Sara Hall celebrates at the 2020 Virgin Money London Marathon on Oct. 4, 2020 in London.
Sara Hall never pictured it this way.
She stood on the podium at the 2020 London Marathon last Sunday, a red mask covering the bottom half of her face, after surging to second place in a 20-loop race with no spectators held in a biosecure bubble.
“You dream about these moments,” Hall said. “You dream about them in the way they typically happen, but with Covid this year, certain things are different.”
While nothing could hide Hall’s smile in London, nothing could mask her disappointment seven months earlier when she dropped out of the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Marathon after 22 miles.
Hall, a favorite to make Team USA, had been with the leaders through 19 miles, then fell back. Soon after the Feb. 29 race in Atlanta, the pandemic began shutting down sporting events in the United States and around the world.
“To be totally honest, I would say my heart’s still kind of broken from the Olympic Trials marathon,” said Hall, 37, “because honestly I wanted that more than any race in my career. I think what’s kept me going is just a love for the sport, a love for the work and the grind. Even when there were no races, I love doing this training and continuing to see improvement and just believing that there’s more special moments ahead.
“So to have this moment come on the heels of my greatest disappointment is very redemptive, and a huge shot of joy.”
Hall was not in contention the first two-thirds of the race, which began on a dreary, rainy morning, but then began picking off other runners. She caught the reigning world champion, Ruth Chepngetich of Kenya, with about 150 meters to go and finished with a personal best time of 2 hours, 22 minutes and 1 second. That is the sixth-fastest time by an American woman on a record-eligible course.
Top 20 Finishes for Team USA
World record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya defended her title with a time of 2:18:58. Molly Seidel, who had stunned the running world with her runner-up finish at the U.S. Olympic trials in her first marathon, placed an impressive sixth in her first major world marathon with a personal best of 2:25.13. Lindsay Flanagan, the other Team USA female runner, was 17th (2:37:16), while Jared Ward, a 2016 Olympian and the only American in the men’s field, was also 17th (2:12:38).
In the wheelchair race, Jenna Fesemeyer was third (1:52:16) among the women while James Senbeta placed ninth (1:59:45) among the men.
Hall was the first London podium finisher for a runner from the United States since Deena Kastor won in 2006, setting the American record.
Hall said her achievement is a reminder to her four daughters, whom she and husband Ryan adopted from Ethiopia in 2015, of “not letting disappointments keep you down, but picking yourself back up and pushing through because these moments can be ahead if you do that - and I really hope that they learn that.”
With many events cancelled or virtual, the London Marathon decided to go ahead with separate elite races for 40 men, 35 women and 17 wheelchair competitors. The 45,000 other participants had a 24-hour window in which to complete their own marathons.
Hall, a U.S. champion at various distances on the roads and 2011 Pan American Games champ in the steeplechase, said that it would have been “easy to hit cruise” this year, but she realized she was still motivated to try new things in training and “keep mining out my potential.”
Hall and the other Americans were grateful the London organizers decided to go the extra mile for the running community.
“It’s no small feat and expense,” Hall said. “The lengths that they went to for keeping us safe were really unparalleled - it really blew me away the attention to detail and excellence.”
Hall, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, flew out of the U.S. on Sept. 27 after testing negative for the coronavirus. Upon entering the United Kingdom, athletes were given forms that carried a £1000 penalty if filled out incorrectly.
Safely in the Biosphere Bubble
Then they were whisked to a secret hotel in Windsor on a 40-acre estate with strict instructions not to leave until the race on Oct. 4. Hall was glad that Ryan, who is also her coach, was allowed inside the bubble.
Masks were mandatory except when they were eating – at tables spaced 2 meters apart – or training. They also wore trackers around their neck using a technology called “Bump.”
“If you got within 6 feet of someone it would glow blue,” Hall said. “If you were there for longer than just passing, it would be red and start to beep. It kept you distancing, because the beeping was kind of annoying. Unfortunately Ryan’s and mine also beeped when we were close to each other so it was challenging.”
Ward said Hall was the first person he saw when he walked into registration. “From 20 feet away instead of 2 feet away, she gives me a big air hug and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m back with friends,’” he said.
Instead of having a roommate, every runner was assigned to his or her own room. “It was nice for about two days, then it was boring and then it was torturing,” Ward said. “I got a small taste of what quarantining would be like. It’s tough and I just had to do it for a few days and still be able to have lunch 6 feet away from these other people.”
Flanagan said that even though at meals everyone was “yelling at each other from afar, it was still fun to come together and be in that race environment again - something I didn’t think was going to happen this year with everything going on. My race didn’t go the way I hoped it would, but I was still really grateful for the opportunity.”
Seidel said she was willing to do anything to get another race under her belt this year. “They could have put any stipulations, any restrictions on it and I would have said yes,” she said. “They could have said a marathon on a 400-meter track and I would have done it. It was really a cool opportunity. I think so much of Covid right now is just learning to embrace the craziness and everything that’s going on and take anything you can get."
Race Day in London
Once they arrived at the race venue, athletes had their own 10 x 10-foot tent with a portajohn they did not have to share with anyone else.
“I didn’t even lock the door on this portajohn while I was in there because it was mine,” Ward said. “There was kind of a special feeling to this race.”
While the London marathon usually takes place on the streets of the city, the 40th edition was restricted to 19.7 laps inside St. James’s Park, which is next to Buckingham Palace. The only non-working spectator was the statue of Queen Victoria looming in the distance.
Each lap was a little more than a mile. Hall said she was on the starting line “ready for anything,” but the race went out much faster than she expected.
In the first 5K, Hall was about 5 seconds off the lead group and found herself in an unusual position: she was lonely. Even during solo workouts, she usually has someone accompanying her on a bicycle.
“I ran almost every step of the race alone,” said Hall. “This was uncharted territory for me.”
On one lap, she enjoyed the company of an Ethiopian runner, slowing a bit to stay with her until she realized she should tend to business.
Hall looked for the rabbit who was supposed to pace the second group, but she had dropped back so much that Hall couldn’t work with her.
“At the time it was frustrating,” Hall said, “but I’m really thankful for it now because I feel like it’s the performance I’m probably the most proud of. Running alone has never really been my strength - I’ve always been more of a competitor. I admire people like Ryan, my husband. He can go on a bike path and run pretty close to his PR, or like (Boston marathon champion) Des (Linden), who has an internal metronome and can click off pace.
“I’m not like that. I’ve tried to work on getting better at running alone. This was definitely a breakthrough for me to be able to keep it together for so long.”