Q&A: 2017 USATF Marathon Champ Tim Ritchie Explains How He Ran 2:11 Off 85 Miles Per Week & What He Learned From Eliud Kipchoge
By Jonathan Gault
December 5, 2017
Many runners set personal bests at Sunday’s California International Marathon in Sacramento, which doubled as the 2017 USATF Marathon Championships. But none ran as fast as Tim Ritchie. The 30-year-old Ritchie, a Massachusetts native and Boston College alum who now lives in New Haven, Conn., lowered his personal best by almost three minutes to run 2:11:56, winning his first career national title in the process. Ritchie accomplished this by running a sizable negative split (66:52-65:04) and he joins Chicago Marathon champion Galen Rupp as the only Americans to have broken 2:12 this year.
On Monday, I caught up with Ritchie over the phone where we discussed his strategy in Sacramento, his low-mileage approach, and what he learned from Eliud Kipchoge.
Let’s start with the time. 2:11, big PR. Did you go in with a time or a pace that you were looking to hit in mind?
Yes and no. I had a goal pace for the halfway point and then whatever came to be after that was kind of up to the marathon gods. So I definitely wanted to walk away with the [Olympic Trials] “A” standard, so under 2:15 was on my mind. And then I thought my PR is only a couple seconds faster than that, so I figured if I was running well I could maybe knock out a personal best as well. So I wanted to go through in 67:00 and give myself an opportunity to even-split and get the “A” standard or even if I struggled a bit, still get the “A”; if I was feeling good, negative split and turn it into a big PB.
You obviously got well under the “A” standard and your PR. Were you surprised that you were able to run so fast?
Yes and no. I mean, you do the training, you put in the work, you have to have that confidence in yourself that you’re ready to run fast, you’re ready to compete well against some of the best guys in the country. My last two marathons had pretty rough finishes. And so I was just trying to be grateful for every good mile I had and not think too far ahead. I tried not to do the math in my head and say, Okay, if I run this, that means this time. I was just trying to get one more mile done and get one more mile done because experience has taught me that at any moment you can crash into the wall and start running 7:00 miles. So after halfway, I just tried to go one at a time, try to be competitive against the runners, and try to ignore the clock at that point.
Why do you think you were able to run so fast? Was it better buildup? Better training? Did the conditions, the weather help yesterday? What do you think went into it?
Yeah, I mean the weather was perfect and I think my training had gone really well. Tim Broe is my coach of the Saucony Freedom Track Club. And I’m just taking baby steps into becoming a better marathoner. I’m a relatively low-mileage runner. I skipped a spring marathon to just focus on more of the little things and getting a little bit stronger and trying to keep my speed development going. I had a pretty solid buildup. The usual hiccups — a couple calf strains that took me out here or there, usual fall sickness — but pretty consistent training over the last 12 weeks. And [I] just figured that if I could put myself in a competitive mindset in the second half, that would kind of draw the race out of me.
You mentioned that your last two marathons, that last 10k was pretty rough. But yesterday, that was pretty much the strongest area of your race. What was the difference between this one and the last two?
So the last two marathons I ran were the Olympic Trials and New York last year. And I think in the Trials, I just wasn’t fit enough. I had a rough buildup with injury setbacks and everything. And that race, you put yourself in position to be top three and that’s all that matters. When the wheels fell off, they fell off hard. So I went into that race hopeful, kind of had my fingers crossed, but wasn’t too confident in the buildup that I had.
Last year, I was pretty fit for New York. I learned a lot about the New York Marathon in and of itself, which is a beast. I ran a lot of that race alone and was a little aggressive through halfway (66:12). And so at CIM, I knew the last 10k was pretty flat. I wanted to be really patient. Of the five marathons I’ve run, this was my second-slowest half marathon split. And I just wanted to really make sure that I could have something left in the last 10k.
That was the primary goal of this race. It wasn’t a time, really. It wasn’t really even a [place], it was more just a style of racing, how to set yourself up to finish strong and feel what that feels like, to be able to run confidently in the last bit of the race…The goal of CIM was to approach the marathon as if it was my first one and be patient and see this as the beginning of a long journey to the 2020 Trials.
So you’re based in New Haven but you run for Freedom Track Club, which is based in Boston. How exactly does that work? Are you going up to Boston for workouts at all? How is that arrangement going?
So far, so good. I was running with Coach Broe for the past year and a half, so just before the club officially launched [in September 2017]. And so when the club launched, it was just a good fit for me to be able to stay with that structure. This fall is really the first fall that they had the full squad up there. So there’s five men and three women up there. I’m down in New Haven primarily, my wife is at graduate school here at Yale and I really love it down here in Connecticut but Boston is close enough. I can get up there maybe one long weekend a month to just check in with the coach and get a workout in or a long run with the team and just kind of be with the team and support them and what they do. So even though I’m down here doing most of my workouts solo, I feel like I’m part of the team and that’s really been a big motivator for me to want to represent the Freedom Track Club and get some recognition for the Freedom Track Club and my own racing and training down here.
And do you do anything else apart from running — coaching, part-time job, anything like that?
Yeah, I’m volunteer coaching at Yale. So I was a coach at Boston College for six years and I took a step back from coaching to try to become more of an athlete and really focus on my athletic career. But coaching is a big part of who I am, so I came down here and found myself coaching like, the next day. I love being a part of a team, and the Yale team has been really welcoming. The Yale coaches have been really, really supportive of my career and also my ambitions as a coach. So they’ve been great.
So I’m doing that, I’m volunteering with them and I also coach some private athletes. I have a handful, about eight, of my own individual athletes that I coach. All sorts of ability levels, all across the country, through a group called McKirdy Trained, just a group of coaches that we all have our individual athletes. So I’m doing that too. So it’s been fun to learn coaching outside the collegiate system as well.
I remember before the 2016 Olympic Trials I read an article in the Globe that said you’d only been training around 70 miles a week. For a prospective Olympic marathoner, that’s very low. I’m wondering: why so low?
I just had some bad luck with injuries. And at the time I was training for the Olympic Trials, I was working as a coach at BC, and that meant a lot of hours, a lot of time on the road, a lot of long days at track meets. And my coach at the time was Matt Kerr, he’s the head coach at BC, and he always saw that lifestyle as training. I would walk from my apartment to BC and back every day, it was like four miles of walking. I’m at a 10-hour track meet on my feet, and he would say, That’s part of your training. You’re getting fatigued doing that kind of stuff, you can’t do that in addition to logging high mileage.
So trying to balance my work lifestyle with my injury history kept the volume pretty low but pretty high quality. And so one of the changes now with Coach Broe, and also this more of a professional athlete lifestyle, is I can add on a bit more mileage because I have more time to focus on recovery and the ability to spend more time in the weight room and all these other little things. I upped the mileage a little bit. I’m still not in the realm of some of my marathon competitors but I feel like I’m taking steps, season by season, to grow as a marathon athlete.
What was your mileage like for this buildup?
I would say I probably averaged about 80 to 85 miles per week, at least over the last eight weeks or so. The first half of the buildup, I was racing pretty frequently. I ran the [USATF] 20k, then I ran a 10k on Long Island, so those may have been low 70s. But the last seven weeks or so were kind of mid-80s. And that felt good. I feel like I was able to do that and still be fresh enough for quality workouts, stay pretty healthy and set a foundation that in the spring, I can continue to build on that and maybe next fall continue to climb in the total volume.
What was your highest mileage week?
I broke 100 for the first time in my life. So I had a week of 103 just because that happened to be a week of seven days of running. Usually, I take a day off every eight to 10 days, so that usually means one day off in a Monday-to-Sunday calendar. So the week that happened to not have that day off, I hit 103 and immediately got a wicked bad head cold and missed the next three days of running so maybe it was a lesson to myself to be a little bit patient and not go chase that number, but make sure I’m doing what I need to do to stay healthy and stay recovered.
Do you have a number in mind where you want to be, mileage-wise, by the 2020 Trials? Do you think it’s possible to make the Olympic team — and I know this is kind of far out still — but do you think it’s possible to make it off like, 80-85 miles a week?
I don’t have a number in mind. I mean, I don’t think there’s a magic formula for success in this event. It’s just a unique event. It’s a matter of figuring out what works best for the individual athlete. Obviously it’s a test of endurance, and the more mileage you can do while staying healthy and staying able to do quality workouts would be a benefit. But I just want to keep getting stronger.
For me, it’s about stringing together weeks of consistency more than it is stringing together high mileage weeks. If I can go 12 weeks without a calf strain or a sickness, I’ll be in pretty good shape. So I think it’s just trusting the system that you’re operating under.
You know, there’s so many great athletes out there, sometimes you gotta do things a little different to try to get an advantage. And for me, it’s just trying to be honest with who I am as an athlete and not trying to be somebody I’m not.
You’ve been racing on the roads for a while now. I guess you sort of hinted at this earlier, but do you view yourself as primarily a marathoner at this point, and when did you start viewing yourself that way?
Maybe I do now, as of yesterday. Up until then, I wasn’t so sure. I had run 1:01 in the half but I was living proof that a good half doesn’t equate to a good full automatically, they’re completely different events. I’ve always prided myself on versatility, being able to run a mile and a half marathon in the same season. And that’s worked for me in the past, I’ve done well on the road circuit because I was able to enter and succeed in a variety of distances. But I think recognizing what I’m up against in the 2020 Trials, I think the focus needs to be a bit more marathon-specific.
So yeah, this fall and moving forward, kind of transitioning and prioritizing the marathon over other events. It doesn’t mean that I won’t race down to a 5k or a 10k. I think Coach Broe is about being a well-balanced athlete. But I think that the primary focus is gonna be, okay, what is gonna put me in the best position to be fit and ready whenever they announce the Olympic Trials.
Was there a learning curve for [Coach Broe, who had not coached a marathoner prior to Ritchie] that you noticed as a coach? You had run a couple [marathons] before you got to him, but was there anything you guys had worked on together, or anything you guys learned from the first buildup last year?
Yeah, we’re always learning. He’s a great coach in that he’s not afraid to ask questions or ask for help or learn from other people. We were inspired by Kipchoge’s training log that surfaced and the simplicity of it. He’s known me now as an athlete for about a year and a half and what really works for me. The training is similar to what I was doing with Matt Kerr, it was just kind of geared around, okay, what has made me successful in other events, how can we translate that to the marathon?
What did you learn from Kipchoge’s log? Did you incorporate anything from that into your own training?
The obvious thing is his consistency. Sometimes as a coach, you feel like you want to create these new workouts that no one’s doing, but if you look at Kipchoge’s log, it’s 10k pace intervals on the track, 1k repeats, and a tempo run, and then a fartlek. It’s the same thing over and over and over again.
And then it’s a lot of time spent at marathon pace. So that’s something we did a lot of in the last six weeks, was took a lot of running at 5:00-5:10 range. Maybe once per mini-cycle, we’d get to the track and do something at 10k pace to keep the mechanics sound and do something a little faster, but really it was just spending a lot of time running marathon pace, which was pretty simple. And then just trying to do that week after week, throw in some long fartleks where you’re kind of just going based off of effort.
Like I said, we were struck by the simplicity of it. And obviously it works for Kipchoge because he’s an outstanding athlete, he’s done this for years, and so we’re kind of getting into a routine, hopefully, which kind of builds on itself, and buildup after buildup, we’re starting at a higher foundation.
What are your goals moving forward?
That’s a good question. I would like to run the World Half Marathon Championships in March. It’s tricky though. Right now, I think I’m in a qualifying spot, but with the Houston Half Marathon, I’m pretty confident that I’ll get bumped off the list. So don’t know. This was the big goal for 2017 and this week is gonna be about relaxing and not really thinking about running. And I’ll probably get together with Broe in a couple of days and recap the buildup, what we did well, what we think we’ve learned and then try to set some goals for 2018.
But like I said, it’s primarily taking baby steps and becoming a better athlete. I’ve still got a lot of work to do in terms of building that volume, as far as getting stronger in the weight room and continuing to learn how to race as the competition gets better and better. So no real concrete goals for the future, just those vague, get better goals.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed for clarity.