His marathon career may be less than a year old, but Ryan Hall is already being hailed as the man of the future, and not just by the entranced running fraternity of the United States.
The 25-year-old American was handed the ultimate accolade this afternoon by no-less a marathoner than the Olympic champion Stefano Baldini as the two discussed their prospects of upsetting a phalanx of fast and furiously talented Africans in this Sunday’s Flora London Marathon.
It was just 12 months ago that Hall, a young, marathon virgin, was lapping up the atmosphere before his debut race at the 2007 London Marathon.
“We were signing autographs,” remembered Hall, who had just become the fastest non-African half-marathoner of all time but otherwise was little known outside his native US. “I kept asking Stefano about his training. I was so keen to learn from these guys.”
He must have learned quickly. While Baldini was forced to drop out of last year’s race, Hall produced the fastest debut ever by an American, 2:08:24, to finish seventh and went on to win the US Olympic Trials in New York last November, running a highly-impressive 2:09:02 on a cold, windy day across the undulating terrain of Central Park.
A year later, Hall is no longer unknown and with those two marathons displays behind him is already being tipped as a possible successor to the veteran Italian champion at the Olympic Games in Beijing this summer.
“Maybe I shouldn’t have been giving him advice,” said the smiling Baldini as he was reminded of the incident. ”I watched the New York race on TV and was very excited about his performance in the last two or three kilometres.
“I was smiling, thinking, here is an athlete who can win a lot of medals because he can read a race and react. He’s the future.”
“That’s a huge honour coming from Stefano,” admitted the faintly blushing Hall. “He’s accomplished so much. He’s the guy who paved the way to making the gap smaller between us and the Africans. I hope some day we can do the same things he’s done.”
That day may be sooner rather than later for Hall believes he’s made such progress in his training since his New York victory that he could be ready to challenge for gold in the tough, levelling conditions expected in Beijing.
“I’m super-pumped about the Olympics,” he said. “I certainly believe I can win. A lot of guys can, of course, but I’ve got to believe in myself. I never step on the start line without believing I’ve got a chance.”
Before then, Hall is calmly confident of his prospects in Sunday’s IAAF Gold Label race through the streets of the British capital. “I’m really excited about pushing myself to the limits,” he said. “I’ve been pushing myself in training and I’m excited to see how that translates on Sunday.
“Some of my tempo runs have been considerably faster than I did before the Trials, so if everything clicks right on the day I know I can do well.”
Hall admits he has raced sparingly in preparation for his third marathon, just once dropping down from his high altitude bases in Mammoth and at Big Bear Lake, his home town in California, for the US cross country championships.
“I like to escape up to the mountains and train on my own,” he said. “I like to disappear for a while then come down fit and ready to go.”
Hall made his name in the States with a sensational high school career on the track when he ran the third fastest 1500m by a school student behind Alan Webb and Jim Ryun, 3:42.70. But it’s a mark of how far he has come as a marathon runner that he now feels completely at home as an athlete who races over 42 kilometres.
“I’ve always done high mileage,” he said. “My very first run was 15 miles round Big Bear Lake, so you think I would have known then that I was destined to be a marathon runner. But I was stuck for a while as a miler before I found my place.
“Now I feel I was made to run a marathon. I really enjoy the training, I love the racing, and I love to compete against these guys,” he said, gesturing to Baldini, and some of his other opponents on Sunday, including the Kenyans, defending champion Martin Lel, the 2006 champion Felix Limo and Sammy Wanjiru, the world half marathon record holder.
Baldini, of course, is renowned for being one of the great marathon competitors himself. Despite being 11 years Hall’s senior, and a minute or so slower than some of the leading Kenyans, he is determined to put up a stout defence of his Olympic title and sees the London race on Sunday as a “big step on the road to Beijing”.
“I want to run fast and well to keep up my motivation, and to stay healthy,” said Baldini, who will tackle his ninth London Marathon on Sunday, the 25th of his career.
“There is always someone very good coming through,” he said. “Every four or five years there is a new generation so it is difficult at my age, when you wake up in the morning, to face the prospect of working out for 25 kilometres. I am still hungry but you have to have the results to keep your motivation.
“I am four years older than in Athens, of course, and that is important. But the weather in Beijing will be very hot, humid and polluted so I think I can still be competitive. In these conditions I can compete better and close the gap on the Africans.”
Things will be a little different on Sunday, when London is expected to be cool and showery. Yet both Baldini and Hall have a special reason to want to do well.
It was in London 100 years ago that two their countrymen, Dorando Pietri and Johnny Hayes, battled for the 1908 Olympic title in a famous race that first established what we know today as the marathon distance of 26 miles 385 yards.
Baldini, who lives just 15km from Dorando’s home town of Carpi, has never won the London Marathon. But he knows all about the wobbly-kneed Italian who first stumbled across the line in White City Stadium before being disqualified for receiving assistance, handing the gold medal to Hayes.
It seems somewhat unlikely, but a Baldini victory on Sunday with Hall chasing him down The Mall, would not only be a quirky historical replay, but perhaps some sort of revenge too.
“Then maybe in 100 years someone would remember something about me,” laughed the Olympic champion.
But that’s the past. Hall, as Baldini had already pointed out, is all about the future.