As if the Sports and Fitness Expo before this year’s Boston Marathon was not already crowded enough, U.S. marathon star Ryan Hall was scheduled to appear at the Asics booth on Saturday before the marathon. It was to be a standard “meet and greet” with the star marathoner's legions of fans, most of whom would get a quick word or two with Hall and an autograph.
These expo appearances have been going on for years at marathon expos, adding a touch of celebrity and excitement to an otherwise cattle-rush of commerce. The lines were long, and fans were clamoring for Hall’s expo appearance. And why not? Ryan Hall harkens back to the heyday of U.S. dominance in the marathon. The days when Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar competed with--and often defeated--the world’s fastest marathoners.
While Hall has yet to score as big an international marathon victory as that trio did in the 1970s and early 1980s, he has run faster than they ever did. Shorter’s best was 2:10:30, Rodgers at 2:09:27 and Salazar 2:08:13, respectively. Hall skipped right over 2:07 en route to a stunning 2:06:17 in London, the fastest time ever run by an American-born athlete.
Besides being fast, Hall, a 2006 Stanford grad who hails from Big Bear Lake, California, is a tall, good-looking athlete, right out of the all-American handbook. Polite and respectful, Hall seems almost too good to be true. He has all the makings of a superstar.
“The response from the fans has been overwhelming…in a good kind of way,” said Hall at the expo, as people waited for more than hour in line to meet him. “Running over in London you don’t know if people are paying attention. So to see this is amazing.”
The following day, the Women’s Olympic Trials Marathon was held on a course through Boston’s Back Bay and along Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Some friends and I headed for latter location to watch the race, hoping to find a place that was both comfortable and not too crowded.
Excitement grew as we heard the lead police escort approaching. Behind the phalanx of vehicles was a single figure, a woman charging far out ahead of the rest of the field. It wasn't Deena Kastor, the pre-race favorite, who was in the main pack with a dozen or more women. But who was it?
Without a race program, we only knew it was race number 43. We were anxious to find out the name of the race leader, but no one around us seemed to know. The women departed almost as quickly as they had arrived, but would return three more times on the loop-configured course before completing the 26 miles.
As we waited for their return, I looked across the road and saw a familiar figure standing with some people. Lo and behold, it was Ryan Hall. A day earlier he had been swamped by an endless stream of fans at the expo, but now here he was, watching the race and unbothered by anyone around him.
No one seemed to recognize him. Had he been running along the Charles River footpath at five minutes per mile, surely he would have stood out. Or at the expo, where he was well identified. But standing on the side of the road, he was just another fan watching the Women’s Olympic Trials Marathon. The only difference was that this fan won the Men’s Olympic Trials Marathon just five months earlier, decimating the field with a late race surge that yielded a final time of 2:09:02.
It got me thinking. Were there runners who would not have been able to stand there unnoticed by the crowd? Rodgers or Joan Samuelson (who was running in the trials marathon) would be recognizable. Would Shorter be recognized? Probably. Salazar? Most likely. How about a pair of two-time U.S. Olympic marathoners, Pete Pfitzinger and Bob Kempainen? Probably not.
For now, it seems Hall can roam free and unrecognized, even at an event full of runners and running fans. And there are benefits to that. If he is able to win a medal in Beijing, his profile may rise so high that his relative anonymity will disappear. No doubt he is hoping to have that “problem” to deal with.
Recognizable or not, runners across the country will root for him at the Olympic Games. They'll do the same for Dathan Ritzenhein and Brian Sell, the other men on the U.S.; and for Deena Kastor, Magdalena Boulet, and Blake Russell, the three women who earned Olympic berths on the women’s team that day.
As it turned out, Boulet was the woman with the early lead, a tactic that paid off with a second-place finish. How did I find out her name while the race was in progress? Easy—I asked Ryan Hall.