Hana Hall's Journey To Become A Cross Country Champion

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(Courtesy of Ryan Hall)
(Courtesy of Ryan Hall)

One of the elite runners in Monday’s Boston Marathon will be American pro Sara Hall. Sara and her husband Ryan — who holds the record for the fastest time run by an American on the Boston Marathon course — joined Only A Game back in 2016.

At the time, Ryan had just retired from competitive running and Sara was moving up to the marathon distance, while together they had agreed to start a family.

"There's no doubt that being a parent is a sacrifice and adopting four kids was not a performance-enhancing decision," Sara said in 2016.

Despite her concerns, Sara’s running has continued to thrive. But she’s not the only competitive runner thriving under the Hall family roof.

Hana Hall

If you were born and raised in Ethiopia, you would know the ring of a track race’s bell lap the way an American child recognizes the crack of a baseball hitting a wooden bat. It’s a sound full of possibility.

When your country has won 54 Olympic distance running medals and someone asks you what you want to be when you grow up, oftentimes the answer isn’t much of a surprise.

"The first time I saw on television was Tirunesh Dibaba," says Hana Hall, the oldest of four sisters adopted by Ryan and Sara Hall three and a half years ago. "And I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I really want to be like her.’ "

Hana’s dream of being an Olympic runner was nothing out of the ordinary for a girl growing up in Ethiopia. But everything else about her circumstances was.

"They were in a great orphanage with great nannies, well taken care of, had everything they need," Ryan says. "But at the same time, like, they never left the orphanage. So their physical activity for the day was literally playing in a driveway. And so they had soccer balls and different kind of things they could do. But it was very limited. And they weren't feeling the dirt under their feet or the grass under their feet."

Hana and her sisters — Mia, Jasmine and Lily — had been in the orphanage for three years when the Halls began a conversation about adopting them.

"They were having a hard time finding a family for the girls," Ryan says. "And they were talking about possibly splitting the girls up — and so sending two to one family, two to another family. And that just really gripped my heart. Because I grew up in the middle of five kids. And I just know how important my siblings are to me, and I just could not imagine being separated from my siblings at that age."

Ryan and Sara started visiting the orphanage regularly. Because of the language barrier, they couldn't talk much. And Hana and her sisters knew little of Ryan and Sara's life back home.

"We would kind of spend every other month in Ethiopia, which was actually really fun to train there," Sara says. "And then we would head to the orphanage, and we would do some physical activity stuff with them."

"They were not what we had observed as typical Ethiopian children, who are typically very fit, very active, always walking," Ryan says. "Whereas our girls, after being in an orphanage and not moving a whole lot, had put on a lot of unhealthy weight — especially kind of our older two — just because they weren't able to be physically active."

A New Family

"When we'd go visit, we'd try and do just fun games with them — physical games," Ryan says. "I remember doing relays with them. I remember we'd do, like, planking. Just trying to do physical things that are fun for them, just to try to get them moving a little bit more."

Eventually, Sara and Ryan sat down with the girls. A nurse asked them if they wanted to formalize the adoption and join Sara and Ryan’s family. It was important to the Halls that the girls were given a choice in the matter. Hana and her sisters responded with an emphatic “yes."

Ryan and Sara Hall joined Only A Game in March 2016. (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images for ASICS)
Ryan and Sara Hall. (Jonathan Moore/Getty Images for ASICS)

"After we asked them if they wanted to join our family, we got permission to take them out of the orphanage — which didn't typically happen — and take them shopping for some clothes and stuff," Sara says. "Because, especially the older girls, didn't have any clothes that fit them, cause a lot of the donations were for babies. So we were mainly going shopping in Meskel Square. But seeing the runners training there in Meskel Square, the girls were excited to get out and join in. And so, yeah, that was our first family run, the first day we decided to become a family, I guess."

I asked Ryan how far they ran that first day.

"Oh, it was super short," Ryan says. "It was probably like 200 meters, maybe. The girls — we had to start out really, really slow with just getting them active again."

Later, while staying at the Yaya Village, a training facility outside of Addis Ababa, and awaiting visas for their daughters, the Halls brought the girls to the track.

"It was actually dirt track," Hana says. "We were just kind of doing it for fun. But then I was like — I couldn't do two laps. Because I never done, like, running, you know? I just — I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is really hard.’ Then I just stopped in the middle. I, like, cried. I was like, ‘Why is this so hard?’ But it was fun, though."

Before the new family of six left Ethiopia, Sara and Ryan asked a translator to spend some time with them.

"Just to get to know the girls a little more, because they didn't speak any English and we were still learning Amharic," Sara says. "And we asked the girls what they wanted to be when they grew up, and Hana said 'a runner.' And that kind of surprised us. But we were kind of like, 'OK!' And we told her we were runners."

Sara says they had told the girls a bit about their running careers earlier, but they didn’t fully understand how famous their parents were until the family arrived in the States.

Hana's Running Career

The girls settled into their new home in Redding, California. Hana and her sister, Mia, ran track for their middle school.

"Their strides were not very pretty-looking at the time," Sara says. "But they were tough. They still did really well. Just because I feel like they know how to push through pain and stuff maybe in a different way."

Over time, Hana’s fitness caught up with her tenacity and her enduring childhood ambition to be a successful runner. And just one year after the family settled in California, when Hana was in ninth grade, she toed the line at the Yreka Cross Country Showdown.

"There's a lot of people," Hana recalls. "So I was like, 'OK, I'll do my best.' That's all I can do. And my mom and dad were there just, like, encouraging me to go through, to push it. Just do best."

Ryan recorded a video as the first runner approached the finish: it was Hana. She held her advantage to the line, notching her first-ever running victory.

"I'm not a very emotional person," Ryan says. "I don't cry at movies. I'm just not super emotional. But for whatever reason, like, that moment really, like, it almost brought me to tears. I think people who are parents would understand the feeling. But when you're watching your kids do something, and you see them thriving at it, there's just something about that that just pulls on your heart in a way that my heart had never been pulled on before."

"They were, like, so excited," Hana says of her parents. "They were like, 'How you feel about doing the race?' And 'You looked really strong during the race.' I was like, 'Ooh! I am?' It kind of, like, makes me really happy."

Ryan says Hana began putting in consistent work six days a week. She ran in the early mornings and at team practices after school. She went for long runs on the weekend.

"I mean, she does have an advantage in the fact that I was essentially coaching her that entire time," Ryan says. "Like, I know a few things about running that I think helped her. But, man, just seeing the power of consistency."

"She has that fire that you just can't teach, you know?" Sara says. "You can help someone gain fitness in running and become a stronger athlete. But you can't really teach that competitive drive and fire. And I could tell that she had that."

Cross Country Championship 

Last summer, the Hall family moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, and Hana enrolled as a junior at Flagstaff High. A new state, a new town and a new school brought new challenges. But it also brought a new team and a fresh cross country season. Hana wasted no time establishing herself as the No. 1 runner on Flagstaff’s roster. And this past fall, she entered the Arizona state high school cross country championships with a target on her back.

"In the morning, I was really nervous," Hana says. "I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. There's, like, so many people in here. It's really crowded and it's really exciting.’ My parents were there, and my grandparents were there. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ "

"It was a little bit of a challenging day for me, personally," Sara says. "Because I had, I think just the week before, run the Frankfurt Marathon and in the process injured my peroneal tendon pretty severely. So I was hobbling around. I was on crutches, but I didn't really want to be on crutches out there. So I was trying to, like, walk around without the crutches. But normally I run all around in her race. And I'm able to cheer for her like 40 times. But I wasn't able to do that.

(Courtesy of Ryan Hall)
(Courtesy of Ryan Hall)

"But, yeah, before the race, I just told her, like, 'Just go out there and be you. You don't have to be superhuman today. You don't have to do anything that you don't already do every day. Like, every day you go out and bring it. If you do that, you're going to win this race.' And so I just tried to help kind of bring the nerves down. And I think what's fun is, like, as an athlete, I know what I want my coach to tell me that's going to put me at ease, make me feel confident. So it's fun to get to have that translate to Hana."

With Sara confined to the finish area, it was up to Ryan to be Hana’s support during the race. He told Hana he’d be at the two-mile mark, the most quiet part of the course, where she was planning to break the race open.

"I found that that's always a really good place to make a move is where there's no one else, because there's not a lot of energy out there," Ryan says. "And so a lot of people, they kind of relax in those areas of the course. So I told her I'd be there. But the problem is I'd been, like, sprinting all over the course to try to cheer for her before that point. And so I popped out at that point and she was already, like, a hundred meters past me. So I was literally, like, sprinting down this golf course in my jeans and, like, a v-neck t-shirt trying to catch up to her. And don't have any air in my lungs, but somehow manage to yell at her, like, 'Go, Hana, now!' "

"He just shout, like so loud, 'OK, you got this! You almost there,' " Hana remembers. "I was like, 'OK!' I was pretty tired and stuff, and then I was like, 'OK, my dad's here cheering me on. I can do this. I can finish this.' Yeah, that was really inspiring."

Hana broke the finishing tape of the challenging five-kilometer course in 18 minutes and seven seconds. She became the third member of the Hall family to be crowned high school state cross country champion. Though, you could argue, she’d traveled the farthest to do so.

"Her story speaks to me all the time," Sara says. "I mean, honestly, I don't know how she does what she does every day. She's been dealt such a rough hand — even of the four of our kids, definitely the hardest hand. Being the oldest and never going to school. Starting school at 15. Was the least fit of all of them. And yet has just defined what it is to be an overcomer, you know?"

It’s hard not to think about how far Hana has come. Nine thousand miles from Ethiopia. Four schools in four years. A new language. And while she's covered all that distance, she’s stayed true to her childhood dream. Except now it’s not Tirunesh Dibaba she’s chasing. She’s chosen new role models.

"Yeah, I kind of want to be a really good professional like my mom and dad," Hana says. "So that's my goal."

This segment aired on April 13, 2019.


Amory Rowe Reporter



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