Ryan Hall: I went from a kid who hated running to a kid who was devoting my life to the passion of seeing what God had put inside me and trying to get the most out of myself.
Running Toward God to Find Our True Value: Ryan Hall and Holly Dowling – Episode #147
Narrator: Welcome to the Jesus Calling Podcast. Today’s guests share how they’ve stopped measuring themselves against the world’s standards and have come to know their value in God’s eyes: former Olympic runner Ryan Hall and inspirational thought leader Holly Dowling.
First up, Ryan Hall grew up loving every other sport but running. However, over the years he cultivated a God-given passion for the sport and learned resilience and diligence were the keys to competing in the Olympic games in 2008 and 2012. Today Ryan tells us how his faith sustained him during a time when the way forward seemed unclear, and how God is now using him to help people around the world with the sport he loves.
Ryan Hall: My name is Ryan Hall, and kind of what I’m best known for is; I competed in the 2008 and the 2012 Olympic Games for the United States in the marathon. I ran professionally for over 10 years and have the American record in the half marathon.
I’m also a dad of four adopted girls from Ethiopia. They’re all biological sisters.
Now I’m currently retired from professional running and an author, speaker, and mostly a dad and husband.
Discovering a Gift to Bless Other People
I grew up in Big Bear Lake in Southern California. It’s a small resort town of about 9,000 people. I’m in the middle of five kids, so we had a big, full, energetic household. I had very strong parents that brought us up in a Christian home, and have lots of memories of church and family Bible studies, and they introduced us to Jesus at a very young age.
I wanted to play professional baseball, but the problem was that’s just not how God made me to be. I was 5 foot tall and 100 pounds going into high school, and if you’ve watched professional baseball before, you’ve probably noticed those guys are not 5 foot tall and 100 pounds.
I remember I was driving down to a basketball game, I was in eighth grade at the time. And I remember just kind of looking out over the lake in my hometown in Big Bear and felt God gave me this seedling of a desire to try and run around the lake. The problem is the lake is 15 miles around, so that’s a pretty big run for a first time runner that’s never run before. But you know, something about it just captured me.
And so I went home. I told my dad about that moment and that I wanted to try and run around the lake and he was like, “Okay, if that’s what you feel like God is telling you do, let’s go do it together.”
So the next Saturday my dad laced up his running shoes, because he was into running. I was in basketball shoes, which it turns out there’s a good reason why they make running shoes to run in and basketball shoes to play basketball in, as my feet would attest to over two hours later when I stumbled through the front door exhausted, tired, with blisters all over my feet. But I’d made it. There was a real sense of accomplishment, like I was on the right path and I was doing what I was meant to do.
I remember collapsing on the couch, and I felt like God was telling me that He gave me a gift to run with the best guys in the world, but He gave me that gift so that I could help other people.
“God was telling me that He gave me a gift to run with the best guys in the world, but He gave me that gift so that I could help other people.” – Ryan Hall
Running After Resilience
It’s really interesting now, being on the other side of my journey, having been to two Olympics, what I’ve learned is that [it mostly took] resilience–just getting back up over and over and over again.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible says, “Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again.” I can’t tell you how many times I would remind myself of that verse.
That verse is so powerful, as you kind of like sit on it and think about it. Number one, I find it interesting because you don’t think of a righteous man as falling, let alone falling seven times in a row, and yet that’s what happened to him. I think the reason why a righteous man falls but then rises again is because of his identity, and him seeing himself as righteous, even though he’s not. He makes mistakes, he falls, but it’s how he sees himself [that helps him rise again]. It’s an identity issue.
That’s something that was a big part of my journey in running, because for a long time I saw myself based on how I performed. When I was performing well, I was happy with what I saw in the mirror. When I was not performing well, I got depressed. When I was injured, I got even more depressed.
That actually culminated during my time at Stanford. I actually dropped out of school during my sophomore year, and I didn’t know if I was going to come back. I was just super down, super depressed. Nothing was going well. My academics weren’t going well. My running wasn’t going well, and I didn’t know what to do. I thought that by changing my geographic location, I could change what was going on inside my heart.
But as I went home, I actually got even more depressed and things got even worse. And then when I decided to come back to Stanford is when God started to really bring what I knew in my head, like, what makes me special is that I’m a child of God made in the image of God. God sees me as righteous through the blood of Jesus. He really made that sink down into my heart.
I started seeing myself how God sees me, and that was a really, really powerful shift for me. It just allowed me to go out and enjoy my sport more. I felt free. I felt free to take risks. I felt free to fail because I was no longer taking my failures personally. My failures weren’t a reflection of who I was, they were just something that had happened to me. And I can handle things that happened to me. It’s very difficult to handle when you start to internalize and believe you are your failures. So I went back to Stanford.
“I started seeing myself how God sees me, and that was a really, really powerful shift for me.” – Ryan Hall
A place that has always resonated with me is stadiums. I just love stadiums, for some reason. I would go into the Stanford football stadium when no one else was in there, and I would do my Bible studies in there. I remember just bringing like a pen and notebook in my Bible, and I would write down the things I felt like Jesus was telling me, and then I’d read the Bible. Those were the times when Jesus started, like I said, bringing what I knew in my head to be true, He brought it down into my heart and it really started to sink in.
I think it’s just a matter of not just having that one period where I spend a lot of time with God, but it’s day by day creating time, prioritizing time with God so that He can continue to do this work inside of me. I’ve found most of the lessons I’ve learned, they’re not one-time lessons. If you daily cultivate that mindset and nurture that shift in your spirit, that makes it last.
Training Our Eyes to Focus on Jesus
Narrator: Ryan’s routine includes quiet time with God. He enjoys using tools like Jesus Calling to help him keep a dialogue going with God every day.
Ryan Hall: I think it’s so powerful for all of us when we feel like God is speaking directly to us.
My wife Sarah got a copy of the book, and she had it on her nightstand and would read passages before she’d go to bed. And so I picked it up and started reading some passages, and I just really resonated with [author] Sarah [Young] and her experiences, talking about developing this conversation with God and actually asking Him questions and hearing back from Him.
I’m going to read a passage from Jesus Calling, and this comes from October 15th:
Try to stay conscious of Me as you go step by step through this day. My Presence with you is both a promise and a protection. After My resurrection, I assured My followers: Surely I am with you always. That promise was for all of My followers, without exception.
The promise of My Presence is a powerful protection. As you journey through your life, there are numerous pitfalls along the way. Many voices clamor for your attention, enticing you to go their way. A few steps away from your true path are pits of self-pity and despair, plateaus of pride and self-will. If you take your eyes off Me and follow another’s way, you are in grave danger. Even well-meaning friends can lead you astray if you let them usurp My place in your life. The way to stay on the path of Life is to keep your focus on Me. Awareness of My Presence is your best protection.
I love this passage because it’s something I would tell myself often when I was on the starting line.
I would just constantly go back to that in my mind because the road felt too hard for me to travel. I’m like, I cannot run 4:45 per mile for 26 miles in a row. It just seemed impossible, even though I had trained for it. But what did seem possible was focusing on Jesus, who was right with me right there in that moment, and just staying as close to Him as I could. I find that to be a super, super powerful thought and intention for us to have as Christians.
Learning How to Let Go of Winning and Trust God
I remember very vividly when I was first getting into the sport of running, being in Big Bear, doing hill sprints on this really steep hill by my house, and the snow is just coming down super hard. It was like something out of a Rocky movie, you know. I was out training in the elements and pushing myself as hard as I could possibly push myself.
I remember having this thought during that workout, like, I wonder what it takes and what characteristics I need to develop to become an Olympian?
In 2008, I competed in the Olympics and finished 10th, which wasn’t what I was hoping for. I was hoping for a medal there, so mild disappointment there.
And then in 2012, I competed again and hoped for a medal. I ended up dropping out of that race with a hamstring issue. That was also a very difficult experience for me to go through.
As a kid, when I was 13 and getting into the sport, I dreamed about having my best stuff at the Olympics. That’s really the time to shine as an athlete. And so when that didn’t happen, you know, there was a lot that I had to work through with those experiences.
I remember being on the airplane, and this was 2016. I was trying to train for the 2016 Olympic trials. I remember looking out over the landscape, and I felt like God was telling me, “It . . . it’s not supposed to last forever.”
Peace just kind of came over me, and I could just exhale deeply for the first time in a long time and be like, It’s okay.
So that was when I decided that it was time for me to hang it up. And to be honest, when I made the decision, I felt a big sense of relief. As an athlete, you’re always juggling [to be] content with where you’re at, but also expecting there’s more there and looking for breakthrough and trying to get to new levels, trying to cultivate your talent. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, but it’s kind of hard to look back on your career and fully appreciate it when you’re going after more.
But when I got to the end of the season and I finally retired, I could finally for the first time look back in my career and be like, “Man, I’m so grateful that I had the experience of breaking an hour in the half marathon and setting an American record. I’m so grateful I had the experience of finishing 4th at the Boston Marathon and running one of the fastest times ever run in 120 years on that course.” So things like that where I could be, for the first time, just fully just thankful for it and be able to move on into the next season in my life.
Helping Others Through Running
I want to extract all these lessons that God’s taught me, all the things I feel like He’s told me along the way, and I want to share those with people so I can help them on their journey.
“I want to extract all these lessons that God’s taught me, all the things I feel like He’s told me along the way, and I want to share those with people so I can help them on their journey.” – Ryan Hall
When I was 13 and started running and I felt like God told me He was giving me a gift from the best guys in the world, but it gave me that gift so I could help other people, it took me years and years to figure out how you help other people through running.
And it was really in 2008 after the Olympic Games, [my wife] Sarah and I, we partnered with Team World Vision. And a group of runners from Team World Vision got together, ran the Chicago Marathon, did some fundraising for it, and all of that money went to bring clean water to a community in Zambia of about 90,000 people.
I’ll never forget standing next to a local villager, and he started talking with me. He was just like, “I’m so grateful that you guys brought this clean water to us. Because you guys did this, everyone in my community–the life expectancy is going to go up by 10 years.”
And I just thought, Wow, how powerful is that? A group of us can go run a race and fundraise, and as a result 90,000 people get to live 10 years longer. It just like blew my mind.
After I retired from running, as I started to sit down and write, I found it to be a really fun and therapeutic process for me to go through. I would just get up every morning at 5:00 AM and type for an hour, an hour and a half.
I’m really excited to share some of these lessons that God’s taught me. We’ve hit on a couple of them. but there’s 26 different chapters. In each one of those, I talk about one of my experiences in my career and what God taught me in that experience that is now a lasting, impactful life lesson that has changed my life drastically.
Those are the things that last longer than the records that we set, that are more important than the times we run or the experiences that we have on the road. Those are the true life changing things that will last forever.
Narrator: Stay tuned for our interview with inspirational thought leader Holly Dowling after a brief message about a free offer from Jesus Calling.
Want a daily reminder that we can have hope, peace and joy each day in Jesus? Now it’s as easy as opening an email. The Jesus Calling Daily Email brings you a thought from the Jesus Calling family of devotionals every day. Brighten up your inbox with this little reminder and take a minute to connect with God during your day. To sign up to get your free, daily thought from Jesus Calling, please visit Jesus Calling.com/daily-email.
Narrator: Our next guest is inspirational thought leader Holly Dowling. Around the world, Holly inspires crowds with her encouraging and uplifting words. But today, she tells us about the dark moments when she allowed others to define her worth, and how she ultimately came to believe that she is God’s beloved child and her worthiness rests in Him alone.
Holly Dowling: I’m Holly Dowling, and I’m very blessed to get to be a messenger of inspiration around the world.
I’m a big believer that every human being has gifts, every human being was put on this earth with a gift from God. And what do we do to help flourish that and help rekindle that in the people around us, our loved ones, and in the corporate world. So that’s my passion.
People Don’t Define Our Worth, God Does
I was raised Presbyterian. And to be honest, we were raised very religious, and I mean that we would go to church on Sundays, but it was a very dysfunctional home. My father and mother, who I love dearly, who have now been married for almost 30 years now–my father was an alcoholic, and so I grew up with the walking on eggshells. I always knew, though, that they wanted us to know that there was a God.
So much of who we are has so much to do with who we were when we were younger. And I, in my own journey, have realized that I think a lot of it, we push away, whether it’s out of shame or feeling we were never good enough.
Growing up, I’m the oldest of four children, and most of my memories are from Pennsylvania, where we were for several years ‘til we moved to the Midwest when I went to high school. And what’s fascinating about thinking back on my earlier years, I was the girl that you would never imagine would be on stages around the world inspiring people.
This beautiful organization came into my life called Young Life, and Young Life is a beautiful Christian organization for the youth. And it was through those friends and the people I met–and that kind of set that community of faith and [being] around really neat people–peers that got me back on track. And honestly, I went from feeling like I was a failure because I became imperfect and I was broken, and I think I dealt so much with constantly feeling that I’ve sinned and that I need to be forgiven, that I never saw God as a loving Father.
And so it was during that journey from college and then going through a really tough, abusive relationship that made me realize that I’m alive (because I shouldn’t be alive) because of something much greater than me.
It was after that that my faith really turned to realizing that you don’t have to be perfect. Actually, I believe that it’s in our imperfections that we’re beautiful. When we’re broken, we’re beautiful. And I finally was able to see God, and that’s when Jesus really revealed Himself to me.
“I believe that it’s in our imperfections that we’re beautiful. When we’re broken, we’re beautiful.” – Holly Dowling
[My feelings of worth are] no longer about human beings. I had to let go of looking to human beings as my . . . I put too much faith in human beings. And I realized that at the end of the day, human beings, we’re all human. We let people down, they can let us down, but God’s always been there for me. And it was in the darkest of times that I think sometimes we miss seeing the light.
Empowering Young Women Around the World
You know, I’m constantly saying I want to use my soul at its highest calling. And I think that when we truly are in a place of servanthood, whatever you choose to do in this world, it opens you up to all kinds of opportunities.
If you would have asked me four years ago, I would have had no idea that I would be asked to be a partner of Girl Up in the United Nations Foundation. And in the journey of doing that, it’s so fascinating: I’ve raised three boys, but I’m passionate about women and young women and empowering them, and because I don’t want young women to end up how I did, in some really abusive situations, and going down that path.
And so with all that said, when [the United Nations] asked me to be an ambassador and a partner, I really took it seriously and I had to learn what Girl Up was about.
Girl Up has taken off. It’s only been around for eight years, going on nine. It’s one of many foundations that the United Nations supports, and it was organized and basically started because of this need, these young girls—11, 12, 13 years old—the trafficking that’s going on. [We work to give] them empowerment to know that they are they are worthy of getting educated, they’re worthy of being loved.
This organization has set up chapters all over the world. I mean, there’s multiple thousands of chapters, and they’re in our own backyard in schools. They start in schools. And for some schools and for some girls, this is about getting them a higher level of education, getting them an opportunity to go to college when they never thought they could.
So that’s my mission right now. And so for anybody out there that wants to join me on this mission, I am determined we are going to figure this out.
You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Loved
I think that human beings by nature are hungry for that spiritual purpose, that higher purpose. And when they see somebody standing there that can have this strong credibility and, let’s just say, a leadership platform, right? And yet be able to be real and authentic and share it from a spiritual place . . . I always pray before every time I go on stage. I’m always praying on my knees saying, “God use me. Let the words come out of my mouth. Let them see you through my eyes and hear you through my mouth.” And then I let it go.
About 10, 12 years ago, a very dear friend of mine who I met speaking, she knew as soon as I came off stage, she walked up and said, “You’re a woman of faith. You’re a Christian, and I can tell.” And I love it when I hear that. She said, “I have something for you. Have you ever heard of Jesus Calling?”
I’m like, “No. What is that?”
She goes, “It’s my favorite devotional. You don’t need to get it. I’m going to mail it to you.”
Within a week, I had Jesus Calling in my hands.
I hope that everybody has their own little rituals. I could spend a whole hour talking about [how] rituals are so important for our life and how you ground yourself. So my morning is my most sacred time. I spend seven minutes in prayer and meditation, and I spend seven minutes reading my favorite devotionals, of which number one is Jesus Calling. It’s the same [copy my friend gave me]. It’s tattered and worn. If you could see it right now and I could show you, it’s tattered and worn, but I refuse to get a new one. It’s been with me every single day. And you have to know that I travel all over the world, and this one goes with me.
There was a day that I was scampering to get out [of the house]. The driver was there, and I had to jump in a car to get to the airport. My husband noticed that [my Jesus Calling] was sitting on my little table, and he knew I would be devastated when I got to my hotel that night in the city [and it wasn’t there]. My husband called, found out where I was going to be staying, and took my Jesus Calling and had it overnighted so I would have it in the morning. That is how much this has made an impact on my life.
I think the greatest gift I’ve been given in this lifetime . . . it took me years to feel loved by God and let go of feeling that you have to be perfect to be loved. And I really stand by [this thought]: you don’t have to be perfect to be priceless. And it is when we are broken we are beautiful, because the light can shine through us. And I think the greatest gift we can give to ourselves is permission to love ourselves for who we are.
“I think the greatest gift we can give to ourselves is permission to love ourselves for who we are.” – Holly Dowling
To anybody listening, just know you’re loved for exactly who you are. There’s no shame in what we’ve been through. And we all have gifts. We’ve been put in this world. This life is a gift, and what we do with it for ourselves and others is our gift back to God.
Narrator: You can learn more about Holly’s mission and resources at her website hollydowling.com.
Narrator: If you’re looking for more inspiration around finding our true value in God’s eyes, check out our interview with Chelsea Crockett and Kaylee Rutland.
Narrator: Next time on the Jesus Calling Podcast, we talk with members of a unique faith-based retail clothing company called Altar’d State. Committed to their mission of “standing out for good,” Altar’d State works with local and international mission organizations to support their efforts to help people in need around the world. Altar’d State CEO Aaron Walters tells us why he’s chosen to lead his company this way.
Aaron Walters: One of my goals is to build a company that my mother would be proud of.
Faith is a part of your life, and so I felt like it should be a part of our company. And that’s really been the mentality behind it. I would love to tell you there’s there’s some brilliant vision or whatever it may be. But as a human being, you know, I’m amazed anybody that can make it through life without faith because I know it’s a struggle. Every day for me, there’s challenges I face.