It's hard enough to talk most people into doing one marathon—and that's usually with the promise of adoring crowds, Gatorade every mile, and a big bag of carbs to devour at the finish line. So we can't imagine what it took to convince 34-year-old Ryan Hall to do a marathon in Antarctica, where he'll be lucky if there's another human—let alone another runner—within a mile of him. But that's just the beginning of Hall's week from running hell, which begins on Monday, January 23. Not long after crossing the finish line in Antarctica, the U.S. record holder in the half-marathon and the only American to run sub-2:05 in a full marathon will travel to Punta Arenas, Chile, where he'll have just a few hours to thaw out, log another 26.2 miles, and then board a plane to Miami. Then he'll do the same thing in Madrid, Morocco, Abu Dhabi and, at long last, Sydney, Australia, on the 29th. Seven marathons, seven days, seven continents. This annual exercise in endurance masochism is known as the World Marathon Challenge, and this year Hall will be one of only 33 people to attempt the feat, which only 15 runners completed in 2016. We asked Hall why he plans to be one of them this year.
You've been retired from professional running for a year. Why do this to yourself?
This all started about a year ago. I was weight training when my pastor texted me saying, 'Hey man, I'm doing this crazy competition. It's seven races on seven continents in seven days.' I wasn't running very much, and I wasn't enjoying running very much. I was just doing it to keep my wife [pro runner Sara Hall] company. I got that text and the adventure component kind of captured me. I've been a longtime fan of the Dream Center, so there was the possibility of partnering with them and helping to raise support and awareness of them.
Can you describe the changes in your fitness routine from retirement to now?
Retirement was an easy decision for me to make—I made it based on the last four years of my career. I took a good step back and looked at my body, and it was painfully obvious to me that I'd given everything I had to give for 20 years, more than any American's been given before. As soon as I retired, I was still craving physical challenges, so I transitioned into weightlifting and other fun adventure races. I did the Asics Beat The Sun race in France and I got to race in Hawaii in the XTERRA Trail Run World Championships. Now I have this opportunity, so I'm doing all the races I always wanted to do.
People freaked when you posted a photo of all the muscle you'd put on.
I used to hate doing weights. When I was running, I'd hustle through the gym, I didn't see a big need. Obviously, as a distance runner, I want to be as small and compact as possible. Muscularly, I was super weak. I'd be doing stuff in the kitchen and get sore from stirring chili. Every time I was around someone who was really big and strong, I wondered what that must feel like. I was 127 pounds at one point in my pro running career, so I said, 'How much weight can you put on?' I'm 175 pounds now, which is an all-time high for me. I'm usually trying to lose weight, so I'm kind of doing the exact opposite of that and I'm as strong as I've ever been.
Are you worried about starting this challenge 50 pounds heavier?
To be totally honest, I'm trying not to worry about it. Typically, when I'm training for a marathon, I've run 26 miles beforehand and 100 to 140 miles per week—so 15 to 20 miles each day. For this buildup, I've done 4 to 8 miles per day, so I'm seriously undertrained. If you just want to cover the distance, if your goal is to finish the marathon, I think you can actually train a lot less than you think you have to. I'm doing a little bit of an experiment with that, how little I can get away with in training. Maybe I'm crazy, maybe I'm not gonna finish. Actually, unless I get injured, I'll be able to finish.
What's your weekly mileage right now?
I don't even keep track of mileage anymore. I'd guess around 40 miles per week.
What's the rest of your training look like?
I'm lifting for an hour to an hour and a half each day. They're super intense sessions, like 45 seconds rest between each exercise and I'm supersetting almost every exercise, like I'll do bench and then pull-ups right away to work my back. It's really hard for an hour to an hour and a half. I'm going to failure on each of those sets. On the running component, I'll go out and run 30 minutes to an hour, usually jogging. For me, that's my sweet spot right now: Eight-minute-per-mile pace. Unless I'm running with Sara—she forces me to go a bit faster than that.
So, for a collective 183-mile competition, you're not doing any running-specific workouts?
Just easy runs. I wouldn't recommend this [laughs]. My goal is just to finish and compete. If you're trying to run for speed, you need to be doing workouts, long runs, lots of volume. I'm kind of experimenting and having fun with it—creating a bigger and more epic challenge for myself. If I would train like an animal it would be easy; if you don't really train for it, you've got yourself a whole new mental battle in front of you. It's going to make the challenge that much more epic. I've chosen to create a bigger challenge for myself with an unorthodox buildup.
Do you think your residual fitness from your pro career will carry you through?
It's definitely something I'm going to be leaning on, something that I have that no one else will have. I've run these marathons faster than anyone else has. One of the biggest challenges is that I've never run 180 miles in a week. This is all on pavement and I weigh like 50 pounds more than before. The shoes are going to be one of the biggest things I'm leaning on to soften my impact. The Asics 33-M's came out when I retired. They're lightweight and have a ton of extra cushioning for the additional pounding. I think I have a couple little cards up my sleeve—the 2:04 marathon, and the shoe component is also a massive thing I'll be leaning on.
The first day is Antarctica. What's your strategy for braving the cold?
I'm pretty accustomed to training in the cold, having lived in Big Bear Lake [California] my entire life and training in Mammoth Lakes, running in snow and below-freezing temperatures. I'm not as concerned about the cold as I am about the heat. I'm most nervous about Sydney. We'll run that one at night and getting off a super long flight. It's summertime there and it'll be hot; it's going to be an epic challenge. I'll wear the same singlet I wore in my first marathon as a pro in 2007 in London. If I were a betting man, I'd say this will be my last marathon ever run in Sydney.
Your last marathon in Sydney, or your last marathon ever?
The last marathon I ever run.
Which stage are you most excited about?
Probably Antarctica. How many people ever get a chance to do that? There's also a marathon in Morocco, and I've always wanted to go to Morocco. If any of your readers live in Miami and want to join for a couple miles, I'll be there on January 25. They're more than welcome.
How are you planning to handle nutrition and hydration during the races?
I have an unorthodox fueling approach. I tweeted a picture yesterday of 96 protein bars; my number-one goal is finishing and encouraging people, but after that it's muscle preservation. I worked super hard in the last year and a half and I don't want to lose it all in one week of insane running. I'll have a whole bunch of protein bars and calories that should hopefully retain muscle.
You cited low testosterone and chronic fatigue as major reasons for your retirement. Could those things affect you during the race?
I've learned a lot about that; I started to run a decent amount this summer and I was getting in pretty good shape, pacing Sara a lot and getting more intensity in there, but I ran into the same fatigue issues as before. That's why I've undertrained so much. If I'm running a half hour to an hour easy, I know I'm not going to get fatigued. My body can still handle that amount of running, but I guarantee I'm going to be fatigued at the end of the week. There's no way around it—it's more of a matter of can I mentally overcome that, work through it, and get to the finish line?
Where does this rank among the greatest challenges of your life?
In some ways, this is going to be the hardest thing I've ever done. I've never run for more than two and a half hours in my life, and every single day is going to be three and a half or four hours, maybe longer. Being on my feet for that long will be challenging. The intensity of the pain will be a lot less, but the pain will last much longer, so you just choose your poison. When I ran 2:04, my whole body was screaming at me at 20 miles, it was intense, sharp pain everywhere. This won't be anything like that, it'll be a long, dull burn for a really long amount of time that I've never experienced.