A Reflective And Frank Dathan Ritzenhein Looks Back At The Olympic Trials Marathon And Forward To The Future

By LetsRun.com
January 22, 2012

Twenty-four hours after Dathan Ritzenhein missed making the 2012 Olympic Marathon team by eight seconds, we sat down with "Ritz" in Houston along with Jon Gugala of Running Times (thanks to Dathan making the interview rounds for his sponsor G Series Pro).

A very reflective and frank Dathan ("There's been many times when we've screwed up") looked back at his Trials race, looked back at his nearly three years with coach Alberto Salazar that has seen some tremendous highs and lows, looked ahead to the Olympic Track Trials and looked even farther ahead to where he sees his career going the next few years.

The day before, immediately after the race, the emotion of not making the Olympic team took center stage and Ritz was very upset with his race and questioned his future in the marathon. A day later, thanks to a little reflection, Dathan realized he ran fairly well in Houston, just not good enough to make the team, and remained committed to eventually running a successful marathon, just not at the expense of everything else.

Full Interview With Dathan
24 Hours After The Trials

If you'd like to watch the entire interview we had with Dathan, you can do so (it is embedded here to the right and also available here), but we recap his thoughts below. First we address Dathan's views on the Olympic Trials Marathon and then we move on to Dathan's thoughts to the future as we also look back at his first three years with Alberto Salazar.

Dathan On The Trials: "I ran pretty good. It just was not enough."
As for the 2012 OT race, Dathan was with the leaders through 17 miles. Then he started having spasms in his hamstrings and that is what he said ultimately ended his Olympic chances. As a result of the spasms, Dathan fell behind on mile 18, but he never gave u,p as he desperately tried to stay within striking distance of the top three. In the six miles from 17 to 23, he lost 4 seconds, 0 seconds, 9 seconds, 1 second, 15 seconds and 5 seconds on the leaders as the main pack of three stayed together through 23 miles. During the 24th mile, eventual champion Meb Keflezighi and runner-up Ryan Hall would pull away from third place finisher Abdi Abdirahman, but at the same, Ritz started to claw back at Abdi. Ritz gained 1 second on Abdi on mile 24, 7 on mile 25 and 14 in the 26th mile. In the end, it just wasn't quite enough, but we think it's important that people and maybe Ritz himself realize that Ritz rallied and fought all the way to end. Many may be surprised to learn that Ritz's final 3.2 miles was actually faster than both Ryan Hall's and Abdi Abdirahman's.

For the record, here is how fast the top 4 ran for the final 3.2 miles:

Meb Keflezighi 16:21
Ryan Hall 16:43
Abdi Abdirahman 16:59
Dathan Ritzenhein 16:34

(An interesting thing that should be pointed out to be intellectually honest is that Ritz didn't have the 2nd-fastest final 3.2 miles in the entire field behind Meb. A number of guys outside the top 4 actually had faster final 3.2 mile splits. 5th placer Brett Gotcher ran 16:18, 11th placer Ryan Vail 16:28, 12th placer Ricky Flynn 16:24, 13th placer Patrick Rizzo 16:28. The fastest final 3.2 miles of the entire race belonged to 10th placer Jimmy Grabow - 16:13).

Dathan's late charge was just a little too late. And although we say charge, in reality Dathan was just maintaining his pace the final 3 miles. After the 20th mile, all of Dathan's miles except for #24 (5:06) were 5:10 pace or slower and the 24th mile must be net downhill, as it is the same mile on the course as mile 8 and mile 16, which were all faster miles (mile-by-mile splits can be found here).

A Different Type Of Late Marathon Problems
Dathan, who has had cramping problems in his other marathons, believes that thanks to his work with Gatorade Sports Scientist Institute that this time his problems were different and hat he had the fueling issues under control. He said the spasms he experienced were muscular and very different from the cramping he's experienced before, as they eventually went away. Plus he was able to gain on the Abdi and Ryan the final 3 miles.

Dathan attributed the spasms to the fast early pace set by Ryan Hall and the fact Dathan missed six months of running earlier in the year. "Ryan took it out at such an intense pace (which contributed to the muscular problems later), and I didn't run for sixth months this year, either."

Immediately after the marathon, Dathan had been pretty down on his performance, but a day later, he was much more upbeat about his showing, as he was able to put things in a much better perspective. He realized that after having had a series of injuries that kept him from running at all for half of 2011, that coming back with a PR at the Trials was a pretty strong accomplishment.

"You know, I ran pretty good yesterday. After 24 hours of thinking about it, I ran pretty good. It just was not enough. That tells you a lot about where American distance running is ... we had four guys under 2:10, and I didn't think four guys would run under 2:10 and still not make it,"  said Ritz.

Dathan's Immediate Reaction
On The Trials Marathon

Dathan On His Trials Preparations, Which Included A 62:50 In Practice & 20 Milers At 5:00 Pace
As for the initial disappointment on the Trials, Dathan said that was related to how well his training had gone. The only races Dathan had done in advance of the marathon were two road 5ks. He said he purposely avoided doing a half marathon race beforehand because he did not want to run 61 minutes and get a "false confidence" for the marathon "because the marathon is just a different animal." However he did do "a 62:50 half marathon in practice, and some 20-milers at 5-minute pace, and 15 miles at 4:50 pace. So I did stuff like that almost every week, in those last six weeks or so."

The strong training gave Ritz tremendous confidence that he would make the Olympic team, but it also made it all the more crushing for Ritz to initially accept the 4th place finish. But with a day's reflection,the 29-year-old had a much more upbeat take on things:

    "I was so disappointed afterwards, and seeing (coach) Alberto (Salazar) right afterwards, and knowing how well the training had gone, that was the initial reaction. I mean, 'The training went so good, how could this have happened?' But looking back on it and evaluating how I was able to come back ... four months (ago) I didn't know if I'd be able to do the Olympic Trials because I was still hooked up to the wound vac. I didn't really get into the real decent training until the end of October. So to be able to look back at it, I never would have thought that I wouldn't make it with the training that I had done. But the guys ran so well yesterday."

Considering the time he missed, Ritz believed a slower opening half marathon would have been better for him, but running his own pace was not ever an option for the super competitive Ritz, who throughout his career has been known for always laying it on the line, ever considered implementing.

    "Probably for me, it probably would have been better if it was 64:30 at the half. I probably would have been able to run 64:30 again and wouldn't have had that spasming, but you have to compete. That's just always what I've believed and how I do the best. I like to get in there and compete. I feel like if I'm just out there running by myself.  Even when I ran 12:56, my thought of competing was 'Just hang on, just hang on, just hang on.'"

The one positive to finishing 4th at in the Marathon Trials is that Ritz will now turn his competitive instincts immediately towards the track. "I didn't make the team, but it's going to make me focus on track, and I've been competitive before in that, and so that's what I'm going to focus on: just be competitive," said Ritz, who first shocked the world as a junior with a bronze medal at the 2001 World Junior XC Champs.

World Half Bronze

The Immediate Future ... The Track And The 10k ... If Only The 13.1 Was In The Olympics
Ritz's biggest successes in the senior ranks have come in the 5k (12:56.27 former American record in 2009) and half marathon (1:00:00 bronze medal at World Championships), but for the Olympics his focus will likely be the 10k.

    "I just want to compete. I'm just thankful to be racing again and running. It was a long time not being able to do it. I've run faster at 5k, but I still feel I was better at the 10k. I may not have that blistering kick in the 5k. I know what I ran in the half marathon was just as good as I ran in the 5k. It was a competitive race. Same thing with the 10k (at the 2009 Worlds). It was only 27:22 as compared to 12:56, but that was the World Championships - a very tactical race, much faster the second half, and it was 78 degrees ... I think I could be the most competitive in the 10k, unfortunately there is no half marathon in the Olympics because that would probably be my best event."

While Ritz is now turning his efforts to getting ready for the Track Trials, he did admit he's going to try to make sure he enjoys the process a bit more than he diid when getting ready for the Marathon Trials. With his rush back from injury and the Olympic Marathon Trials looming right in front of him, enjoying running got lost in the mix for Ritz.

    "The Olympics is everything. It's every four years you don't have the luxury of time when it is sneaking up. You just get so focused on it you don't enjoy the racing and the training and be thankful for having the opportunity to do it. This past year I didn't have that opportunity. I was sitting on the couch. I didn't run for six months at all. As soon as I started it was 'You can make the Olympic team in the marathon. There's not that much time.' And I went to focus right on it again. I've got to enjoy the process of being out there and racing again."

Trying to Stay Healthy: "I did get hurt trying to change my form. There is no doubt about it."
A key ingredient to Ritzenhein having as much success as possible is staying healthy. He missed nearly all of 2011 and half of 2010 with injuries. In the attempt to stay healthy, Salazar and Ritzenhein tried to make significant changes to his form. The effort generated a lot of publicity, including a feature in The New Yorker, but Ritz readily acknowledged that the form change backfired.

"I did get hurt trying to change my form. There is no doubt about it."

Now the emphasis for Ritz is less conscious changes to his form and more specific strength work with a physical therapist  in order to prevent injuries rather than attempting to "chase" the cause of the injury after the fact. On his new strength program, Ritz said:

    "I do work with a P.T. now that does our whole strength program. Before we were kind of doing what the general program is that was given to us by different strength coaches, and I had a lot of underlying issues. I have a lot of confidence in the guy that we use now, because my body just feels good again, and the last two years, I didn't feel good. My body felt banged up. I was always dancing around little problems, and I'm trying to be a lot more proactive on it now. We were always trying to chase a reason for an injury, and we did find some problems, but there were other problems that we were looking at - real obvious things - instead of built-up injury patterns. So I've got a lot more confidence in where I'm going in the future now, and this is the healthiest I've felt since 2009."

On his form, Ritz is incorporating his strength work and letting things happen:

    "Now, though, we emphasize instead of trying to change our form its just what happens is going to happen from the strength work we've been doing.  I think my form is a lot closer to where we wanted to get but we haven't tried to do it at all. Its been whatever we've done with exercises in the weight room that's what's led to it. Before in 2010 we were trying to make it (the form changes) happen. Alberto was yelling at me ... things to change, to consciously think of. Now we do those things (in the weight room) and I don't think about it. If it happens it happens. It's a more long-term approach. We knew where we wanted to get to with the form, we just didn't know how to get there. Now, we're just trying to get wherever my body is telling me to go. I feel good though. I feel my form is very good and efficient. I think we've done a good job, now it's just staying strong. That's the big thing. I've got to keep my body able to do it. It will happen over time-  where it just become natural."

Part II ... Ritz Looks To The Longer Term Future And A Return To The Marathon And Looks Back At His 3 Years With Alberto Salazar
When Dathan joined up with Alberto Salazar after his disappointing 2:10:00 at the 2009 London Marathon, Dathan thought his future lay in the marathon. Ritz and Alberto, however, struck an informal agreement to not do a marathon for a full year and to focus on the track first. Dathan had almost immediate success on the track, running his 12:56.27 American record at 5,000m a few months later before following that up with a 1:00:00 half marathon bronze medal at the World Half Marathon Championships. Dathan was tempted to then carry on for another three weeks and run the 2009 ING New York City Marathon, but they stuck to the plan of not running the marathon for a year. When they did return to the marathon in 2010, the result was a disappointing 8th place finish in New York (2:12:33).

A High School Ritz In Eugene

Dathan now still has the fire to run the marathon, but he no longer wants the marathon to be the sole focus of his year.

    "When we were saying (immediately after the Trials) ... with the reaction thing of 'no not doing the marathon (anymore).' Looking back at it, that's not the plan anymore. I'll still do the marathon for sure. We've avoided doing the things I've had a lot of success at that I've been good at in pursuit in the marathon. I think if I had run the NYC Marathon after I was third in the World Half Marathon Championships, I probably would have run really good. I would like to pursue the other goals of things I have been good at and then  maybe... do the marathon in the fall at the end of it but you don't emphasize (the marathon) the whole year. I've gotten into the cycle where I try to focus on it at the expense of everything else. So maybe try and do the things I'm really good at and then why not try the marathon when everything is going really good.  I've got the nutritional part down from Gatorade now. I just have to stay healthy and that's part of it doing those races. I'd like to do cross-country again ... I'm good at the stuff. It's always fun when you're doing good."

Believe it or not, the last track race Dathan ran was his 12:56.27 American record in Zürich in 2009. Injuries no doubt have factored into that, but Dathan hopes that by focusing on where he is most successful instead of just focusing on the marathon, that he ultimately will be led to bigger accomplishments.

    "I do love the marathon, but I think I love being good better ... I want to succeed at what I'm going to be best at. If that means I need to spend a year or two really focusing on the track and figuring out things a little bit in the marathon that is okay. If that means in two years I'm back full-time in the marathon and 100% (that's fine as well); I just want to be good. Whatever I'm going to best at ... The marathon has this glamour, it's the pinnacle event of the Olympics Games and the New York City Marathon. I still want that, but I want to make sure first I'm on track first to be as good as I can ... Right now I've got to look at the 10k, half marathon, 5k, that realm of things and if that leads me back to being great at the marathon, that's great ... In two years I might have been healthy for a few years and be rocking it out and go back to the marathon  full time but I'm not going to focus on it so solely on it. I'm going to compete and do well. Not 'I've got to do this in the marathon.'"

Dathan On Alberto: "I still trust him 100% and we've had mixed results, but I really believe he is a very smart, very passionate guy more than anything. He will find the way."

The Trials gave Dathan the chance to reflect back on his nearly three years with coach Alberto Salazar. The success Dathan wanted in the marathon has not yet come (Dathan was 9th in the Olympics in 2008 under previous coach Brad Hudson), but he had tremendous success at 5k, 10k, and the half marathon in 2009.

Dathan gave a frank assessment ("I did get hurt trying to change my form. There is no doubt about it" mentioned above) of his years under Alberto, but there was no questioning his commitment to his coach and his coach's commitment to him:

    "We've had mixed results, but I really believe he is a very smart, very passionate guy more than anything. He will find the way. He would never give up on me even in the worst of times ... I mean,  running with the wound-vac for 2 months. I'm sure that has never been done for sure ... No one has ever ran 100 miles a week with a wound-vac on. That's what made him a great athlete - he was relentless and that's what makes him a great coach. He's not afraid to admit when he's wrong. There's been many times when we've screwed up. But that's part of what makes me trust him. We will find the way. There will be bumps along the route but well find the way."

Ritz and Alberto understand what every star in the sport does - there is fine line between greatness and injury. Name a great distance runner and we'll name a time they were injured:

    "The fact of the matter is I push the envelope because I want to be really good. I could probably back off a little bit. But if  I hit it out of the park doing 100% I'm going to do that. Sometimes the emphasis will be on the hydro works, the Alter-G, but the bottom line is I train really hard. I do that stuff on top of the training ... It's not that more is better but I'm going to push the envelope. I've got to be smart and I've had trouble with that. Alberto is that way a little bit too. He was an aggressive racer and that's how he is that way too as a coach and we're going to try and be the best we can be. If there are a lot of bumps along the road, I've come back from everything that has happened, and I'll keep coming back."

Coming back from setbacks is the story of a lot of distances runners and Ritz takes inspiration from the winner of the Trials, 36-year-old Meb Keflezighi, who after his silver medal at the 2004 Olympics came back from injury to win the 2009 ING New York City Marathon and the Olympic Trials:

    "Look at a guy like Meb. It's an inspirational story to stick to it and work as hard as you can. That's something everyone can appreciate as long as you love to do it and want to do it, you can come back from anything. Everybody gets hurt ... Everybody says (it's a matter of) how much do you want it, but I think it's how much do you love it. And I love to train and I love to race. I think anybody is out there who has those problems if you love to train and love to race, you'll find a way to get back out there."

Well said.

 On Galen And The Marathon: "It wasn't some ploy."

Dathan had this to say about training partner Galen Rupp entering but then not running the Olympic Trials Marathon:

    "It wasn't some ploy. They were keeping their options open. He was training good but at some point, a decision had to be made 'which direction do we go.' He ran 26:48 last year and has consistently gotten better each year. For him it was like 'Do we change something all of a sudden right now and take this big risk or do we know what has been working in the past and keep chipping away at it?.' If he progresses again this year as much as he's progressed each other year, he's going to be in the hunt for a medal in the 10k."

On Life After Running

Dathan expressed a desire to get into coaching after his running career ends. He said, "I want to be involved in the sport. I'd love doing what Alberto is doing." Then Dathan joked, "Alberto's getting old anyway." Full interview below if you want to watch:

24 Minutes With Dathan 24 Hours After The Trials
(For Ritz's Immediate Reaction After The Trials, Click Here)

Thanks to G Series Pro for making Ritz available.

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