Ryan Hall

Ryan Hall returns to marathon racing in Boston, by way of Ethiopia

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BOSTON — The fastest U.S. marathon runner ever,* missing from 26.2-mile competition for nearly two years, his future questioned, found himself at a place called Yaya Village last month.

Ryan Hall trained for the Boston Marathon, essentially his comeback race, “buried in the sticks” in the Ethiopian countryside.

“A running monastery, very tranquil, very peaceful,” Hall said. “And the hardest training I’ve ever done in my life.”

Hall is arguably the top U.S. men’s hope in Monday’s race, his first Boston Marathon since he finished fourth in 2 hours, 4 minutes, 58 seconds in 2011, the fastest marathon ever by an American. The time does not count as an official American record, though, because of Boston’s point-to-point, downhill course.

Hall then took second at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in January 2012 to earn a trip to London. He hasn’t finished a marathon since. If that month in Ethiopia was the hardest training in his life, the two years prior may have been the most trying.

He dropped out of the 2012 Olympic marathon near mile 11 with a right hamstring injury.

“I’ve never DNF’d a race before, so this is a first for me,” Hall said in London. “Not finishing a race is not an option unless I think I’m going to do serious damage to my career.”

Hall withdrew from the 2012 New York City Marathon, before Hurricane Sandy canceled it, due to injuries that included plantar fasciitis and tightness in his legs.

Hall withdrew from the 2013 Boston Marathon due to a quadriceps strain.

Hall withdrew from the 2013 New York City Marathon due to a hip injury.

Hall came out of the stretch the better for it, calling it the best two years of his career, though he doesn’t want to relive it.

“I feel like I’m kind of failing my way to the top,” Hall, 31, said. “I see it as part of the process. I wouldn’t trade from 2012 to now. I don’t think I would have gotten to where I’m going to get to if I hadn’t gone through those two years. I’m grateful for them.”

Boston Marathon: The Boylston Street pre-race scene

Hall said he started up again “from ground zero” in December, after health issues cut short a training trip to Kenya in the fall.

The climb took him 9,000 feet above sea level in March to Yaya Village, a resort seven miles north of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. His wife, fellow runner Sara Hall, visited Ethiopia last fall and raved about it. They went to Yaya together in March.

Yaya was founded in 2009 by a group that included marathon legend Haile Gebreselassie and bills itself as “a runners paradise above the clouds.”

Hall saw something different. An image burned in his brain from his month in Ethiopia was of women his grandmother’s age carrying loads of firewood up the same mountain on which he trained.

Hall said a local coach told him the women trek 30km. He estimated they’d earn about $5 U.S. Dollars for their journey.

“I’ll never forget the look in their eyes when you drive past,” Hall said. “The best image I’ve seen of what true strength is. It wasn’t like the Hollywood glamour type strength. It was like I’m going to make this no matter what.”

That rolled into Hall’s learning experience there, both mental and physical. He got an up-close view of an Ethiopian’s way of life. An East African has won every Boston Marathon since 2002 and all but one since 1991.

“They’re accustomed to suffering,” Hall said. “That’s what makes them so good.”

His training runs included going downhill for 10km and then uphill for 20km. He ate injera and drank macchiatos.

“I’ve never seen so much growth in my training in such a short time,” Hall said. “It makes you tough as nails.”

Home in Flagstaff, Hall prepared for Boston on a special treadmill that mimics Boston’s hilly course, rising and falling with accompanying video. He flew into Boston on Thursday, sat at a table near the finish line at a Copley Plaza hotel on Friday and made two short statements two years in the making.

“I’m feeling great,” he said. “Ready to go.”

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Ashley Wagner eyes history at Grand Prix Final after ‘disaster’ in Japan

Ashley Wagner
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Ashley Wagner can next week become the first U.S. singles skater to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, but not if she performs like she did last weekend at NHK Trophy in Japan.

“NHK was a disaster,” the three-time U.S. champion said Tuesday, “but that was kind of a one-time deal.”

Wagner backed into the Grand Prix Final as the sixth and final women’s qualifier by finishing fourth at NHK Trophy on Saturday, snapping her streak of 10 straight podium finishes in Grand Prix events. She had won Skate Canada four weeks earlier.

The Grand Prix Final is the most prestigious annual figure skating competition outside of the World Championships and an event that Wagner calls a preview for Worlds (in Boston in late March/early April).

In Japan, Wagner had trouble cleanly landing and fully rotating jumps in both programs, and though she didn’t fall, her mental state was clearly shaken even before the free skate Saturday.

Japanese legend Mao Asada (one of three women to make four straight Grand Prix Final podiums, along with Irina Slutskaya and Michelle Kwan) skated immediately before Wagner.

The home crowd was at its loudest after Asada rebounded from her own poor short to move into the lead (temporarily, Asada finished third).

“I didn’t know how Mao had skated,” said Wagner, who was in third after the short program. “I figured I needed to at least get on the podium [to definitely make the Grand Prix Final], and I knew that I could probably afford a fourth place [to still make the Final]. I think that is where I went wrong. I should have just put my head down, started fresh and gone into that long program not focusing on, OK, well, I can get as low as this and I’ll make it to the [Grand Prix] Final. I think that didn’t really get me into the fighting spirit that I’m so used to competing with. When I focus on the results and not how I’m going to get there, it usually doesn’t go so well for me. It was a rookie mistake.

“I think I was playing it safe and trying to avoid making a mistake, and of course that’s exactly what I ended up doing.”

Wagner placed fifth in the free skate and fourth overall. She actually could have finished sixth overall and still made the Barcelona Grand Prix Final.

So she goes into next weekend’s competition as an underdog to Russians Yevgenia Medvedeva and Yelena Radionova, the last two World Junior champions. Plus countrywoman Gracie Gold and Asada.

Wagner’s confidence that the NHK hiccup won’t repeat could be bolstered by last season, when she was also the last qualifier into the Grand Prix Final (before Gold withdrew), was in last place after the Final short program but starred in the free skate to grab bronze.

“I like it when I have something not go so well,” she said. “When things are too perfect for too long, in a way it kind of freaks me out a little bit.”

Wagner called the women’s field in Barcelona “wide open.” It may be, given six different women won the six qualifying events, the first time nobody doubled up since 2006.

However, Wagner tapped Asada when asked to name her biggest competition. Wagner, 24, and Asada, 25, are the only women’s Grand Prix Final qualifiers older than 20.

“When she’s on, [Asada] has the whole package,” Wagner said of the three-time World champion who took last season off from competition. “She knows how to put on a performance. The audience loves her. Technically, she’s very strong. I think that If I had to pinpoint someone, Mao Asada on one of her good days, is definitely going to be one of the top girls.”

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Travis Ganong on the rise, leads U.S. men into Beaver Creek

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BEAVER CREEK, Colo. (AP) — Before checking into his Colorado hotel, Travis Ganong made a quick pit stop with his doctor to get the stitches removed from his surgically repaired right thumb.

The digit remains extremely swollen even two weeks after a training crash. So much so that he can barely push out of the starting gate.

Not that anyone could tell in Lake Louise, Alberta, last weekend, when Ganong finished third in a downhill race and came within a wisp of another podium spot in the super-G.

Stitches removed and confidence soaring, Ganong’s eager to take on the demanding course in Beaver Creek over the weekend. This is a place where last February he earned a breakthrough silver medal in the downhill at World Championships (video here).

”It’s really nice to have these solid results so early in the season. It takes the edge off,” Ganong said. ”Before you have the first result, you’re always questioning yourself. Now I can relax and that’s when the really good skiing comes.”

The 27-year-old from Squaw Valley, California, has been a rising force on the U.S. speed team since a fifth-place finish at the 2014 Sochi Games.

In such a fast sport, though, he’s taken a gradual approach to his development – never racing outside his comfort zone until he was good and ready. That was all part of his calculated plan, which came to fruition last season as he won his first World Cup downhill race in Italy and earned his first medal at Worlds.

”I was always building, building, building, getting better and better incrementally,” Ganong said. ”Last year I was like, ‘OK, my time is now. I need to try something new.’

”Bam, I won a race. But then I would have a horrible race. … Now this year it’s all about bringing that consistency back to the top, top level.”

Growing up in Squaw Valley, Ganong could always be found somewhere on the mountain, whether it was skiing powder in the back-country with his father, cross-country skiing (he was good, too), snowboarding (yep, he tried that), going over moguls or training with his team.

”We had this two- or three-inch rule where if it snowed that much, we didn’t worry about setting up gates. We’d go freeskiing and chase each other around the mountain,” Ganong said. ”That’s the No. 1 reason why so many good skiers come out of there.”

Like longtime U.S. skiing great Daron Rahlves, one of Ganong’s idols as a kid. The two talk all the time about ways Ganong can uncover more speed.

”I really excel on the steeper, more gnarly courses,” Ganong said. ”I need to try to figure out a way to bring that same intensity to the easier hills that are a little flatter and not my strong suit. Daron and I, that’s all we talk about when we talk about ski racing.”

Ganong broke through last weekend in Lake Louise, which is more of a glider’s course.

Not bad considering his recent wipeout. He tumbled during an early morning training session in Vail when he didn’t pick up a roll in the terrain. He needed surgery to fix a torn tendon and ligaments. He also bruised his left knee.

So he didn’t have all that high of expectations going into Lake Louise.

”For me to have that kind of speed on that kind of hill, yeah, that was a little surprising,” Ganong said. ”I skied really relaxed and just kind of within myself.”

No one could catch Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, though, who came away with wins on both days as he returns to the World Cup circuit after tearing his Achilles tendon last season while juggling a soccer ball.

”Aksel just knows how to let the skis go,” Ganong said. ”But Beaver Creek? It’s a different hill.”

Ganong’s kind of hill.

”Beaver Creek is way more my style of skiing and my style of hill,” said Ganong, who was fifth last December in a World Cup downhill at Birds of Prey. ”I’m trying to not think too much about it, just keep working hard, and keep thinking I’m an underdog and have something to prove.

”Hopefully, that’s a good mentality to keep me fired up.”

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