When high school seniors Dathan Ritzenhein, Alan Webb, and Ryan Hall met at the 2000 Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in Orlando, Florida, America’s running fans were all but salivating at the prospect of what lie ahead, not just in Orlando, but in the careers to come. All three precocious talents had flashed early signs of excellence on a register America hadn’t seen in a generation. Now, on December 9, 2000 on the Walt Disney World Shades of Green Golf Course, the Big Three from Michigan, Virginia and California would match up head-to-head-to-head for the first time.
Temps were high that day for the boy’s race, humidity, too. Just the same, talk of a sub-4:30 opening mile and a sub-9:00 deuce buzzed over the internet chat rooms as regional fan bases built cases for their respective heroes.
As undefeated returning champion, Rockford High School senior Dathan Ritzenhein’s game was pressure. And after an initial 4:46 mile, the whip strong Michigander applied it unsparingly.
Pulling away from a shocked Alan “I’m ready for anything” Webb with a 4:33 second mile, Ritz went on to win that 5K battle and notch a historic second straight Foot Locker national title. His 20 second margin of victory put a hard shine on it, as it was, and remains, the largest gap in Foot Locker history. The Virginia miler held strong for second, while the California cruiser Ryan Hall showed third in the high Florida humidity (Ryan’s future wife Sara Bei went from last to first to win the 2000 girl’s Foot Locker title).
Over the ensuing 15 years the Big Three, as they came to be known, have gone on to author memorable, historic performances as records have been set, Olympic teams made, though none has yet to cop an Olympic medal. But as we enter the spring of 2015, only Dathan Ritzenhein is still exploring the outer limits of his youthful running promise.
This past weekend Dathan continued his comeback from an injury-plagued and base-moving 2014, finishing sixth in the United Airlines New York City Half-Marathon. His 1:02:07 in the midst of marathon training indicates he is in fine form heading to Boston. With five solid races in 2015, including two wins, Dathan should rightfully be hopeful come April 20. 2014 Boston champion Meb Keflezighi came in just 10-seconds behind him in NYC, so the prospects for a spirited defense and a top American presence in Boston run high.
For the second member of the Big Three, last Sunday in Australia brought a welcome and competitive seventh place finish at the 2015 Mooloolaba ITU Triathlon World Cup as Alan Webb continues his transformation from American record holder in the mile to full-time professional triathlete. With wife Julia newly pregnant with their second child, Alan has his eye on a second Olympic berth in Rio 2016, but now in a different sport.
However, the Ides of March 2015 fell hard on the hopes of the third member of the Class of 2000’s Big Three. In his native California Ryan Hall experienced another in a dispiriting series of setbacks, this time at the 30th Asics Los Angeles Marathon.
After leading a pack of East Africans through swift early miles on a day of rising heat, Ryan was dropped in mile six, then pulled off the course at 1:11:25 after an American threesome swept past him in mile 14. It marked the latest in a string of disappointing races for the 32 year-old that began three years ago after his solid second place finish (to Meb Keflezighi) at the January 2012 Houston Olympic Marathon Trials. Now, three years later, after yet another starkly incomplete performance, the question arises whether Ryan Hall will ever again rise to the heights that made him the American runner the Kenyans not just respected but feared.
“He was very strong,” said Allan Kiprono admiringly about Hall before Sunday’s L.A. Marathon.
Ryan’s problems began in November 2011 when a nagging bout of plantar fasciitis cropped up. It wasn’t enough to derail his 2:09:30 performance at the January 2012 Trials, but as so often happens, one thing led to another, and next thing he knew, Ryan was dealing with a balky hamstring. Heading toward the Olympics in London the signs were not good.
In May he could only manage a red-flag 30:15 (15th place) at the 2012 New York Healthy Kidney 10K. That was followed by an uncompetitive runner up (again to Meb) in June at the San Diego Rock `n` Roll Half Marathon. It was in San Diego that Ryan spoke openly about dealing with the injuries. With his efficiencies compromised, Ryan dropped out of the London Olympic Marathon after only ten miles.
From there it has been one withdrawal after another, one training base after another, and one coach/advisor after another, all in a fruitless search for the way it once was. Only his 2:17:50 20th place at Boston 2014 stands as a completed marathon since the January 2012 Olympic Trials. This from the man who set hearts racing with an American half-marathon record 59:43 in Houston in January 2007, dropped jaws with a sub-1:02 second half at the November 2007 Olympic Trials Marathon in New York City, and then assayed a 2:04:58 fourth place gem in Boston 2011, the fastest marathon ever by an American runner.
Any serious runner in his 30s is dealing with injury issues. The great Olympic and World Champion Keninise Bekele of Ethiopia, like Ryan, 32, just pulled out of the London Marathon due to an Achilles tendon injury. Meb missed an entire year after a hip stress fracture cracked his 2007 New York Olympic Trials, and Dathan has been hurt as much as healthy in recent years training out in Portland, Oregon with Alberto Salazar as he fought foot problems just like Ryan. But Ritz has been back home in Michigan with wife Kalin and kids Addison and Jude for nearly a year now, and seems to have put himself back in order. And Meb famously resurrected himself to historic wins in New York `09, the Olympic Trials `12 and Boston `14 after recovering from the hip fracture. So the role models are there.
Ryan was unavailable for comment after Sunday’s marathon, a testament to the disappointment he must be feeling. But from what we can discern from the past and from comments made by Ryan before that race, he remains locked into a pattern of faith-based training and racing (not necessarily in the religious sense, either) that has not produced the results his legion of fans long for.
“What would make you happy on Sunday?” I asked Ryan during our pre-race interview.
“I understand your question, but I’m already happy,” he replied. “I can’t gain more than I have.”
Was that deflection a defense against another potential sub-par performance? Was it a fatalistic, it’s all in God’s hands, psychic cushion? Whatever the case, Ryan took off at the starter’s command on Sunday as if he were back in New York 2007 or Boston 2011. And everyone wanted to see it, wanted it to be real.
Though Sunday’s weather was not as bad as it might have been based on the previous two days of record heat, Ryan established the lead pack tempo through opening miles of 4:42, 4:50 and 4:41 on a day that was far from ideal. Yes, the early miles in LA are downhill, but with none of the other Americans vying for the USATF Marathon Championship anywhere near the eight East Africans and Hall, this was the ride he chose, this was the ride he was on. Besides, at Friday’s press conference Ryan said he didn’t think about a race-within-a-race.
“I’ve never seen myself as being different from anyone else in the world. When I was in high school I was in a race with Bernard Lagat (a two-time Olympic medalist). I didn’t say, ‘that’s Bernard Lagat, I can’t run with him.’ I just race whoever is there.”
In other words he wasn’t interested in running just for the USATF Marathon Championship, he was there to win the Asics L.A. Marathon. But when your strategy is so far removed from your recent performances — his lone 2015 race was a 64:16 2nd place at the Jan. 18th Rock `n` Roll Arizona Half Marathon — when does reconsideration become prudent?
Knowing that critics are more plentiful than rusted Chevys in East L.A., Ryan had long since stopped paying attention to what others wrote or posted about him.
“I quickly realized what it did,” he told me. “And it’s amazing what sticks with you. There can be 20 positive comments, and the single negative comment is what you remember. So I don’t read the internet anymore.”
When Ryan ran his 59:43 American half marathon record in Houston January 2007 he beat Meb Keflezighi by 2:39. Yet several weeks later at the Gate River Run 15K, Meb turned the tables, besting Ryan by forty-seconds. At the time, Ryan said he went out in the first mile at Jacksonville at the same perceived effort that he’d gone out in Houston. Yet when he looked at his watch, it showed 4:40 as his split rather than 4:30 as it had in Houston in a race that extended four miles farther. Point being, he didn’t know why the magic didn’t happen in Jacksonville any more than he knew why it did happen in Houston. It is as if Ryan is as much a spectator to his own performances as he is the architect of them.
After Sunday’s early DNF in LA, I had the following message exchange with a long-time friend of Ryan’s.
Toni: “Any word from Ryan as to what happened?”
Friend: “He said he was doing ok. Just ran until the wheels came off.”
Toni: “You just wonder how a professional athlete can misjudge his marathon fitness that much when the wheels come off at 14 miles, unless injury is involved.”
Friend: “Agreed. I think it’s in his DNA to run from the front. He’s had so much success doing it in the past, just hoping for a flyer? Like when he went into Boston 2011 where he ran 2:04. His build-up race was abysmal, and he went for it and it panned out.”
Ryan, himself, said much the same thing in our pre-race chat.
“My build-up before Boston last year (2:17:50, 20th place) was better (than for L.A.). But running is a weird thing. Sometimes you have a perfect build-up and the race is no good. At the 2007 Olympic Trials I didn’t have a good build-up, but ran an amazing race. So I don’t set the bar ultra-high anymore ahead of time, because you can get shattered if you have a bad few miles.”
Whether Ryan was shattered after Sunday’s DNF is unclear as he has yet to surface. But the way he ripped his race number off his singlet when he drifted to the side of the road after being passed by Americans he could once beat by many minutes, and the fact that he has yet to make a public appearance or statement, is evidence that this was not an easy result to swallow. And with the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials looming next February back in Los Angeles, and a new fresh-legged generation coming on with a rush, like USATF Champion Jared Ward did on Sunday to finish third in LA in a PR 2:12:56, we could be witnessing a generational changing of the guard.
Ryan Hall, Dathan Ritzenhein and Alan Webb were the first generation of American internet runners. Ever since they began posting special performances in high school, the Big Three were followed religiously by a host of young fans on the growing list of internet sites. And as long as the positive results kept coming in, all was well. But as anyone who reads the forums and chat rooms knows, praise can quickly turn into vitriol once good performances are replaced by anything less.
Earlier this month, while writing a story on Meb Keflezighi for TrackSmith’s publication Meter, I interviewed Meb’s long-time coach Bob Larsen who recruited Meb to UCLA then followed him to Mammoth Lakes, California where Ryan was also training after graduating Stanford in 2005. During our talk the topic of Ryan Hall’s slump came up.
“We know he can self-coach himself,” Bob said, “because he did it before Boston 2011. But he was pushed pretty hard in high school by Irv Ray and his father. Irv was coaching at Cal Baptist at the time in San Bernadino. So Ryan would go down and do intervals at low altitude with Irv, then return to Big Bear with his dad.
“He was essentially a 4:00 miler in high school and the Mt. Sac cross country course record holder. Irv sent me his workouts. They were at a very high level. I think he could have run close to a 2:10 (marathon) in high school. I had an athlete, Steve Ortiz, who ran 2:13 as a college junior, and Ryan was doing harder workouts in high school. And when he was at Stanford they ran hard, because of all the talent that was there.
“Ryan had a wonderful high school and college career,” Bob continued, “and has run all these great marathons (six top 5 finishes in World Marathon Majors). So the only reason he has to apologize for anything is because of other people’s expectations. But because he has been at the top, he feels he should be at the top in every race. There has been so much expected of him and Ritz and Webb. In Africa the spotlight is not nearly as bright. You can afford to fail on occasion. When our kids run well the headlines shout, ‘the best U.S. distance runner of all-time!’ It’s nonsense. It’s too much hype. The next race if you can’t duplicate the result, more headlines scream, ‘what’s wrong?’ It’s too much to shoulder every race.“
Anyone who puts themselves in the public eye is asking for and is susceptible to criticism. Believe me, as a broadcaster you better have thick skin, as well. But not like these guys. Alan Webb left the sport of running in 2014 to enter the world of triathlon when the pressure became too overwhelming in track and all the fun had been sucked out. The previous Big Three of American distance running before the Class of 2000, Meb, Alan Culpepper and Abdi Abdirahman, were mostly anonymous throughout the early stages of their careers before the advent of the internet. That gave them time and space to rise or fall and mature without the immense weight of expectations at every turn.
Today, Alan Culpepper is retired, works for Competitor Group, and has a book out, Run Like A Champion. Abdi is still racing, but not quite at the same levels as before. And Meb remains the anomaly, the ageless one who just finished eighth last Sunday at the New York Half Marathon just ten seconds behind Ritz as both prep for Boston.
Ryan Hall is seven years younger than Meb. So, there remains hope that the 32 year-old can eventually re-discover the form that made him the most-feared American runner of his day. But as with all athletes it isn’t how old you are, it is how many hard miles you have in your legs — ask Kobe Bryant of the L.A. Lakers. So the question becomes, is Ryan Hall an old 32 whose high octane early years have now left him unable to withstand the training necessary to still compete at the highest levels? Or, has he become too much of an athletic gypsy, changing coaches and training bases like others change training shoes, and in essence never sticking with a program long enough to give it time to fully develop?
It is evident that whatever Ryan is doing in training is not producing the results he or his fans would hope to see. And you wonder if he, too, has lost the sense of play and fun that running offers at one level, but tends to negate in the exacting world of top-level competition.
“Running can be such a beautiful sport,” Hall told the New Yorker Magazine in an article published March 16th. “But I’ve also been on the other side of that, where I’ve lived for the victories and the performances and I just—I know how shallow and fleeting and chasing-the-wind that is. So it breaks my heart when I see other people doing that same thing I’ve done, and knowing what they’re in store for.” He added, “It’s like, ‘Dude, no matter what you accomplish, it’s not gonna fill you up. It’s not what you’re looking for.’ ”
What Ryan says is indisputably true. But he is in the performance business. So as he continues to find meaning and purpose in his faith, family, and causes beyond the narrow scope of world-class athletics, it is also true that if athletic talent is a gift, and through it one can raise awareness and funds for projects like the Steps Health Clinic in Biribiriet, Kenya, or a maternity clinic in rural Pout, Senegal, then not doing all one can with that talent while it remains in full force, is, as Steve Prefontaine once said about trying your best, “… to sacrifice the gift.”