Dathan Ritzenhein was as surprised as anyone who was watching the race that he was leading the Boston Marathon on Monday.
Although the 32-year-old American led for a good stretch in the middle of the race, he didn’t come close to winning like Meb Keflezighi did last year after taking the lead midway through that race. However, he turned in a solid effort, finishing seventh in 2:11:20 in his first marathon in 18 months.
“I didn’t really plan to take the lead at any point in the race,” Ritzenhein said candidly in the post-race press conference. He had said two days earlier that he purposely entered the race a bit underprepared, so he wasn’t necessarily in peak racing shape against a field that included a dozen runners who had run 2:07 or faster.
But as soon as he took the lead near the halfway point, he got a huge surge of self confidence—especially when the crowds went wild. Ritzenhein, who lives in Rockford, Mich., was wearing a red Nike singlet emblazoned with “USA” across the front. Not surprisingly, chants of “USA! USA! USA!” could be heard from all directions as he shared the lead for several miles through the Newton Hills.
Ritzenhein said he was surprised to be back in contention with the leaders after dropping off the fast pace of the lead group after the first 8 miles. He had been among the large early pack as they passed through the 5K in 14;41 and the 10K in 29:42. But when Ethiopian Tadese Tola continued to surge, the leaders ripped off consecutive miles of 4:43, 4:47 and 4:45. That’s when Ritz willingly backed off the pack.
“We had gone out so fast that by 7 or 8 miles I decided to back off at about 10K … or not really back off but just maintain my effort and not push ahead with those guys,” Ritzenhein said. “But then at about 12 miles, I saw them bunch up a little bit and I made a little bit of a surge to get back up there. I was with them again at the halfway point and then there was a little flat section before the hills that I wanted to maintain that pace.”
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Thanks to gusting wind, the pace had slowed to 5:16 and 5:12 for the two previous miles and Ritzenhein found himself comfortably running with the leaders again. It was near the halfway point that he seemed to look around a bit and sheepishly went off the front with Etihiopian Yemane Tsegay.
They didn’t run much faster—about 5:00-5:05 pace—prior to entering the Newton Hills, where the group bunched up again as they worked through the uphill sections. At the time there were four Ethiopians and four Kenyans working together, but he and Meb didn’t really communicate going up the hills.
“I saw him and thought, ‘whoa, Dathan got revived again,’” Keflezighi said. “I just told him to tough it out, to hang in there. I felt a little guilty (that I didn’t help him) but the wind was strong and I was trying to be a little bit smarter going up those hills because I knew what was coming.”
Ritzenhein eventually fell off the lead for good at about mile 21 near the top of Heartbreak Hill when Tola, Tsegay, Keflezighi, Wesley Korir, Wilson Chebet and eventual winner Lelisa Desisa got back into a cat-and-mouse game of surges.
No slouch as a marathoner, Ritzenhein owns a 2:07:47 PR from the Chicago Marathon 2012—a time that makes him the No. 3 American marathoner of all-time. But he’s struggled to stay healthy throughout his career and knows his opportunities are limited now that he’s in his 30s. He is already a three-time U.S. Olympian in the marathon (9th place, 2008) and the 10,000-meter run (2004, 2012) but would like to earn a fourth trip by making the U.S. team bound for Rio next summer.
For a few moments, he felt back to his old self and believes it set him up well for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon next February in Los Angeles. If he can stay healthy, he says he’ll ramp up his training to shoot for a top-three finish at that race. (He was fourth in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston.)
For Monday, though, he said he was realistic about his chances—even as he was leading the race.
“You always have the thoughts in your mind that ‘maybe this is my day,’ but as they took off over the hill, I made the decision again not to go with that pace. I had to make that choice,” Ritzenhein said. “I just got a little nervous at that point because I have had trouble with marathons before. I was cautious coming in, even down to the last mile or so. I hesitated a little bit, but for the first marathon for me in a year and a half it was a good step in the right direction.”
With their efforts, Ritzenhein and Keflezighi (8th, 2:12:42) solidified their status as contenders for next year’s Olympic team. Two other Americans, 33-year-old Matt Tegenkamp (11th, 2:13:52) and 30-year-old Jeffrey Eggleston (12th, 2:14:17) also ran well on Monday and figure to be in contention for the Olympic team as well.
“I think the Trials are going to be very interesting,” Keflezighi said. “Hopefully we can send a great team to Rio.”