Where Your Dreams Become Reality
12:56.27; August 28, 2009; Zürich, Switzerland
Thirteen years after Bob Kennedy became the first American to break 13:00 for the 5000m, Dathan Ritzenhein improbably bettered the mark in the same venue where it was originally set. The old mark was 12:58.21, set on August 14, 1996. The new mark, set by a man who had run only 13:34.00 this year and had a previous personal best of 13:16.06, is an ear-popping 12:56.27.
Looking at the all-time 5000m lists, only two men born outside the continent of Africa have run faster than Ritzenhein. Germany's Dieter Baumann ran 12:54.70 in Zürich in 1997 and Aussie Craig Mottram ran 12:55.76 in London just over five years ago.
All of the attention in the race centered around Kenenisa Bekele, coming back from his 10,000m/5,000m double win at the Berlin World Championships, and hoping to stay in contention for the $1,000,000 Golden League Jackpot. There had been talk of a world record attempt, and the early pace was 2:30 for the first kilometer. No fewer than ten Kenyans were entered in the race to either rabbit the great Ethiopian or attempt to defeat him.
One non-African was in the field. He was in last, and after a few laps he was being dropped from the single-file chain of competitors. An opening 1600 of 4:04 for the leaders appeared to be having quite a negative effect on Ritzenhein, the first non-African finisher in the 10,000m in Berlin and the new pupil of former outstanding runner and now world-renowned American distance coach Alberto Salazar.
With a gap emerging between Ritzenhein and the second-to-last competitor not once but several times in the first 3000m in the race, one could hardly expect the monumental outcome that occurred over the final laps. But within a few minutes several of the African runners started to crack and fade badly. Laps of 60 and 62 became 63 and 64, even for Bekele, and for the others they were becoming 66 or slower.
Ritz, however, kept the pace going. 12:56.27 for the 5000m is almost exactly 62-seconds per lap (62.11 would estimate his average lap time more accurately). Off the back a bit early on, Ritz was able to maintain his rhythm and with three or four laps to go all of a sudden he had caught a significant number of runners. Of course, one could only catch a glimpse of him if a cameraman used a sort of "alternative angle", there was no point in focusing on a runner so far behind the greatest distance runner of all-time. Ritzenhein seemed destined for a 6th-place finish and a personal best, but within a minute or so it became clear that he had a lot of "gas" left in the "tank". In other words, he looked so good we wanted to ignore what was going on just out of habit, but we couldn't escape that thought in the back of our minds that said, "Ritz is really charging."
Looking back, the perfect storm was happening for Ritzenhein as he had energy to spare, carrots dangling at regularly spaced intervals on the track in front of him, and years of training under his belt. Years of training, but only weeks in his new routine perhaps described best as the post-Brad Hudson era. Before this tremendous performance, the former marathon specialist had only eight or nine weeks under his newly-appointed coach Salazar.
Ritzenhein passed a few more, and a few more, until with 800m to go he needed "only" a 2:02 to run 12:58. It all happened so quickly. From being dropped off the pack to breaking one of the most celebrated American distance records of all-time. Ritz was charging. Not only was he threatening 13:00, the American record and Craig Mottram's relatively new non-African standard, he was threatening the race leaders. While Bekele was running 63-second quarters, Ritzenhein broke 60 seconds on his penultimate lap (well, he came close at least). 11:56 at the bell and Ritzenhein's dreams were coming true.
He was in second and charging hard. The cameras of the British coverage started focusing on the race for non-African superiority rather than on the man who never loses. Ritzenhein closed well though he was passed in the final 150m by a "decent runner" in Edwin Soi (PB of 12:52.40), and he had done it, though he seemed to hardly believe it himself.
We can't blame him for not believing it. From 13:16 (Ritz's old PB) to 12:56 in one race. From a marathoner in April to one of the world's greatest non-Africans ever on the track in the 5000m in August. There will surely be many explanations, questions, congratulations and accusations after this performance.
But the first word out of most observers' mouths could only be, "Wow".
Leader's (Bekele's) Splits