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Healthy But ‘Underprepared,’ Ritzenhein Ready to Race Boston

The Michigan native wants to do well in Boston, but more importantly, he wants to stay healthy.

Make no doubt about it, Dathan Ritzenhein wants to make the U.S. Olympic team for the fourth time.

And that’s one of the reasons he’s looking at his first Boston Marathon on Monday as a stepping stone of sorts. With a variety of past injuries behind him and a new training base in his old West Michigan stomping grounds, Ritzenhein, 32, has a renewed energy but a conservative optimism about running his first marathon in 18 months.

Although he’s plenty fit—a third-place finish at the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Boulder on Feb. 7 and a 1:02:07 sixth-place showing at the NYC Half Marathon on March 15 are proof—he arrived in Boston a bit unprepared by design.

With the intent of staying healthy so he can train well for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon next February, he says he didn’t max out his mileage as he’s done in previous buildups—plus he ran fewer hard sessions and didn’t make a trip to a high-altitude training ground like Flagstaff, Ariz., Boulder, Colo., or Park City, Utah.

“For me right now, this has been a step back in the right direction,” he says. “I’m not sure what to expect on race day, but I know going in that I made it to the starting line healthy and every time that’s happened it’s been a success in itself, and I’ve put myself in position to do well.”

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That’s not to say he doesn’t plan on being competitive. For the moment, Ritz is just excited to be healthy and able to race. While he’s experienced amazing success in his career—ranging from an American record in the 5,000 (12:56.27), a bronze medal at the 2009 World Half Marathon Championships (in a 1:00:00 PR) and a ninth-place 2:07:47 PR effort at the 2012 Chicago Marathon—he’s also been bitten by the injury bug more times than he cares to remember.

Ritznehein’s last marathon was a solid, fifth-place 2:09:45 showing at Chicago in 2013. He had hoped to race in Boston last year, but a sports hernia forced him to withdraw six weeks before the race.

The third-fastest marathoner in U.S. history behind Ryan Hall (2:04:58, Boston, 2011; 2:06:17, London, 2008) and Khalid Khannouchi (2:05:38, London, 2002), Ritzenehein is the 12th-fastest runner entered in Monday’s elite field, which also includes former world-record holder Patrick Makau of Kenya (2:03:38) and defending champion Meb Keflezighi of the U.S. (2:08:37).

“I do feel like I have something yet to prove in the marathon, but at the same time, for me, being back healthy, is a big stepping stone and I have to think about 2016 as well,” he said. “I’ll have to be a little more patient than I’ve been in a lot of other marathons. My goal here is to finish hard, finish strong. Where that leaves me—winning it, on the podium, top 5 or whatever—if I finish this strong and I come out of this well, I can keep moving forward and that’s the most important thing.”

Getting a good race under his belt in Boston will set him up for his next block of training as he starts to prepare for the Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles. He earned Olympic berths in the 10,000-meter run in 2004 and 2012, but had his best Olympics in 2008 when he placed ninth in the marathon (2:11:59) in Beijing. Only a few American distance runners have made four Olympic teams, so he knows earning a trip to the Rio Olympics would be very special.

VIDEO: Pre-Race Interview With Meb Keflezighi

Ritzenhein says he has been energized training back in his hometown of Rockford, Mich., where he and his wife, Kalin, were high school stars from 1998-2001 before heading to the University of Colorado. They moved back last June with their two young children in tow after several years in Portland, Ore., where Dathan trained under Alberto Salazar at the Nike campus.

Aside from being close to family in West Michigan, Ritzenhein has also been able to pick the brain of former high school teammate Jason Hartmann, who famously capped his career with back-to-back fourth-place finishes in Boston in 2012 and 2013. Hartmann isn’t running as much as he used to but he’s paced Ritz through some of his runs on a bike and joined him for his last 20-miler. He’s also connected with 1983 Boston Marathon champion Greg Meyer, who grew up and continues to live in nearby Grand Rapids.

“Sometimes you feel that weight on you a little bit when things are going bad, so being back in Michigan has been a big boost for me,” he says. “When things are hard, it always feels like you’re getting kicked to the ground and that can be a drag. So being back in a supportive environment with my family and friends in a community that really coalesces around me gives me a lot of energy and support.”

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