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 2017, she ran 2:27:21 at the Frankfurt Marathon in Germany, finishing in fifth place. Just 35 days later, she ran 2:28:10 to win the California International Marathon.
So as she and her husband and coach, Ryan Hall, America’s fastest-ever marathoner, looked ahead to the 2020 Olympic trials this year, they decided to defy conventional recovery wisdom and design a back-to-back fall race calender. Berlin offered a famously fast course and a world-class field. The race would be an opportunity for a fast time and a confidence booster.
Then Sara Hall would run the New York City Marathon 35 days later. The five bridges, she and Ryan decided, would serve as practice for the hilly trials course she would encounter at the trials in Atlanta.
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.
When she shifted to the marathon in 2015, her career surged. She also said she began having more fun than she ever had, and as she looked toward to Berlin this fall, she thought she had a shot at a good, fast race. She didn’t realize how good it might be.
Hall led early and then stuck to her race plan, finishing fifth in 2:22:16. The time, four minutes faster than her previous personal best, made her the sixth-fastest American women’s marathoner of all time.
The Halls viewed the performance as a check mark, though, rather than a breakthrough. “It’s kind of the secret that Ryan and I were carrying around for a few years — that this was in me,” she said.
In January, she had written 2:22 on her bathroom mirror. When she came home to Flagstaff, her daughters had written “Done!” next to the time.
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.
While professional athletes have the best and most high-tech resources to expedite recovery, the biggest hurdle often can be mental.
“You need to know how your body recovers,” said Meghan Bishop, a sports medicine surgeon at the Rothman Orthopedic Institute in New York. That knowledge comes with experience.
Bishop understands this personally. After qualifying for the Olympic trials and winning the New Jersey Marathon at the end of April, she ran a 10-mile race in early May, setting a personal best for the distance.
“Obviously she knows what she’s capable of,” Bishop said of Hall. “It’s not conventional. A lot of runners don’t do this. But it works for her, and she knows she has the stamina and ability to recover.”
A few days after her performance in Berlin, Hall was already looking toward the TC 10-mile race in Minnesota, an event she won in 2017 and 2018. Encouraged by how her body felt, she bought some last-minute tickets to fly her family from Flagstaff to Minneapolis.
And then she won. “I guess I love my job,” she tweeted that afternoon.
“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.”