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Each Stride Brings Him Closer to God

Marathoner Ryan Hall's career has taken off ever since he aimed higher in choosing a coach.

Ryan Hall

Running was when marathoner Ryan Hall always thought he felt closest to God. At the 2008 Olympics he finished second among the Americans, tenth overall. No place to go but up, and his third-place finish at the 2009 Boston Marathon seemed to confirm his hopes.

But by 2010, he was exhausted, every stride leaden. “I felt like a dead man walking,” he says.

Train harder. That was his coach’s advice. So he did. He finished a distant thirteenth at the Philadelphia half-marathon. The Chicago Marathon was just two weeks away. He couldn’t do it. He withdrew. Had he lost the will to win? his coach asked. Ryan wondered himself.

One Sunday in church he heard a voice: Trust in me. Let me be your coach. Just then the minister paused in midsermon. “Right now God is speaking to an individual in this church,” he said. “Don’t be afraid. Just listen and follow his guidance.”

Ryan had grown up in a devout family. But this seemed crazy. He was in the worst slump of his life. He needed answers, he thought, clear direction, not some mysterious voice in his head.

His dad, his first coach, used to tell him: “A joyful heart makes for fast feet.” He had never felt more unhappy, out of sync. What was missing? God had always been a part of his life. But had Ryan ever been truly desperate for his counsel? Totally dependent on him?

The more he thought about it, the more Ryan wanted to know that feeling. He left his coach. Then he prayed, soulsearching prayers like he’d never prayed before. “Help me, Lord,” he pleaded. “I need you. What do you want of me?”

He had to put in long miles, he thought, push himself more each day, to get back in peak condition.

But it was strange, at night when he listened for God’s word, he heard a different message: Relax. Space out your hardest workouts. And one day a week, don’t train at all. Let your body and mind rest. Give that day to me. How could doing less possibly make him run faster?

He ran hard only twice a week, 10 five-minute miles, then a cool-down run in the afternoon. The other days he did a more leisurely workout, seven minute miles. Sunday he spent with his wife, in prayer and Bible study. No running.

Ryan noticed the change almost immediately. Not so much in his times, but in how he felt—lighter, renewed, both body and soul.

“I’ve never seen you this happy,” his wife said. “You’re like a different person.” For the first time in years he woke looking forward to running, every stride a chance to draw closer to God.

Word spread about his unique training methods. He met people who said they felt led to be part of his team, a nutritionist, a strength trainer, a chiropractor and a massage therapist.

One day in his Bible reading he came upon a verse in Proverbs: “An abundance of counselors is victory.”

Still the question remained, would he be fast enough when it mattered? In April 2011 he ran the Boston Marathon. The Kenyans set a blistering, record-setting pace. Ryan finished fourth overall, at 2:04.58, the fastest time ever by an American.

This January, at the U.S. Olympic trials, he finished second despite a painful foot injury.

He’s going to London refreshed and relaxed. “I don’t always know what I’m doing,” Ryan admits. But his coach does.

Read more inspiring Olympic profiles.

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