Opinion | She Turned 2020 Misery Into a Breakthrough

Just a few months ago, the veteran American distance runner Sara Hall seemed to be facing her own version of pandemic misery. She had failed to qualify for the Olympics, dropping out of her last two marathons. Now everything was canceled and she was caring for four daughters at home. She was 37, an age when many elite athletes’ careers start winding down.

Would she get another chance to prove herself?

As it turned out, she created one. On Sunday, at an elite race in Arizona called the Marathon Project, Ms. Hall ran the second-fastest marathon ever for an American woman. It was more than just a hard-fought victory. This year she has become a powerful example of how resilience — built from pushing through years, even decades, of setbacks — can reap unexpected rewards.

Especially this year.

Our culture embraces stories about winners, but Ms. Hall’s story hasn’t been so simple. She spent most of her career outside of the spotlight — always excellent but rarely the best. In her sport, success is often measured by making the Olympics; Ms. Hall never has. She spent much of her career in the shadow of her record-setting husband, Ryan Hall.

Through it all, she was always out there training: steadily, quietly, unglamorously. It was unclear whether the work would ever pay off.

But 2020 is perfect for people who have learned how to be scrappy. Right now, the ability to grind is a superpower in itself. And Ms. Hall is used to striving without guarantees.

“My whole career has been learning how to say: ‘OK, I just missed out on what I wanted so badly. What opportunities do I still have?’” Ms. Hall said in an interview this week. “In the pandemic, it was the same. I had to think: ‘I know what I can’t do. But what is still on the table?’ It wound up leading to some of the best training in my life.”

For me, an athlete who grew up behind Ms. Hall (in both age and speed), watching her thrive this year has been surprisingly moving. I was one of thousands of girls across America in the 2000s who realized sports could serve as a vehicle for our ambition, and we tried our very best. Ms. Hall actually was the best: a national champion from California who got top grades and always found something kind to say about anyone she beat. She went to Stanford and thrived there too. She was so good — I figured she would be famous someday.

Now we’ve grown up. I learned that who makes history is complicated — but there are other ways to find satisfaction. Watching Ms. Hall keep pushing was so exciting, even if it was mostly for herself. Seeing her finally succeed more than two decades later, in the pandemic, through a dogged and sometimes thankless career, has felt like a catharsis, vicariously at least.

It’s not to say that we all should go out and run a marathon in the middle of a pandemic. (I certainly haven’t). This is not just Ms. Hall’s passion; it’s her job. But her success made me hope that the rest of us might also still have something to look forward to.

It made me wonder if in some ways there could be a long-term benefit to losing. Nobody likes it, but not getting what you want, for decades, could help you find other, more creative reasons to keep showing up. Reasons that are less about outside rewards and more about yourself.

Working outside the spotlight of success lets you experiment and try things differently, too. In Ms. Hall’s case, she trains alone, swapping in new challenging workouts — even running two major races 11 weeks apart this fall, the kind of milestones many athletes pace out over years. And she successfully integrated other parts of her life into her career: Since she adopted four daughters in 2015, she has taken more than 27 minutes off her marathon time.

“We can be an instant-gratification culture, but I’ve had to cultivate a long-term approach to my career,” Ms. Hall said. “I figured as long as I could keep working on my craft, chipping away, finding joy in the mundane, then that had to be enough.”

When everything else is hard, and we’re balancing so much, and we’re still going somehow — why not just shoot for the most audacious thing you can come up with? The worst thing that could happen couldn’t be much harder than where we are. And if this year has taught us anything, it is that we may not have more time.

After Ms. Hall lost what was probably her last chance to make the Olympics, she went back to her bathroom mirror, where she had written “Olympic Marathon Trials Champion” and replaced it with an even harder goal: “American Marathon record-holder.”

And then she got to work. At first, all she could do in lockdown was race a half marathon on her treadmill. Then she raced a half marathon alone on a bike path, running even faster. Then the London Marathon invited a few athletes to a small, safe, elite staging of the race in October. Ms. Hall became the first American to reach the medal podium in 14 years.

Last weekend, she sought to be the best in American history.

As she closed in on the finish, she exploded into a sprint. Her face was strained, an expression of pure effort. She runs the same now as she did in high school: explosively. I realized how much I missed seeing women performing on a public stage like that: unabashedly ambitious. No matter your speed and regardless of your gender, there’s something universal and authentic about the look of determination when you’re trying your best. You can’t fake it.

In the end, Ms. Hall didn’t have her fairy tale ending. She didn’t hit her goal — her time was 2:20:32, second best in history, less than a minute off the mark.

But it was far better than a year ago, before the world shut down.

“The pandemic drew something out of me I didn’t know I had,” Ms. Hall said. “At times I felt sorry for myself. But if there’s anything I learned this year, any opportunity is something to be grateful for. Take it while you can.”

Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is a senior staff editor in Opinion.

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