LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Roughly 90 miles separate Michael Hall’s hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio and the E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park course where he will close the circle on his cross country career at Saturday’s NCAA Championships.
Hall, Florida State’s lone representative at the meet, will have a large group of family and friends on hand as he competes over the same terrain where he ran his fastest high school 5,000-meter and collegiate 8,000-meter races.
It’s fitting that the St. Xavier High middle distance star has an opportunity to add a 10,000-meter personal-best to his resume, capping a breakthrough season at the top of the Seminoles’ lineup. While this marks Hall’s third trip to the NCAA Championships, it’s the first time he has qualified individually, earning one of only 38 spots nationally reserved for runners not among the 31 team qualifiers.
He earned his place in Saturday’s 11:45 a.m. race by placing 11th at last week’s NCAA South Region Championships, where he dropped a personal-best 10,000-meter time of 30:58.5 at the Harry Pritchett Running Park in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Hall earned All-Region honors for the first time in his career, shattering his previous best placement of 30th.
His ascent did not come about by accident.
“Honestly, it started at the end of last track season, after coming off what I would could consider a decent track season; a B-plus/B-minus season,” Hall said. “Not being where I wanted to be at the national level – making nationals – coming back for cross country season. The whole concept of last one, best one resonates with me on so many levels, whether it’s in the classroom, on the track or the cross country course – if it’s in a workout – the last mile, last rep, why not make it the best one?
“You can always muster up the strength to have one more good one; one more great one in you.”
Though it’s not fair to say Hall was dragged kicking and screaming to the 10,000-meter cross country championship distance, there have been quite a few discussions with FSU coach Bob Braman over the years. That’s understandable when you consider he arrived in Tallahassee as one of the nation’s elite high school milers (4:08) in 2014.
In the grand scheme of things, Hall has progressed nicely over four seasons in cross country without sacrificing his middle distance chops. Last winter he posted the third-fastest mile in Florida State history (4:03.0) in a fourth-place finish and anchored the school record distance medley relay team’s silver medal showing at last season’s ACC Indoor Championships. Outdoors he recorded the No. 8 1500 time (3:43.70) at Stanford, qualifying for the NCAA East Preliminary, where he advanced to the second round before coming up short in a race which has served as a motivator.
“I just let it go,” Hall said, reflecting on the tactical race which he led early but faded badly with an NCAA Championships berth on the line. “That has a little to do with it.”
It wasn’t forgotten as Hall carried a fresh mindset into his summer training.
“I’m going to do all I can to put this team in the best possible position to be excellent,” Hall said. “That was my mentality the entire summer…We’re going to do what we have to do to be great.”
After opening with a solid 10th-place finish at the Virginia Tech Alumni Invitational, Hall labored to a 73rd-place finish at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational. It was a performance that pleased neither he nor his teammates.
Challenges were issued in the tent following the Notre Dame race and Hall took his head on.
“I had high expectations at Notre Dame,” Hall said. “After placing whatever place it was, not that I want to remember, I was like, ‘You know what, that’s it. It’s time to drop the mediocrity and it’s time to be great.’ From that point on I started being more disciplined.”
Harkening back to a motto on the back of on old St. Xavier t-shirt – “It’s the little things that matter” – Hall took matters into his own hands. He sought more sleep, was more conscientious about his diet and spent extra time drilling before and stretching after practices.
“It’s all the little things that people tend to overlook when they are on their pursuit of excellence,” he said. “That was my motivation.”
While disappointed, Hall also understood that the Noles were in the midst of a training cycle that often precludes them from performing at peak level in late September.
“I understood that we were still training very hard,” Hall said. “We were tired; we had tired legs and we weren’t going to get the results that we wanted. I’ve seen that historically in the past four years here. I stayed very level-headed, very composed and just kept my head down and kept grinding week after week, day after day and practice after practice.”
A week after the disappointment at Notre Dame, Hall finished second overall at the FSU Invitational in a then-personal best 8,000-meter time of 24:32.1. The effort earned him ACC Performer of the Week honors for the first time in his career. A week later against a stacked field at the Nuttycombe Wisconsin Invitational, he was FSU’s top finisher again, placing 78th.
Back at Louisville for the ACC Championships, he lowered his 8,000-meter personal-best to 24:11.5, finishing a career-best 29th overall; third among Noles behind David Barney and Stanley Linton.
Clearly, he was on track to peak in the postseason.
Beyond Hall’s dedication to the sport he is thoroughly immersed in college life. He is an autonomy member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council and a member of the Theta Eta chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He has also found time to participate in Big Brothers and Hands Across America, and is closing in on the completion of his degree this spring with an eye toward graduate school.
Ironically, Hall’s greatest cross country achievement came the week that FSU president John Thrasher banned all Greek life on campus in the wake of the death of a student who belonged to a different fraternity than Hall.
While Hall has his own strong feelings about the ban, his focus on the immediate task at hand – the NCAA South Region Championships – never wavered.
“I won’t say it made things any sweeter,” Hall said. “I won’t say it made the accomplishment of nationals better than what it is. They are distractions; distractions I’ve decided to embrace. In a sense, they were good distractions.”
Hall is unfazed by distractions. His laser-like focus when the time arrives to compete is well-known. It’s not uncommon for him to warm up alone before a race, almost to the point where his actions could be misconstrued. Even his family members know not to contact him within 24 hours of a race, barring an emergency.
“Coming to race time, that’s pretty much the main reason I choose to be by myself when we start doing pre-meet and start warming up,” Hall said. “It’s just to remove all distractions from my realm, to focus on the task at hand and after that I’ll get back to normal Mike.”
It’s a routine that has worked for Hall throughout his athletic career, and he will practice it again Saturday, with a little additional inspiration from a recent phone conversation with former Seminole standout Harry Mulenga.
Mulenga and Hall were teammates on FSU’s 2015 NCAA Championships qualifying team, and Mulenga made it back last season as an individual, placing 82nd.
“It’s a brotherly competition between us,” Hall said of Mulenga, who refers to him as ‘Me Brudda.’. “I told him, ‘Harry, I’m coming out here to beat your best. I’m coming out to knock your name off.’ He’s all for it. Harry is a huge supporter, a huge friend of mine.”
In 2016, Mulenga charged to the front early at the NCAA meet before fading in the second half of the race. It’s a strategy that Hall employed – minus the late fade – in Tuscaloosa, and one he intends to duplicate Saturday.
“I don’t run with doubt,” Hall said. “I don’t do anything I do with doubt. I’m going to put myself in the race and I’m going to run…
“There is no deviation from the plan, or the lack of a plan last week at Regionals. I am going to go out, match the intensity of the race and stick my nose in it from the beginning. I’m going to do what I know that I can do; give it my all and just have fun. Go big, or go home.”
At the end of a four-year career, Hall appears to be in the right place – at the right time – to do just that.