Dathan Ritzenhein’s 60:56 third-place finish at Sunday’s Rock `n” Roll Philadelphia Half-Marathon sets him up well for his marathon in Chicago in three weeks time. After his race he was quoted as saying that his goal in the Windy City was to able to run a 2:06 time. But according to his coach Alberto Salazar, that pronouncement wasn’t at the heart of Dathan’s statement, nor is it how either one of them even approaches the sport.
“They took out the second half of his quote,” Al told me during a phone interview on Tueday. “He said he’d love to run 2:06, but what he wanted to do in Chicago is be competitive.
“He’s been training with Mo (Farah) and Galen (Rupp, the Olympic gold and silver medalist at 10,000-meters. Dathan finished 13th in London). We don’t concentrate on time. Dathan hasn’t run that super time (in the marathon), and until he does he won’t be competitive, but he wants to run with the guys.”
Having followed Dathan’s career since his days as a scrawny high school sensation in Rockford, Michigan where he won back-to-back Foot Locker National Cross Country titles and a bronze medal in world junior competition, I can attest that finishing position – the essence of cross country – rather than finishing time has always been his focus. Though he briefly held the American record at 5000 meters, time trials have never been Ritz’s forte.
Following a stellar career at the University of Colorado, Dathan has so far topped off his pro career with a bronze medal at the 2009 IAAF World Half Marathon Championship in Birmingham, England in 2009 (PR, 60:00). Through it all, however, Ritzenhein has been plagued by injuries, particularly foot problems. But coming into Chicago 2012, Ritz is as healthy as he’s ever been for a marathon.
“We’ve been disappointed with (marathon) results in the past,” admitted Salazar, himself a former three-time New York City and one-time Boston Marathon champion. “But sooner or later, unless he’s just not suited to the marathon, he will run a (super) time. Finally, we’ve come to the conclusion that 110 miles is the max per week he can train. Every time we get greedy he gets injured. But he’s been healthy over the entire last year.”
His last marathon was a disappointing fourth place finish at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston in January. But though he ran a PR 2:09:55 and was closing on Abdi Abdirahman in third, he was dealing with a limited training window following surgery on his left ankle and right foot in March 2011.
“Dathan just finished his track season in early August,” acknowledged Alberto, realizing that Chicago is a truncated goal. “That whole (Olympic) period wasn’t normal marathon build-up. But the last two months have been marathon specific. But from four months out, though not marathon training, he was healthy, and that’s huge. He’s had a year of solid training.”
In his own youth Salazar was a laser-guided missile, unwavering in his commitment and drive. Unfortunately, the victim of that missile was his own health. But as a coach Al has taken the lessons he learned at his own expense, and applied them to his current crop of athletes.
“When people are healthy,” explained Salazar, “you build up certain strength and speed and can work on each alternately. It’s like you have two fuel tanks, and you top them off every few weeks. It’s when you are behind the 8-ball dealing with a limited time frame that you have to make compromises.
“I have never been worried about Galen and Mo having enough time to get ready. They are always healthy, so they’ve always been both strong enough and fast enough. My only worry for London was whether I was getting them ready too soon. But with Dathan the worry has always been “am I getting him strong enough and fast enough?”. But once you are healthy, sometimes you need to pull them back, and that’s a nice problem to have.”
According to Alberto, Ritzenhein is plenty fast enough for what’s ahead in Chicago. Though not in contention at the Olympic 10,000 in London, he still ran 27:45. And with his sub-61 half marathon in Philadelphia, both speed and strength components seem to be in place. What they will work on in their final training stretch will be to address Dathan’s tendency to fade late in his marathons or to cramp up.
“So rather than do fast 15-mile tempo runs below marathon pace,” explained Al, “we’ll do longer runs that lead back to marathon pace late so he can get used to running that pace when he’s tired.”
Ryan Hall ran at the back of the lead pack in Chicago last year through a 62:51first half. As a natural front-runner, Ryan never looked comfortable flapping at the tail end of that line, and dropped away when the 14th mile spurted to 4:36. But Hall managed his second half well and finished fifth in 2:08:02. Top five with a low 2:08 might not be a 2:06, but it would seem a very good result for Ritz in 2012. I’d bet he, his coach, and his fans would take it and walk away happy, especially if he also comes out healthy.