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Ritz Reborn: Interview With Dathan Ritzenhein

We caught up with the newly-minted 2:07:47 marathoner.

Three-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein of the Oregon Project has been named the USA Track and Field Athlete of the Week—an honor that the Michigan native has achieved with a remarkable level of persistence over adversity. The honor was bestowed upon Ritzenhein after his 2:07:47, ninth-place finish at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon this past Sunday, the third fastest marathon ever clocked by an American. His previous best was 2:09:55, set at the USA Olympic Marathon Trials in January, where he finished fourth. Although it was his first sub-2:10 performance at the marathon, Ritzenhein barely missed making the team.

Ritzenhein went on to make his third Olympic team by qualifying in the 10,000 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials in June.  Although disappointed with performance in the Olympic final in London — he ran 27:45 for 13th place — Ritzenhein tuned his training back toward the marathon for what was clearly a breakthrough performance last Sunday. With a long history of battling injuries — in particular, stress fractures — Ritzenhein’s efforts to overhaul his running form under the guidance of Salazar were featured in a November 2010 New Yorker story. Although his 2011 season was a wash due to health and injury troubles, including surgery to repair the sheath of his left Achilles tendon, 2012 has indicated that his recovery from those problems is complete and there’s more performance to be tapped.

We caught up with Ritzenhein during a week of recovery and catching up on household chores (Ritzenhein and his wife, Kalin, have two children and live in Portland, Oregon).

You had a huge PR at the Chicago Marathon, breaking 2:08. Did something really click for you on the learning curve?

Every time I’ve run the marathon in the past the training had gone well but problems arose during the race. That’s the thing with the marathon. There are just so many things that can go wrong. I feel like I’ve finally figured out how to train correctly for it. I always knew I was capable of a 2:07. And I believe I can run a lot faster than that.

I used the same nutrition plan as I did for the trials. I felt like I have that figured out. I’ve never had a gastro-intestinal stress problem. My stomach can handle pretty much anything. The cramping problem I had at the Olympic trials marathon was not related to nutrition. My nutrition approach was good. It was more of just getting my training right.

For me, I perform well after I’ve logged a lot of intensity work. I get a lot of benefit from specific workouts. I had the benefit of racing on the track all summer this year. As far as volume, I don’t go to crazy with it. My training volume for the marathon is what would be normal for someone focusing on the 5,000 or 10,000. What I had to do between the Olympics and Chicago was to get in some big long runs and some longer workouts and I’d be where I needed to be.

Running 2:08 must be confirmation that you’ve recovered from the injury troubles of 2011.

Yeah. What was maddening in 2011 was how things just kept coming. I had two surgeries, one in March 2011 and one in June 2011. The problem wasn’t the Achilles itself but the sheath, so it was relatively minor [the sheath, or ‘paratenon’ was removed from the left ankle; the additional surgery was to remove a neuroma from the right foot]. What was difficult during that time was that the problems wouldn’t stop. You just couldn’t make up the stuff that was happening. What was maddening about it was that the problems were unrelated to running–like being allergic to stitches. Just general health things.

You’ve been coached by Alberto Salazar since 2009. How would you characterize your relationship? 

Alberto and I have a very comfortable working relationship. We’ve built a mutual trust. He doesn’t have to convince me about his approach to training. He’s just as invested in me as he is with everyone in the Oregon Project, but knows I’m an intrinsically motivated person and doesn’t have to worry about giving me any special attention. He trusts me and gives me flexibility in regards to training plans. I’m almost 30 and I’ve learned a lot through the years — he doesn’t have to call me everyday. When we talk we’re often already on page about what needs to be done.

RELATED: 5 Lessons Learned From Alberto Salazar

In 2010 the New Yorker published a story that took an in-depth look at how you were working with Salazar and experts at Nike to transform your running technique. You both knew there was a risk of injury but felt the risk was necessary to be able to compete with the world’s best. Where are you at now in terms of your running form? 

Yes, that was in 2010. It was an extensive change. Now, I think my form is right where it needs to be. I think the change was a good thing. I’ve been healthy all year and I feel comfortable with it. I think it was key that we strengthened my body. At first I don’t think I had the strength I needed to handle the change in form.

In your blog you talked about how much you’ve come to rely on ancillary forms of training and recovery–dynamic stretching, ice baths and the like. It sounds like you still feel strongly about this.

I wish I would have spent more with strengthening work when I was younger. If I become a coach I’m going to insist on it. I think we’ve really seen it help Galen [Rupp]. And when you get older, and the raw speed starts to diminish, I think it can help you continue to perform.

What specifically do you believe the strength work adds? 

I think the biggest thing is that your body has to be strong all the way through. If you’re weak in the middle, your butt can pop out and that shifts the weight forward. It’s like having a bad shock absorber in the car. The strength work allows you to be more elastic.

Chris Solinsky, the former American record holder at 10,000 meters, has talked about how shocking the discomfort is early on in a sub 13:00 minute 5K — how early in the race he’ll wonder if he’ll even be able to finish. American great Bob Kennedy said similar things during his career. You’ve run 12:56 for 5000 and once held the American record. What’s race discomfort like at that level?

I’ve raced for so many years I guess you don’t know any different. But after a year off, you get back into a race and you’re amazed at how hard it is. That’s the mental part of it: staying relaxed even when your body is pushing back because the pace is so hard and uncomfortable.

As far as the mental side of running, I imagine one of the benefits of being coached by Salazar is that you’re being coached by a guy who was once the greatest marathoner in the world; that he coaches you to believe you can win on the world stage. 

Absolutely. Yes, you have to believe it. If you don’t believe it it absolutely won’t happen. And a lot of times it won’t happen anyway. But you still have to believe. That’s a great thing about the Oregon Project. You train with Olympic gold and silver medalists every day. Training with Mo [Farah, the British gold medalist in the 2012 Olympic 10,000 meters] and Galen [Rupp, silver medalist in the Olympic 10,000m], while they might blow my doors off during the fast stuff, there were times this year I could beat them in the tempo runs. It helped me solidify my belief that I had the aerobic power to do well in Chicago.

Although I spend a lot of time training by myself I know you ultimately can push yourself harder and are capable of more in general when you’re training with great athletes. That’s one thing about the Kenyan runners. In Kenya they’ll have 150 great runners at a track workout. Doing well is a matter of survival.

Do you feel like the marathon is your race now?

I’ve always felt deep down that I was a marathoner. I’ve finally proven it to myself. My goal now is to stay healthy and train as well as I can and be the best I can be the next few years.


About The Author:   

T.J. Murphy is the former editorial director of Competitor Magazine and author of the book,“Inside the Box: How CrossFit Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym and Rebuilt My Broken Down Body.”