Late on Monday evening, Joe Klecker and Ollie Hoare got a pretty good glimpse of their future.
As they were digging hard down the homestretch of the Niwot High School track about 20 minutes north of Boulder, they could envision the finish lines they’d be chasing as professional runners — competitive races held in huge stadiums with big goals at stake, Diamond League meets, World Championships, and of course, the Olympics.
But for the moment, they were dealing with the effects of running an all-out mile at 5,000 feet above sea level with only a handful of friends and a few recreational joggers in sight. While it wasn’t an officially sanctioned race — more of a glorified time trial in this rewritten summer of the coronavirus pandemic — it was no ordinary mile effort.
Colorado’s First Sub-4 Mile
When Hoare, a 23-year-old Australian, broke the imaginary finish tape a few strides ahead of Klecker, also 23 and the pride of Minnetonka, Minn., the first steps of their future became a reality.
Hoare, the 2018 NCAA 1,500-meter champion who just finished his collegiate career at the University of Wisconsin, was timed in 3:56.80. Klecker, a recent University of Colorado graduate who was the 2019 NCAA runner-up in cross country, followed in 3:58.56.
The biggest take-away wasn’t that it was the first time the 4-minute mile barrier has been broken Colorado soil — though that’s pretty cool, given how many runners have tried to break it in recent years — but more the statement it made about the newly formed On Athletics Club (OAC) Hoare and Klecker are training in under coach Dathan Ritzenhein.
“Yeah, it’s pretty cool,” says Klecker, who signed in April to run for On, the Swiss running brand behind the OAC. “It went pretty well and it was a fun race. We’re off to a good start. The training has been going really well.”
The OAC mile time trial was hand-timed with two watches per runner and not recorded with fully automatic timing, so whether it sticks as a certified mark remains to be seen. But those details are arguably irrelevant; the story is that OAC has started with a bang. Although the team won’t be formally announced until Aug. 10 (via a livestream event on Instagram that is expected to include an exciting video of that sub-4 mile), several of the runners have been training together in Boulder since mid-June. Some of the OAC runners might compete at the Music City Distance Carnival on Aug. 15 in Nashville, Tenn.
The On Athletics Club Team
The catalyst of the OAC’s formation arose from the relationship between Ritzenhein and On’s U.S. sports marketing director Steve DeKoker when both were connected to Brooks. Although Ritzenhein was a Nike runner for most of his career, he spent the last two and a half years with Brooks. He had hoped to run the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon but withdrew because of an injury.
DeKoker was hired by On in April charged with signing high-level U.S. athletes and starting a new high-performance program. He zeroed in on Klecker, who he inked in April, and then began talking to Ritzenhein, who formally announced his retirement in May.
Ritzenhein, 37, says he’s known he’s wanted to coach professionally for a long time, even since before he served as a volunteer assistant under Andy Powell at the University of Oregon in 2014 and later as an assistant at Grand Valley State. More recently, he has coached Falland, who ran a 4:33 mile indoors in February, and guided Boulder-based Parker Stinson to an American record at 25K on the roads and a new marathon PR of 2:10:53.
The opportunity in heading up the OAC was too good for Ritzenhein to pass up, even if it meant packing up the family and moving from Grand Rapids, Mich., where he and his wife, Kalin, grew up, to Boulder, where he and Kalin both went to school. That Ritzenhein and Klecker both ran for the University of Colorado under Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs and appreciate the high altitude training environment in Boulder are just two of the many elements that seem to make it an irresistible opportunity for future success.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for sure,” Ritzenhein said. “When I first talked to Steve about this, it was exciting to be able to align with a company that was growing. I really believe what our training group wants to do really align with the company’s brand. We’re trying to create something authentic with a lot of high-performance goals, but we also want to inspire people along the way. It’s a balance, which is why we have to have the right people involved. For me personally, I felt like I was growing in my own career as a coach and ready to bounce to the next level, just like On is.”
On entered the American running shoe market about five years ago and has made its mark as one of the fastest-growing brands at U.S. specialty retail stores. It has sponsored elite international runners and triathletes for years, but now it wants to compete at a high level in the U.S. After signing Klecker, On inked Jake Riley, who was second at the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, to a long-term deal.
The brand’s long-term commitment to the U.S. running market appears to be tied to those athletes, given that they all have long-term deals without reduction clauses.
Klecker is considered the cornerstone of the new program, not because of what he’s already accomplished but because of the upset many believe he possesses. He comes from impeccable genes and running pedigree, given that his mom, Janis, was the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon champion, and his dad, Barney, was a 2:18 marathoner and a record-setting ultrarunner in the 1970s and 80s. All six of the Klecker kids ran in high school and four have run at the collegiate level.
Although Klecker stands 6-foot tall with a lean, muscular build, Ritzenhein loves his ability to go long. In college, Klecker typically ran 100-mile weeks under Wetmore with a Lydiard-esque 20-mile long run on the weekends. As of late, Ritzenhein dialed that back a bit, but he says Klecker’s high aerobic capacity will be one of the things that will help him become an elite-level 5,000m and 10,000 runner on the track and eventually transition to the marathon.
That won’t happen for a while, especially because the OAC team will largely be aiming for middle-distance and long-distance success on the track in the short term. But so far, Klecker’s progression scale looks good. He finished higher at the NCAA championships in track and cross country than he did at his high school championships and also went on to set Colorado records in the indoor mile (4:01:00) and the outdoor 5,000m (13:34.10).
Plus, anyone who has been around him raves about what a hard worker he is.
“I grew up around distance running,” Klecker admits. “It was what my parents would do every day so it’s very much a part of how I was raised.”
Ritzenhein’s Coaching Philosophy
As an athlete, Ritzenhein ran at the highest level throughout his career. He was a highly touted high school runner who won two Foot Locker Cross Country titles, then became an elite NCAA runner at Colorado and before a long pro career that included three Olympic appearances, an American record in the 5,000m (12:56.27), a bronze medal at the World Half Marathon Championships and a 2:07:47 PR. As a pro, he did it and saw it all and he also says he made plenty of mistakes, something he says might be one of his biggest attributes as a coach.
“I had an instant connection with Joe,” Ritzenhein says. “I had the CU connection obviously, but I thought that I could offer him something special. I think my experience and the things I did in my career and what Joe wants to do are things that aligned for us, and it is something unique that we can build on.”
It’s worthy to note that Ritzenhein was guided by several of the premier coaches in the U.S. — Wetmore and Burroughs, Brad Hudson, Alberto Salazar and Kevin Hanson. He says his own coaching philosophy is based on a platform of aerobic strength and threshold training but with aspects and workouts adapted from each of those coaches. He says he’ll likely put his runners through more threshold workouts than he did with Salazar, but less strict periodization than he experienced under Wetmore and Burroughs. He’ll also utilize aerobic development insights from Hudson and organizational discipline from Hanson.
But more than anything, Ritzenhein knows he has to guide each of his athletes individually.
“I don’t think there is a whole lot of magic in the training,” Ritzenhen says. “It comes down to putting the athlete in the right situation, and sometimes that’s all about daily adjustments and sometimes it’s over the course of the whole training block. Those are interpersonal skills that matter as much as much as anything else, along with getting the athletes to trust you and knowing that you’ll have their best interests at heart. What it really comes down to is me being the best coach for each of those athletes. At this level, you have to have the right coach for you.
“I’ll try to steer the ship, but at the end of the day, they’re going to be invested in this program as much as I am,” Ritzenhein added. “So hopefully we can create something special with that.”