When it comes to the marathon, Dathan Ritzenhein is a seasoned old pro.
OK, at 33, he’s not old at all, but he admits he’s grown up and learned much about the 26.2-mile distance since his first one 10 years ago in New York that left him plenty disappointed.
Now, with nine marathons under his belt and in perhaps the best shape of his life, Ritzenhein is a cagey veteran at the distance as he prepares to race in the New York City Marathon for the third time on Sunday morning.
Over the past decade, “Ritz” has had a lot of success in the marathon—placing ninth in the 2008 Olympics and running a 2:07:47 personal best in Chicago in 2012—but also a few disappointments, too. That includes the first marathon DNF of his career in this past February’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles and plenty of injuries that have derailed his training and race plans. He also finished in the hard-luck fourth-place position at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston, although he later earned a spot on Team USA for the London Games in the 10,000 meters on the track.
Prior to his debut marathon in New York in 2006, he had high expectations of running a fast time and finishing on the podium. But he struggled late in the race and faded to 11th place finish in a disappointing 2:14:01.
“I was really young and naïve then,” Ritzenhein said Thursday with a grin. “I have a lot less hair and a lot more miles since then.”
While he was being both truthful and speaking tongue-in-cheek, he revealed both the respect and confidence he has for the marathon, not to mention a very certain veteran savviness. In other words, he has a lot of experience—and that’s perhaps the most important factor when it comes to being able to race a fast marathon. As so poetically put by John L. Parker in “Once a Runner,” it’s all about the “trial of miles; Miles of trials.”
“So much has happened since then. In 2006, I had barely started doing anything (as a marathoner),” said Ritzenhein, who also placed eighth in the 2010 New York City Marathon in 2:12:33. “I’ve had a lot of good experience and a lot of bad ones, times going out really hard and dying hard and other times when I’ve come home strong and finished well. Just having all of that experience has made me a different runner.”
A lot has changed for Ritzenhein since he and his family decided to move back home to Grand Rapids, Mich., about two and a half years ago. Prior to that, he’d spent four years in Boulder, Colo., where he was an All-American and NCAA champion in cross country under coach Mark Wetmore. Then he spent six years training in Oregon in different stints under coaches Brad Hudson and Alberto Salazar.
Ritzenhein has served as his own coach since he returned to Michigan, adapting some of the training philosophies from each of his former mentor’s approach to the marathon and occasionally bouncing training ideas off former pro marathoner and high school teammate Jason Hartmann. He mostly trains alone, although he does get some assistance from his stepfather, who occasionally rides along next to him on a bike for pacing and hydration help.
It’s a system that seems to be working. He ran well in Boston in 2015 (seventh, 2:11:20) and he’s coming off a stellar effort at the Great North Run half marathon in the UK, where he finished in 1:00:12 just four seconds behind Olympic track star Mo Farah and 12 seconds off his 2009 PR at that distance.
Ritzenhein took a longer approach to his marathon buildup this time, stretching it out over about six months instead of three or four, and that allowed him to lower his mileage volume during his peak weeks. He will enter Sunday’s race having topped out at 111 miles, but he says he averaged about the same total volume he did leading up to the 2012 Chicago Marathon, which he considers the best marathon he’s ever run.
“It’s gotten a little bit easier on my own, although I also wind up second-guessing things a little bit more as I get closer (to a race),” Ritzenhein said. “And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, not having a sounding board that you’d have with a coach. I look over training logs from previous years to see what I had done before and how I felt when I was doing those workouts. When you have a coach, you would talk back and forth about those things. So I talk to myself a little bit more and am always trying to figure out what is best and get rid of the junk that comes into my own head.”
For New York, he’s focused less on consistent rhythm running and more long, hard runs with surges. His most recent hard workout was a 15-mile tempo run that included numerous pace changes about six weeks ago in Michigan.
“I’ve found with the marathon, you’re going to be by yourself at some point in the race—especially later in the race—and you have to be pushing yourself,” he said. “So at some point, whether you’re leading or falling off the back and alone, you have to be able to dictate the pace yourself and be comfortable doing that.”
Other things Ritzenhein has consciously done in recent years is take one day off a week from running and also reduced his volume in the weeks leading up to a race. He backed off from running twice a day about 10 days ago, although lately he’s been trying to manage his extra time and energy.
“I think the challenge of self-coaching is really about being honest with yourself and for me it’s about not trying to overdo it,” he said. “I listen to my body a lot more and I skip double-run days if I don’t feel good. I looked back at my old notes and felt like I might have done a little bit too much in the two to three weeks before the race.”
Ritzenhein is expected to be one of the top contenders in the men’s elite field of Sunday’s race, which isn’t quite as deep as it has been in recent years but still has the likes of Kenya’s Stanley Biwott (2:03:51) and Ethiopian Lelisa Desisa (2:04:45). Other top Americans include Abdi Abdirahman (2:08:56), Ryan Vail (2:10:57), Matt Llano (2:12:28), Tyler Pennel (2:13:32) and Craig Leon (2:13:52).
“I’d like to be on the podium and have a good chance to win it, so I’m going to have to put myself in that position,” Ritzenhein said. “There are some very good runners in this race, but it’s also not quite as deep as some years, either. Getting on the podium might be easier than some other years, but winning it will be no easier than any other year. It doesn’t matter what other runners do in the race; I’m going to have to be as ready as I can possibly be.”