Cycling Next to Sara Hall at the World Athletics Championships

July 19, 2022

My wife and I just spent a long weekend at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon. 

For most of the visit, I felt rather like a track-and-field tourist, interested in the sights and sounds, but not particularly invested in them. I saw a few old running friends, but felt no strong connections to the athletes competing. Many of the names familiar to me — Johnny Gregorek, Joe Klecker, Eilish McColgan — were familiar mainly as offspring of runners who were famous back in the ’80s and ’90s, when I was more attuned to the running scene.

And then this morning there was the women’s marathon. My wife was keen to see as much of the race as possible, so, like a few dozen other attendees, she and I rode our bicycles alongside the marathoners for several decent (2-mile) chunks of the race where this was feasible. It was a nice way to experience the race — a big change from standing in place while the runners stream by — but still felt a bit touristy. I could imagine a guide saying, “To the left of your vehicle you can see Sara Hall, the former American record holder in the half marathon, currently in 9th place…”

By mile 24, Sara, now the lead American, had advanced to 6th, about 20 seconds behind Angela Tanui of Kenya. As she turned onto Centennial Boulevard for the last time, about 50 of us mounted our bikes again and started the final cruise to the finish. Sara’s husband Ryan was among us, pulling over every minute to bark out exhortations (“16 SECONDS BACK! YOU’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE!”), then weaving through the peloton to reach the next pull-over point.

The cyclists around me seemed to share Ryan’s sense of urgency. They abandoned their previous generic, polite cheers in favor of slightly unhinged shouts and shrieks. A chorus of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” reached a volume that might have alarmed the Kenyan runner just ahead.

To a casual fan, the hubbub might not have made much sense. Sara no longer had a shot at a medal, and there was no formal team competition to magnify the importance of exact times and places. Did it really matter whether or not she caught the 5th-place runner?

We in the peloton knew that, for Sara, it most certainly DID matter. When you are a serious competitor at a race that is important to you, you want to walk away from it knowing that you gave it everything that you had. To get to that point, you engage in all kinds of desperate negotiations with your body as it withers from the effort. Just one more mile and then you can have some Gatorade! Just half a mile and then you’ll get a nice downhill!

Often the final deal to be offered is, just try to catch one more person. Just this one last person.

Today, Angela Tanui was Sara Hall’s one last person, and we knew it. We knew it because we had made this plea many times before to our own faltering bodies in our own sub-world-class races.

We also knew that such contracts are between an athlete’s brain and their muscles, with spectators only getting a 1% stake in the deal, if that. But if Sara was going to keep working on her 99%, we were damn well going to do what we could with our 1%. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Half a mile to go. 5 more seconds to make up.

I’m not the most overtly patriotic guy, but I found myself joining in the chanting, solidarity and sentimentality finally overcoming shyness. U-S-A! U-S-A! It’s what everyone else was chanting, so it’s what I needed to chant too.

Sara pulled ahead and finished in 2:22:10, five seconds ahead of Tanui.

Had we made a difference? Had we willed her to 5th place?

Perhaps not, but we had been there with her, and it felt great.


  1. Fantastic account of the race, Greg. You should be a sports writer!

  2. I love your writing and insight.

    Sent from my iPad


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