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Interview: Dathan Ritzenhein

by Kevin Beck


Just 21 years old, Dathan Ritzenhein, a former University of Colorado Buffalo now running for Nike, has already packed plenty of ups, downs, and drama into a running career that most recently saw him take part in the Olympic 10,000m final in Athens after spending many of his earliest weeks as a professional recovering from his third lifetime stress fracture.

Ritzenhein, who this past summer elected to pass up his remaining collegiate eligibility to turn pro, first rose to national prominence when he broke 9:00 for two miles as a sophomore at Rockford High School in Michigan. He went on to collect two Foot Locker Cross Country titles and finished third at the 2001 IAAF World Junior Cross Country Championships, becoming the first American to medal in that race in nearly two decades.

Ritzenhein brought 8:44.43/13:44.7 two-mile/5,000m credentials to Boulder in the fall of 2001 and promptly finished fourth at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in November — the third-highest finish in history by a freshman — and helped Colorado to the team title. He carried that success into the winter, placing fifth in the long-course (12K) race at the USA Winter Cross Country Championships and 24th at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Dublin. In the spring, he lowered his best 5,000m time to 13:27.77 and placed fourth in that event at the NCAA Championships.

That August, however, Ritzenhein's bullet train suffered its first derailing, when a right femoral stress fracture forced him to miss his sophomore season of cross country. After cross training fervently in anticipation of a solid spring, Ritzenhein developed an injury in his opposite (left) femur and wound up redshirting the 2003 track season. Despite these frustrating setbacks, Ritzenhein roared back in November to claim his first NCAA Cross Country title in Waterloo, Iowa, edging out Stanford's Ryan Hall in a rousing homestretch duel.

Ritzenhein's first NCAA title would also be his last. Last April at the Cardinal Invitational in Palo Alto, Calif., Ritzenhein — competing in one of the more memorable 10,000m races on American soil in recent years in his debut at the distance — chased Bob Kennedy to sixth place and an NCAA record (27:38.50). The performance was under the Olympic "A" standard, a fact which would take on supreme relevance in July. Ritzenhein won the Big 12 5,000m the day after his 10,000m effort at Stanford, then finished second to Arizona's Robert Cheseret in a steamy 5,000m at the NCAA Championships in Austin, Texas, in June.

Ritzenhein was primed to take on the nation's best over 10,000m at the Olympic Trials in Sacramento the following month when connective-tissue disaster struck again — the star-crossed talent incurred a stress fracture in his foot. Nevertheless, knowing that only four other Americans (Meb Keflezighi, Abdi Abdirahman, Dan Browne, and Kennedy) held Olympic "A"-standard times and reckoning that the Trials race itself would not produce any others, Ritzenhein elected to toe the line, aiming to compete to the best of his resources but aware that simply finishing might be enough to assure him an Olympic berth. Ritzenhein cajoled himself through a painful 22nd-place finish in 31:13.91, and sure enough, when Kennedy dropped out and race winner Keflezighi opted to stick with the Olympic Marathon, the 5' 8", 125 pounder had punched his ticket to Greece.

After a bout of cross training, Ritzenhein was able to start the 10,000-meter final in Athens, but was unable to finish, stepping off the oval halfway through the race. Shortly before the Games, he had announced his decision to turn professional. Since September, Ritzenhein, still living in Boulder, has been under the direct tutelage of Brad Hudson and has also been receiving guidance from Alberto Salazar. MensRacing.com caught up with "Ritz" as he wrapped up one of the longest race-free, injury-free periods of his life.

MensRacing.com: Given recent history, a natural first question is, where are you now from a health standpoint?
Dathan Ritzenhein:
Right now I'm as healthy as I've ever been. I feel surprisingly fit and I've been getting in some really good training. I'd been cross training over the summer and when I started running in September, I was able to pick things up more quickly than after any of my previous layoffs.

MR: In terms of that solid training, have you mainly been base building or have you begun doing focused workouts?
Over the past few weeks, I've started doing more real workouts — muscular training, longer threshold workouts, some hill workouts. I've also started working more on my overall form. I feel as if I'm ready to make a real jump.

MR: Brad Hudson has said that he likes to meld his training approach with those that have served his athletes well in the past. Are there any major structural or philosophical differences between your training [at the University of Colorado] and your training under Hudson?
[Colorado] Coach [Mark] Wetmore's program was very good in terms of providing overall aerobic development. I really think he's one of the best coaches out there. But I did feel there were a few things missing, strengthening components that will hopefully eliminate the kids of injuries I've had. When I started working with Brad, I told him what I believed I was lacking, and he looked at my program and told me what he thought I was lacking. Most of the differences between Coach Wetmore's program and Brad's are in the 'extras' I'm doing now — hill sprints, drills, power-oriented things. Also, I don't do 90 to 100 miles a week in seven runs, like I used to; I do 11 or 12 runs a week.

MR: Where will you compete next?
I'll be running at the USA Winter National Cross Country Championships [in February], but I wouldn't be surprised to see me turn up somewhere else first.

MR: Stepping back a few months, when you dropped out of the Olympic 10,000m, you threw your hands in the air, a gesture many found cryptic. What exactly took you out of that race?
It was my foot. A few days after the Trials, I found that the crack in my foot had become a 'clear fracture,' i.e., the bone was broken all the way through, something I had been told wasn't likely to happen. Surprisingly, the fracture healed in four weeks, in time for me to run in the Olympics. I was cross training while the bone healed and before the 10,000 final I ran between 10 and 30 minutes eight or 10 times, just jogging on grass. I thought I'd be fine for the race. After 5K, though, the foot started hurting. I didn't want to drop out — I wasn't doing anything great in the race, but considering my training or lack thereof I was doing okay — but I didn't want to go through what I went through after the Trials, so I stopped. It turned out what I was feeling was the result of a calcium deposit, not a re-break. Live and learn.

MR: When did you first give serious consideration to going pro?
Right after the NCAA Cross Country Championships last year. I had a long talk with Coach Wetmore at that point and let him know what was on my mind. I talked to some people in the business, let them know what I was thinking. I got to the point where I was going to leave as early as last winter, but I was having enough second thoughts about things I hadn't accomplished as a collegian, so I wound up staying through the spring. When I got hurt for a third time [in college], I made my decision.

MR: When you finalized that decision, did you know you'd be training under Brad Hudson?
I didn't. I kind of thought that's where I'd be heading, but didn't finalize things with Brad until after the Olympics. I figured up to that point that I was at least as good as anyone at cross training myself during injuries.

MR: Brad describes a three-tier goal setting system that he applies to each of his athletes — we'll call those ultimate, primary, and secondary. How does this apply to you?
When we first started working together, I gave Brad my utopian 12-year plan — everything I want to accomplish over the course of my career, assuming I stay healthy. I also decided where I wanted to be one year out, and of course what I want to accomplish immediately upon returning to competition.

MR: Would you have stayed in college had it not been for winning NCAA cross in 2003?
Yes. I wouldn't have wanted to leave without accomplishing that. That's the big one; everyone's there, not separated into the 1,500, the 5,000, and the 10,000, and everyone's ready. I wanted to accomplish the same thing in track [in the 5,000m] last spring, but things didn't quite work out for me there.

MR: Are you taking classes now?
Not at the moment. I'll be taking six credits in the spring.

MR: There's already lots of talk among some of the sport's notables, such as Mark Plaatjes, about the marathon ultimately being your best event and one that you should target sooner rather than later. On one hand, you're only 21 and haven't scratched the surface of your track potential and have been injury-prone. On the other, jumping into the marathon relatively early is what non-Americans do and you've always been precocious.
Yeah, a lot of people wait too long. I do think the marathon will be my best event...actually, I know it will. I've had some lab testing done and the signs all point toward that. So I don't want to wait until I'm 30; I want to be sure I'm in my prime when I run it so I can do something special. It's true that there are things I haven't done yet on the track that I'd like to do, but I think it's possible to do more than dabble in the marathon while pursuing those things.

MR: You're now removed from the NCAA system with its built-in three-season pattern. How do you see this dictating your competitive focus? For example, road racing was obviously not an issue for you before, whereas now it could be.
My focus has already changed. This is the first time I've ever trained for four straight months without racing. I'm on my own schedule now, so I can make my own decisions regarding competing, with Brad and Alberto's help, of course. I can line up a schedule that will allow me to race the best runners in the world. There's no longer a team aspect to my running, obviously, which means I can be selfish in the way I really have to be to be at my best. And I won't be happy if, when I walk away, all people can say is, 'He was a great American distance runner.'

MR: Did observing Alan Webb's career path factor at all into your decision to similarly forsake a good chunk of your NCAA eligibility to turn pro?
Yes. Alan broke the mold; before he came along, turning pro before finishing college just didn't happen in this sport. This year, something like 15 guys left at least some eligibility behind. Had Alan not done it, you and I probably wouldn't be having this conversation.

When I talked to Coach Wetmore, he emphasized that pro running was a whole different game. In college, you can rely on others at every step. You meet people for runs, for trips, all of that stuff, every day. Out here you do it all on your own — not just running, but everything else, such as getting yourself to the airport. It requires a special, selfish kind of mindset. It's you, your goals, and your loved ones. It's very solitary. I'm fortunate to have an understanding fiancée [Kalin Toedebusch], so I'm buffered in that regard.

MR: Speaking of Webb, who would win a high-altitude yacht race, you or him?
I would definitely win in a yacht race. My mom used to have a sailboat, so I'm actually experienced at it.

MR: Clearly, you put a lot of thought into forsaking the rest of your college eligibility. Is it difficult watching CU's good fortunes [they won the NCAA team title in November], especially given that you're still in Boulder?
I'm very confident of the decision I made and I know it was the right one. I can't look back. I had the good fortune to be on an NCAA championship team as a freshman, so it's not as if I missed out. And I knew all along they [the Buffaloes] would surprise people at NCAAs. I was prepared ahead of time.

MR: You've been hurt a lot and in between have done some remarkable things. What do you see as your greatest athletic asset(s)?
I feel that I've always run well, rather than being an up-and-down type. I haven't always run great, but I do tend to avoid having bad days, when I make it to the line.

(Interview conducted December 15, 2004, and posted December 22, 2004.)

Dathan Ritzenhein kicked past Stanford's Ryan Hall to win the 2003 NCAA Cross Country title in Waterloo, Iowa.
(All photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Ritzenhein finished second to Robert Cheseret in the 5,000m at the 2004 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, shortly before announcing that he would turn pro.
Ritzenhein struggled through the Olympic Trials 10,000, running on an injured foot. Though he finished last, he still qualified for the U.S. Olympic team because he had already achieved the "A" qualifying standard and others in front of him hadn't.
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