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What’s Another Marathon? Relentless Racing Fuels Sara Hall

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Sara Hall knows she’s unorthodox.

She knows that other elite runners might shudder at her race schedule. She ran the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 29. She will run the New York City Marathon on Sunday. On Feb. 29, she plans to line up yet again, for the United States Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta.

For Hall, who is 36 and in her 14th year of competitive running, a relentless series of races separated by minimal recovery time is all part of the plan. And so far, it’s working. Hall posted a personal record for the marathon in Berlin and won the national 10-mile championship in Minnesota a week later.

“It’s become my normal,” Hall said of embracing a short turnaround between her races.

To be clear, Hall’s regimen is rare, even at the elite level. The human body is supposed to need time to heal itself after the stress of running 26.2 miles in less than two and a half hours. But it is not unprecedented. In late 2011, Meb Keflezighi, then 36, ran the New York City Marathon and then won the 2012 Olympic Trials 69 days later.

Hall decided to start following a more punishing schedule in 2015, after she ran her debut marathon in Los Angeles. She had already qualified for the United States cross-country team, which was scheduled to compete in an event in Qingzhen, China, only 13 days after the marathon, but when she finished the marathon in a disappointing 2 hours 48 minutes 2 seconds, she recalled thinking, “I’m not taking a break.” Two weeks later in China, she was the top American finisher in the 8-kilometer race.

“That opened my mind up,” Hall said. Maybe the marathon didn’t need to be followed by a hard stop, she thought.

In mid-September, at the kitchen table of her new home in the running haven of Flagstaff, 7,000 feet above sea level, Hall oozed a calm confidence ahead of her upcoming races.

That morning, she had completed her last big workout ahead of Berlin: a hard 15-mile run on Lake Mary Road, a stretch of rolling asphalt that many of the world’s best runners use as a training tool. As the sun rose, Ryan rode his bike just ahead of Sara. He carried water bottles and a wireless speaker blasting music by the eclectic violinist Lindsey Stirling.

She ran at a pace of 5:33 per mile. When she finished, her breath returned to normal almost instantly. Later, she would call it her strongest workout at altitude.

As she put on more clothes for a cool-down jog, she asked Ryan if he had heard from their eldest daughter, a runner herself, who was going on a college recruiting trip. Had she made her connection between flights?

In addition to their running pursuits, the Halls are raising four children — plus three dogs — in the hills above Flagstaff. Their kitchen sink looks over trails where Sara does some of her afternoon runs, occasionally with her daughters’ company. A Bible on the kitchen counter is held open by an Aladdin DVD. There’s a full GPS watch charging station, a big bucket of running shoes and a table covered with glitter and decorations for their daughter’s ninth birthday.

“I think part of what’s hard about the sport for some people is the pressure,” Hall said over her husband’s pancakes. “Fearing failure, fearing meeting others’ expectations. And that kind of stuff I’ve really gotten freed up from throughout the years.”

Failing helped. Sara won four state cross country titles in high school in California and was a seven-time All-American at Stanford University. She had ups and downs as a professional, and said if it hadn’t been for Ryan she might have retired sooner. But when the couple moved to Mammoth Lakes, Calif., after college in the fall of 2005, she figured she might as well train there, too.

She began her recovery protocol immediately, looking ahead to the hills of New York City.

The quick turnaround between major marathons is rare, but not unheard-of, among elite runners. In 2000, Franca Fiacconi ran the Berlin Marathon in 2:26:42 and then, 58 days later, finished New York in 2:26:03. In 2007, Gete Wami won the Berlin Marathon in 2:23:17 and placed second in New York — only 15 seconds slower — only 35 days later. But those results were a lifetime ago in the world of sports science.

“I don’t think it’s the right plan for everyone,” she said of her schedule. “I have just come to know my body and trust my instincts.”

Besides, Hall said, she has run two marathon-length workouts — and then some — in training. So what’s another in New York on Sunday?

“It’s really fun to go into a marathon already having your ‘A’ goal done,” she said. “It’s just totally free out there.”

“I don’t think,” she added, “many people are going to have that same feeling.”

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