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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
DR: 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
DR: [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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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
DR: 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?
DR: 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
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?
DR: 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
MR: Would you have stayed in college had it not been for
winning NCAA cross in 2003?
DR: 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?
DR: 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.
DR: 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.
DR: 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
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?
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.
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?
DR: 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?
DR: 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)?
DR: 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.
conducted December 15, 2004, and posted December 22, 2004.)
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)
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.
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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