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Returning to Run Chicago

Patrick Rizzo finished an impressive 15th at the 2009 Boston Marathon.  Photo: Victah Sailer
Patrick Rizzo finished an impressive 15th at the 2009 Boston Marathon. Photo: Victah Sailer

Pat Rizzo looks to improve on his top-3 American finish in Boston.

Written By: Nicole Adamson

Patrick Rizzo is freaking out about a bee sting. It’s early August and the 26-year-old runner has just gotten a steroid shot for an allergic reaction that caused his entire arm to balloon up. He’s not concerned about the swelling; it’s the shot that’s making him anxious.

As of May, the Schaumburg native is ranked in the top five of American marathoners, which means the USATF can drug test him at any time. Luckily for him, they chose the day after he was stung to show up at his door.

Rizzo knows the USATF would not penalize him for a bee allergy, but he is still getting used to his pro status. At this year’s Boston Marathon, he finished 15th with a time of 2:17:05 and was the third American, behind Olympians Ryan Hall and Brian Sell, Rizzo’s teammate on the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project.

This month Rizzo is competing in the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, where he’s shooting for 2:14. With three world-class Kenyans in the field, the competition will be fierce, but there’s a great chance this kid from the Chicago ’burbs will snag the top American spot.

5K Days

For our interview, Rizzo has suggested coffee at the Country Donuts in Schaumburg, a 1950s-style doughnut joint with counter seating. It’s not classiest place in town, but Rizzo insists that this is more than a donut shop. “We used to come here all the time in high school at night after cross-country meets,” he says.

Rizzo can’t talk about running without mentioning his high-school roots. As a freshman at Schaumburg High, he joined cross-country to get in shape for wrestling. But the cross-country coach, Jim Macnider, convinced him to change his focus.

“He pinned me against the wall and said if I continued to wrestle, it would be the biggest mistake of my life,” Rizzo says.

“I’d say Pat’s embellishing the story, but yes, I did tell him he’d be making a mistake,” says Macnider, who had coached Patrick’s brother, Tony, three years earlier. “I was looking forward to coaching Pat, thinking, wow, if he’s as good as his brother… Well, he’s a different type than his brother—not as high strung, a lot more coachable, and very passionate.”

Rizzo proved a valuable asset to the Saxons, sealing his high-school career with an eighth place finish at the state championships. But Macnider suspected he would really hit his stride in longer events. It was a hunch he shared with Al Carius, Rizzo’s coach at North Central College in Naperville.

Carius has built a cross-country dynasty at North Central, leading the Cardinals to 33 conference championships and 12 Division III national championships. Still, he has no problem separating Rizzo from the crowd.

“When you get someone like Rizzo, it’s a coach’s dream,” Carius says. “They have the personality and the characteristics that as a coach, all you need to do is reinforce.”

He adds, “He’s not someone to look at and say, ‘Wow, he’s got blazing speed.’ In a race, he knew he had to grind people down to be competitive at higher levels.”

And he did. At North Central, Rizzo grinded his way to seven All-American titles in cross-country and track, multiple conference titles and a 10K PR of 29:38. You could say his best work was yet to come.

In for the Long Run

Less than one percent of Division III athletes go on to compete professionally, but Rizzo wasn’t ready to give up his running career after graduation. “I told Al [Carius] that I wanted to keep running, and he told me, “Whatever you want to become, surround yourself with it,” Rizzo says.

Carius’ words led Rizzo to the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester Hills, Mich., a program that recruits talented distance runners and seeks to develop them into Olympians. Along with training and competing together, the 12 runners on the men’s team live together and work part-time in the Hansons running stores.

The program was exactly what Rizzo was looking for. The only problem was he didn’t make the team’s standard, a 2:20 marathon. Rizzo had run his first and only marathon, Chicago 2006, in 2:20:12. Despite this, Coaches Keith and Kevin Hanson decided to give Rizzo a shot—and are glad they did.

“Patrick was one of those athletes who when he came in, was at that fringe,” Keith Hanson says. “He has proven that not only does he belong, but he’s one of the leaders in our program.”

That’s not to say it’s been an easy ride for Rizzo. In February 2008, he and a teammate were on a training run when a Jeep took a turn on black ice and fishtailed. Rizzo couldn’t jump out of the way fast enough, was knocked unconscious and landed on his hip. His injury gave him only four weeks of training before Boston 2008, where he ran a sub-par 2:24:27.

Some athletes might have taken that as a sign to take a step back. For Rizzo, it was incentive to prove himself the next time around.

“What motivates me is seeing how well I can do and knowing how much other people have helped me to get where I am,” Rizzo says. “I know what my high school and college coaches could have run, but both of them gave that up to coach athletes like me.”

Sweet Home, Chicago

Rizzo is the only member of his team running the 2009 Chicago Marathon. He is passing up the opportunity to compete in the USA Men’s Marathon Championship, the New York Marathon on Nov. 2. The decision is highly personal.

“There’s something that’s always beneficial about the home crowd,” Rizzo says. “My friends from high school and college—they’re all here. And I know Mac’s gonna be out there with a megaphone …”

Indeed, Macnider will be manning an aid station at mile 16, along with 300 band and cross-country kids. North Central’s cross-country and track team will be on the course as well.

Rizzo’s whole family plans to run alongside him, catching him at as many points possible. Older brother Tony, who broke both legs serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, can’t run anymore, so he plans to track his brother on a computer, calling the family on their cell phones to alert them of his location.

“We’re so proud of him. We never thought he’d get this far,” says mom Phyllis.

How much further can go? “If he can stay healthy for the next three to four years, there’s no reason he can’t get down to the 2:10-2:11 range,” Keith Hanson says.

“Ideally, I would like to make an Olympic Team, but it’s something I have no control over,” says Rizzo. “All I can do is run as well as I can, and if there are three people better than me, it’s damn good for the country.”