The 31-year-old is healthy again and gearing up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on September 21.
If there’s anyone who can talk about getting back up after being knocked down in the sport of distance running, it’s Dathan Ritzenhein. The 31-year-old has coped with injury-related setbacks since graduating from the University of Colorado in 2004, ranging from stress fractures to sports hernias and freak infections that cost him valuable training time. A three-time Olympian (2004, 2008, 2012), Ritzenhein has excelled in cross country, on the track and, in recent years, on the roads. He owns an impressive 2:07:47 marathon personal best set at the Chicago Marathon in 2012.
This past June, Ritzenhein left Portland, Oregon, where had trained as part of the Nike Oregon Project since 2009, and moved his family back to his home state of Michigan. Despite a recent injury, he was able to run 49:12 at the Crim Festival of Races 10-miler this past weekend. We caught up with Ritzenhein a day after that performance to talk about his next race, the Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on Sept. 21, which features a loaded field, led by reigning New York City Marathon champion Geoffrey Mutai.
You just ran an awesome time at the Crim—sub-50 [minutes] for 10 miles.
Yeah. Normally it wouldn’t be awesome, but for me it was awesome right now with where I’m at.
Right, you had been injured before that race. Are you pleasantly surprised with the time?
I was. I didn’t really know what to expect. I had about one week of full training, full volume and full workouts. It was a good opportunity to see my fitness without really having any work in me. I went there hoping to run 50 minutes, but I ended up getting really sick a week before Crim and didn’t know if I was going to run or not. I really didn’t know what to expect. I went in there, I did 4:55 pace and was pretty happy with it—especially since I didn’t know the course was that difficult. I just thought a 10-mile course in Eastern Michigan wouldn’t be too hard. It ended up being hard. It was a good effort and told me where my fitness was. It gives me a good idea to know what to do in the next month of training and where to go from here.
Are you feeling good the day after the race? Are you sore?
I feel good. I feel like I did a workout. My legs are a little sore, but not really beat up. I ran 10 miles at 6:15 per mile this morning. I feel ready to get in there and keep going.
Did you have low expectations going into the race?
Yes. The first time you get back into it after a break, a lot of it is putting on the uniform, putting on the flats, getting up early and doing everything you would normally do for a race. After a long time off, that was as important as anything else. I think just getting the feeling of having other people around you, that was the most important thing for me. I was happy to have that feeling—getting the blood flowing a little bit.
You are back in Michigan now. I think you moved in May?
We moved in June.
Is it good to be home?
Yeah. This is the first time I’ve raced in Michigan in probably 13 years. It was just nice to be back. Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve finally gotten completely healthy. I’ve spent a lot of time in the weight room, making my body strong again. I haven’t worried so much about the volume. I’ve just slowly been building up. I’ve started the workouts easy. Everything is a slow progression. I’ve focused my body on getting completely strong again. I was healthy for two-and-a-half years before the sports hernia injury. The biggest thing in that time was that I put in a lot of work. I improved my foundation and got my body strong. I’m doing that again and I feel great.
Are you still taking guidance from Alberto [Salazar]?
Yes. I’m not with the Oregon Project anymore, but I loved my time with the Oregon Project. I’m still very close to all my team and the support group. The strength coach, Dave McHenry, still sends me all my strength work, all my lifting. I talk with Alberto. Multiple people advise me now. But I want to take a little bit more ownership with my training. I have great resources here too. I just spent the weekend with [1983 Boston Marathon Champion and Michigan native] Greg Meyer. He and I are good friends. I picked his brain. I saw [former University of Michigan coach] Ron Warhurst and talked with him a bit. It’s just great to run things by people here. I want to be able to listen to my body better and do exactly what I think I need.
Is it weird getting workouts from afar?
To tell you the truth, for the last two years, I spent six months of it on the road. A lot of that time was by myself. I was the marathon guy in the group, so I did a lot of my own stuff. I’m a pretty self-sufficient guy. I’ve figured it out. Sometimes I think it’s just having someone there to talk to. I think that is important, because sometimes you can think irrationally. Having someone to check in with is a good idea.
Are you doing all your workouts by yourself now?
I’ve been doing things by myself. That’s kind of what I want right now. Sometimes I have someone riding along on a bike with me. I get a lot of support here, so that’s a good thing.
Why did you decide to move back to Michigan?
It was about the family. My wife and I are from here. We have two kids and want to be close to family. Family is very important to us. I will also be coaching at Grand Valley State University. That will be a great opportunity. But it’s really about being happy and training close to our families here. That was the most important part.
What are you doing right now at Grand Valley?
The team just came back. It was quite a process just to move the family with two kids across the country. It’s not as easy as it was before. But now there is a lot more to think about. It was good to have a whole summer and not many obligations. Things are starting to pick up with a routine and that’s good because I thrive on routine.
Why are you racing Philly in September?
I did Crim to set a benchmark and get the butterflies out. It’s important to get on the course even if you aren’t 100 percent. Philly was the next option for me to get in a really good race. I feel like I get fit really fast. I’ve run so many miles for so many years it doesn’t take long for me. Timing-wise, Philly was a good option to get a little better. I know I probably won’t be as fit as I was when I ran 60:56 [there in 2012], but I know I will be a lot better than I was in Crim. A lot of it is about the process. Making the team in Rio is the number-one priority for me. Philly will be the first real race that I can go in and think about racing and try to beat people. That will be important for me.
What are your plans for a fall marathon?
I am going to do a marathon, but I can’t say what it is yet.
You have a 2:07 marathon PR. Do you think you have unfinished business left in the marathon? Do you think you can go under that time?
Definitely. I have a lot of potential still. I think I can run better than that for sure. Even after Rio, we’ll have to see. I’m home now. I’m happy. I want to go back and see if I can’t do more. I know there is a lot more in the tank.
Are you just going to focus on the marathon in 2016 or are you going to keep fit on the track like you did in 2012 when you didn’t make the marathon team, but were able to do it in the 10,000m?
The goal is to make the team. I want to do it in the marathon. That was the goal in 2012. I just had to adapt when I didn’t make it in the marathon. That’s the most important thing in our sport: making the Olympic team every four years. I’m going to do my best. I think I have my best shot in the marathon, so I will focus completely on that just like I did before. Hopefully, I’ll make it. I do well sometimes when my back is against the wall like I did when I made the team in the 10K. I will do whatever I have to do.
You persevered though so much in your career. You’re like a fighter who gets knocked down and gets back up again. Do you see yourself this way?
I do. I just love the competition and to be able to come back every time. It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down; it matters how many times you get back up on your feet again. I like that challenge. When you feel like your back is against the wall, you can come back. You never know when it’s going to end, so every chance I get to come back is something I love to do.