American distance running fans could feel it; it was that close. Throughout the seemingly endless doldrums of the 1990s, when the U.S. distance running fortunes seemed to be at a permanent lull, anxious fans searched the horizon ahead for signs of a freshening wind that would sweep the U.S. back into world competition where we once moved with such steady hands. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s, though, that the winds of change began to blow with force across the Stars and Stripes as zephyrs coming out of Mammoth Lakes, California; Eugene, Oregon; Madison, Wisconsin; and Boulder, Colorado starched flags rising above podiums both here and abroad.
Rockford, Michigan native Dathan Ritzenhein began 2005 as a newly signed pro, having shucked his final year of eligibility at the University of Colorado following a thrilling NCAA cross-country win in Terre Haute, Indiana against fellow high school phenom Ryan Hall of Stanford. Dathan, Ryan, and Virginia’s Alan Webb, The Big Three as they came to be known, had led the high-flying Class of 2000 out of high school with a barrage of headliner performances. Alan had taken down Jim Ryun‘s seemingly untouchable American high school record in the mile, Dathan had notched back-to-back Foot Locker National Cross Country wins – the last in competition against Webb and Hall – and Ryan had run a near sub-4:00 mile of his own.
Caught up in his own bubble, Dathan had never fully understood it, the investment young running fans had made in this Big Three, this wanting they had for them to succeed and the frustration they expressed when they didn’t. Perhaps it was his generation’s longing to find their own Steve Prefontaine or Gerry Lindgren, men who in a previous time had stirred young passions by taking on the world’s best at an early age and led others to the quest.
“I don’t know,” demurred Dathan in 2007, reflecting on the rabid message board musings his exploits generated since his high school days in Rockford, Michigan. “Sometimes when things aren’t going so great it’s more like why is everyone against me?”
But due to his early successes, along with the rise of the internet, Ritz never had the chance to develop in anonymity as had the previous triumvirate of Alan Culppepper, Meb Keflezighi, and Abdi Abdirahman. So when a spate of foot injuries – his bête noire – kept Dathan from building that long string of unbroken training that is the foundation for any peak performance, it seemed like every spin of the track had wags and bloggers second-guessing, rooting, or bashing depending on the outcome.
On the same day and track that Alan Webb eclipsed Steve Scott’s 25-year-old American record in the mile in Brasschaat, Belgium in July 2007, Dathan ran the 5000 meters. Leading with 800 to go on his way to a substantial personal best, he lost nine seconds over the final 400 to winner Markos Geneti of Ethiopia. Though he managed a half-second PR to 13:16.06, again the day had come up short.
“He was so successful at a young age,” said his wife Kalin, who shared what she called a “schoolyard romance” with Dathan in grade school, “that to see him mature puts some pressure on him. But what a great opportunity to see people wanting to see him succeed.”
The pressure really kicked into high gear after the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Ostend, Belgium in March of 2001. There, in what he later called the best moment yet in his young running life, Dathan finished in bronze medal position in the junior race, taking the measure all but two of the world’s greatest runners of his generation. He followed with a near-national high school record 13:44.70 for 5000 meters, missing Gerry Lindgren’s 1964 mark by less than one second. Now the pressure from the fans had gone to Spinal Tap levels.
Dathan conceded, “sometimes it feels like the world is on my shoulders a little, but I’ve been put in a very fortunate position. I have a good company behind me. I get paid to run. How great is that? And it is a great feeling to see the support you receive from people you have never met. So if I can give motivation to people that just makes it a less selfish sport for me.”
“It is his drive that separates him,” believed his one-time coach Brad Hudson. “He pushes himself very, very hard. It’s a gift. Not to say he doesn’t have talent, he does. You can look at the physiology, but it comes down to how bad do you want it? And Dathan Ritzenhein wants it very bad.”
Ritz matured at a steady pace since he first took up running with his dad Jerry after his parents got divorced when he was 10. Now, with a family of his own and an interest in coaching, Ritz has filled his life with much more than running.
“He changed a lot,” wife Kalin confirmed. “In high school running was everything. Running is still a big part of him, but other things are just as important. My wish for him is to look back and not regret or wish he hadn’t done this or that.”
With two Foot Locker National Cross Country wins, an NCAA title, a bronze medal in cross country as a junior and another on the road at the senior level, American records, and three Olympic berths, Ritz more than fulfilled his promise.
He’s had his measure of disappointments like all athletes, moved around a lot following his dreams before landing back at home in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But throughout his long career, Ritz represented one of the sport’s highest ideals, that of an everyday kid who could return American pride to the world stage.
His “everything-I’ve-got” racing style quickened hearts and amplified hopes. Now having joined Class of 2000 mates Alan Webb and Ryan Hall in retirement at age 37, his legion of fans can only say, thanks, to all of the Big Three, as they will forever be linked.
From the very start, Dathan Ritzenhein elevated expectations, then lifted that burden with a grace and spirit that will live on in the tales people tell of a wisp of a kid from the upper midwest who ran himself to the ground to drain every last drop of effort in competition. It is a legacy he should carry proudly into whatever future that awaits him.