photo by Kent Porter, The Press Democrat

This interview was first published June 22, 2011.

Former Santa Rosan Sara Bei Hall became the first high school athlete ever to win four individual cross country state titles in California. She belongs to Montgomery High’s Class of 2001 and was inducted in 2010 to that Santa Rosa, Calif. school’s athletic Hall of Fame.

As a high school student, she won the 2000 Footlocker National Championship. At Stanford University, she was a Pac-10 champion in both cross country and the 5,000-meters event in track.

In September 2005, she married fellow runner and Stanford grad Ryan Hall, who she had started dating her first week of freshman year. After graduation, both Ryan and Sara became professional athletes. Ryan went on to place tenth in the 2008 Olympic marathon in Beijing. Sara’s recent accomplishments include winning the 1,500-meter event in January at the 104th Millrose Games in New York City. She next competes at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, June 23-26 in Eugene, Ore.

But the couple wants to do more than make a difference on the track. Together they have created the Hall Steps Foundation, which they say “aims to empower the running community to use the energy and resources that fuel runners’ athletic achievements for social justice efforts.” Their motto: You shouldn’t try to be the best in the world … but to do the best for the world.”

THE INTERVIEW

What first sparked your interest in running? What is it that you love so much about running and racing?

I first fell in love with running the summer before my seventh-grade year when I decided to start training for the upcoming cross country season. I lived across the street from Spring Lake and loved exploring the trails in Annadel State Park. I have always been very self-motivated and would try to better my time on the same loop every day. By the time the season rolled around, I won my first middle school race in a thrilling sprint finish, and from that point on I’ve been hooked!

Lots of groups work for social justice. What is different about the Hall Steps Foundation? How do you hope it will help runners make a difference in this world?

Ryan and I started the Hall Steps Foundation because we saw firsthand the enthusiasm and determination of the running community and how it could literally change lives in developing countries when directed towards social justice fundraising. But we also saw a lot of apathy from people when it came to the issue of global poverty because it seems like such an insurmountable issue. So we wanted to start an organization where people could take their “step,” no matter how big or small, in eradicating poverty, while also taking steps towards bettering their own health and accomplishing their own goals. What’s resulted is a running community of globally minded individuals who want to run for a reason and encourage one another in the process – which is really special!

What issues does the foundation currently address? Why did you choose those issues? What other groups help you?

We have narrowed our focus right now to fighting poverty through health. This is still very broad and has allowed us to make grants to both international and domestic organizations, as we have poverty-related health issues at home as well! To date these have included clean water projects in East Africa, efforts against human trafficking in southeast Asia, a program for homeless individuals in Boston to work towards self sufficiency while training for a race, and starting youth running-mentoring programs in low-income areas. Currently we are writing a grant to build a hospital in East Africa where many of the elite runners train. It’s quite a range, but it reflects the different needs Ryan and I are passionate about.

Would you share a personal highlight of your efforts to make a difference?

I’ve been very involved from the beginning not only in the big picture, but the nitty-gritty, behind-the-scenes of running the organization. It’s been a huge learning experience for me, but a rewarding one when you are at the finish tent of the Chicago marathon with 65 other runners who are so thrilled to have completed a marathon for a great cause. We are looking forward to getting to see that hospital one day and meet the beneficiaries.

What comes next for you? What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years in terms of your running career and the foundation’s work?

Right now I am gearing up for the US National track championships in Eugene, Oregon at the end of June, hoping to qualify for the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea the end of August. I recently ran the A-standard, which puts me in a good position to make the team, and I’m excited to give it my best shot! Long term, making the Olympic team next year is a huge goal, and fortunately I have the A-standard for the games as well.

As far as the foundation, we are looking to narrow our focus even more, but we want it to come naturally as Ryan and I travel and see what needs are out there that need to be addressed and go about it in the right way. We are hoping to build a movement similar to Livestrong where fighting global poverty is “cool” and trendy. We are dreaming big and excited to see what God does!

Both Ryan and you seem to be intense competitors. What have you found that helps you work as partners to meet your goals, to support one another and, when necessary, to sacrifice for one another?

Ryan and I couldn’t be doing what we are without each other – this year especially, as we left our team and went out on our own. We fortunately have flexible schedules day to day to help each other with the other’s workouts and be at each other’s races as much as we can. It helps having someone that knows the mental side of the sport, too, as it is easy in an individual sport to let it become all-consuming.

Ryan’s and my faith is very central to our lives and helps us keep things in perspective, and we continually remind each other why we are running and what our goals in life are in general that have nothing to do with running – like loving God and loving others, and making sure that whatever we do still aligns with that. But it’s been an exciting journey together because God has put some big things in our hearts and continues to dream with us, and He has been so faithful to provide more than we could ever imagine along the way!

As a competitor, what have you learned to help you deal with struggles and disappointments?

I’ve definitely had my fair share of disappointments, and come close to hanging up my spikes at times. But I didn’t have a peace in it, and felt there was more there that God wanted to do with my running, and that I can make more of an impact in the areas I want to by running and using that platform than if I were just doing the work hands on. So I’ve pressed on through a lot of setbacks and it has made me incredibly stronger as an individual and allowed me to see God show up in my life in ways that I wouldn’t trade for an easy career. That being said, I’ve been enjoying the success I’ve had this year SO much considering all I’ve gone through – to have consistently good performances and “breakthrough” this year has been a confirmation of the faith I had.

What lessons have you learned?

I’ve learned not to put my self-worth in what I do, but in who God says that I am – His child, who He loves completely and unconditionally. That has been the biggest thing. I’ve also learned to be incredibly persistent and resilient – to pick myself up, dust myself off, and take risks again. I’ve learned to accept the freedom that comes through Christ and frees us from the fear of failure. And I’ve learned it’s possible to pursue your passions simultaneously – you just have to be creative!

Here is a link to the Hall Steps Foundation.