will.

“It’s a sweet sensation, experiencing what God has gifted me to do,” he says.

Although Hall captured third place in the 2009 Boston Marathon and 10th in the 2008 Beijing Olympics–and has his sights on the Nov. 1 ING New York City Marathon–his passion growing up definitely wasn’t running.

Hall was born in Kirkland, Wash., but Big Bear Lake, Calif., has been his home since he was 5 years old. Friendly competition in myriad sports ruled the day among the five brothers and one sister in the Hall household.

Their father, Mickey, had played baseball in college and was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, but he had followed God’s leading to concentrate on teaching instead.

Baseball captured the heart of young Ryan Hall. He dreamed of pitching in the Major Leagues. Every day, he threw balls for hours against a backyard target his dad had set up. But his small size and limited strength nixed his baseball aspirations.

Track wasn’t yet on his radar. In those days, “cool kids” didn’t run. “I was motivated and driven by athletics, but each time our PE teacher said we were running the mile, I’d be like, ‘Uuuuuggggghhhhh!” Hall recalls.

Then one day, while gazing outside the bus window on his way to a basketball game, Hall sensed God calling him to run as the bus crossed over a section of Big Bear Lake.

Through the influence of his parents, Hall had already committed his life to Jesus Christ. He read his Bible and had a relationship with the Lord, but it wasn’t “like super tight,” he says.

He likened his call to running to that of God speaking to young Samuel as recorded in 1 Samuel 3.

“Though there wasn’t an audible voice, I knew God was coming through to me in a powerful way and that He wanted me to try and run around Big Bear Lake,” Hall says. “He put a spark in me that’s just as strong today.”

Soon after, the 13-year-old donned a running outfit, laced up his basketball shoes and set out with his father for the 15-mile run around Big Bear Lake. Some three hours later, he collapsed, exhausted, on the living room couch. But he was determined to continue this new journey.

Initially, the mile drew Ryan’s attention. He yearned to be like the legendary Jim Ryun, a devout Christian whose skill and speed drove him to become the first high school student to run a sub-4-minute mile 45 years ago. Hall participated in Ryun’s running camps and became good friends with his entire family.

In fact, Drew Ryun, one of Ryun’s sons, lived with the Hall family for three months and played eventual matchmaker. At a regional cross-country championship in 2000, Drew introduced Hall to Sara Bei, a heralded high school track star. They would marry in 2005.

Hall continued running the mile at Stanford University, where his desire to “shine as a light” among his teammates motivated him to lead a Bible study.

Though Hall did well in the mile, he never excelled at that distance as he wished. He battled several injuries, and after struggling for two years, he dropped out of Stanford and returned home, questioning if God even wanted him to run anymore.

“My pastor helped me sort through different issues,” he says, “and I took his advice to go back and do the last thing that I knew God had called me to do, which was to run at Stanford.”

In many respects, Hall returned liberated. “I realized I had madße running an idol,” he says. “It was what drove me, what I thought about first thing in the morning and what my life revolved around.”

Hall sensed spiritual renewal as he rededicated his life to the Lord. “It was a painful process, but I’m glad that God broke my pride about being a miler,” he says. “That allowed me to jump to the 5,000 meters and eventually to the marathon a year after I graduated from Stanford.”

As a marathoner, Hall feels he’s in his true God-given zone. He has shifted his training to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., a breathtakingly scenic- mountainous region five hours north of Big Bear Lake.

When facing a major race, as he is now, Hall intensifies his rigorous weight training and exercise routines. Plus, he runs about 140 miles a week.

Hall knows his fans are pushing for him to become the next great American marathoner. Living with those expectations is daunting, but Hall keeps his focus on his primary goal–to please God, not man.

“I enter a race believing I can win, but if I don’t, I’m not a failure, nor is my life less significant. I’m still going to worship the Lord,” he explains. “Seeking your own glory is fleeting, like chasing the mist or a rainbow.”

To help them keep the right perspective, Hall and his wife, Sara, practice serving others through their sport. For example, they’ve helped raise money to drill wells for clean water in a community of 90,000 people in Zambia, and they hope to one day do missions work serving the poor.

“It was so awesome to visit Zambia last fall and get to witness firsthand the kids pumping out clean water and see the actual fruits of our labor to help transform those communities,” Hall says.

Hall compares the Christian life to running a marathon.

“It takes patience,” he says. “You go through good patches and rough patches. It’s tough, and sometimes you feel like quitting. But I’m excited to experience more of Him. Every day is a new opportunity to do that.”

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