Stinson and Ritzenhein have a relationship that stretches back a decade. They try not to worry about the fact that, should all go well, they’ll be racing each other for an Olympic berth next year.
By Jonathan Gault
January 16, 2019
Parker Stinson wants to make it clear: he wasn’t stalking Dathan Ritzenhein when they first met 10 years ago in Houston. Not exactly.
Stinson was a junior at Cedar Park High School outside of Austin, in town to catch a glimpse of the biggest pro running event in the state of Texas, the Houston Half Marathon. But more than anything, he was there to see Ritzenhein; multiple posters bearing his image hung in the Cedar Park locker room, including one from his bronze-medal performance in the junior race at the 2001 World Cross Country Championships (Ritz remains the last US junior, male or female, to medal in that race). Ritzenhein was 26 and fresh off his second Olympic appearance, where he finished 9th in the marathon in Beijing, and about to embark on a career year that would see him break Bob Kennedy‘s American record in the 5,000 meters and earn a bronze medal at the World Half Marathon Championships.
“He was the man for sure,” Stinson says.
Stinson had a connection to Ritzenhein. His high school coach, Timo Sheard, had struck up a relationship with Ritzenhein’s coach, Brad Hudson, whom he would occasionally email for advice.
Sheard had driven out to Houston with Stinson and a few teammates and had been texting Hudson in the hopes of meeting up. But Hudson had stopped responding. So Sheard and his charges headed toward the meet hotel. It wasn’t exactly a stakeout, but “we were hoping we would see them wandering around,” Stinson recalls.
As Hudson and Ritzenhein were on their way to dinner, Sheard approached and introduced himself and Stinson. Stinson, a little starstruck at the time, doesn’t recall much about the interaction — “I just remember trying not to say anything weird” — but he knew one thing: Ritzenhein was now officially his favorite runner. That moment would mark the beginning of a crucial relationship in Stinson’s life, one that evolved from star-fanboy while he was in high school to mentor-mentee during his days at the University of Oregon, where Ritzenhein served as a volunteer coach in 2014.
Last fall, their relationship changed once again when Ritzenhein agreed to coach Stinson, who parted ways with his old coach, Hudson, after the Chicago Marathon. As fate would have it, Stinson’s first race under Ritzenhein comes Sunday at the Houston Half Marathon, a decade after their first meeting. This time, he knows that Ritzenhein will respond to his texts.
Stinson, 26, had been working with Hudson in Boulder since 2016, but heading into Chicago, he felt it might be time for a change as Hudson increasingly shifted his focus toward Allie Kieffer, the 2:28 marathoner who has finished 5th and 7th at the last two New York City Marathons.
“It was just a small group and I thought it was great and I thought everything was going well,” Stinson says. “But at some point, Brad, he just wasn’t excited about our group anymore and he was really excited about Allie. And if that’s what he wants to do, if that’s what makes him excited, I can’t blame him. But basically when I moved out there, it was to create a group, it was to be part of a group. And then in the last six months, four months, that’s not where his focus was.”
So Stinson began searching for a new coach, even going so far as to make an offer to denizens of the LetsRun.com messageboard:
Fun experiment idea:
Offer some of the message board coaches on @letsrundotcom the opportunity to coach me for my next marathon. If I break 2:11 I'll pay them $15,000 dollars.
If I don't break 2:11 they owe me $15,000 dollars and they can never post on Letsrun again. 🎲 🎲
— Parker Stinson (@parkerstinson) October 10, 2018
Stinson says now that that was not a genuine offer, but rather an attempt to make a point. After running 2:14:29 in Chicago, Stinson read critics who told him that he could have run faster had he not run so aggressively early — he hit 5k in 14:57 (2:06 marathon pace) and came through halfway in 65:12. But Stinson says that those critics are missing the point: he had a significant financial incentive to run faster than 2:11.
“I have knowledge that that number (sub-2:11) would change my life, and it would be a lot more than [$15,000], actually,” Stinson says. “And so my whole point is, everyone that was criticizing how I ran, no one told me how to go break 2:11 in those criticisms…Chicago wasn’t about me running my best possible performance. It was about me hitting a mark. And maybe I wasn’t ready to do that mark, as we found out. But that’s why I had that goal. I felt like I had done enough work to give that goal a try. It was worth blowing up and risking it.”
When it got time to seriously look for a coach, Stinson reached out to Ritzenhein for counsel. The two had struck up a bond during the 2014 indoor track season, when Ritzenhein worked as a volunteer coach under Andy Powell at Oregon. Stinson had started that season by running 8:09 for 3,000 meters, a performance he viewed as distinctly subpar — he had finished 10 seconds behind the winner, and had run a slower pace for 3,000 than he had during his 5,000 PR the previous spring (13:31, or 8:07 3k pace). But Ritzenhein cautioned him not to lose faith.
“He’s one of the few coaches and people I’ve been around where he believed in my talent and my hard work more than I did,” Stinson says. “And I felt like some of my other coaches, you’re always trying to prove something to them. If you have a bad race or a bad workout, they would be frustrated and then you had to go prove your worth all over again. And I just felt like being around Dathan, he would see you working out, he would see your whole week, your whole month. So when someone that good would talk to you like, ‘no, you’re really talented, you can do this and this and this,’ it just meant so much to you and it kind of took a weight off your shoulders because you didn’t feel like you had to prove anything to him.”
Seven weeks later, Stinson finished as the top American in the 5,000 at NCAA indoors — ahead of future Olympian Jared Ward, and behind only collegiate legends Edward Cheserek and Lawi Lalang.
Even once Ritzenhein relocated to his native Michigan that summer, he and Stinson kept in touch. When Stinson was afraid to test out his rebuilt Achilles after undergoing surgery in the spring of 2016, it was a call from Ritzenhein that convinced him to finally get out the door. And when Stinson began training under Hudson, Ritzenhein became a valuable resource: he had gone through the same training and was always there to talk Stinson through it if needed. When Stinson reached out in the days after Chicago, Ritzenhein told him to take his time to really evaluate the situation; no one makes good decisions in the immediate aftermath of a poor race. But a week later, when Stinson affirmed that he would be leaving Hudson, Ritzenhein let him know that he’d be willing to help out as coach if needed.
Stinson knew he wanted to stay in Boulder, where his wife, Ashley, works as an elementary school teacher. So he narrowed his coaching search down to Richard Hansen, who heads the Boulder-based Roots Running Project, and Ritzenhein, who would coach him from afar. Ultimately, he went with Ritzenhein as he believed it would be a smoother transition — Ritzenhein’s training under Alberto Salazar with the Nike Oregon Project was similar to the system Powell ran at Oregon, and both men had experienced success training under Hudson.
“I just really felt like the training that I knew better was the safer route,” Stinson says.
Training without a group — Stinson estimates he has done 90% of his workouts alone since Chicago — has brought its own challenges, but Ritzenhein, who coached himself for several years before joining the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in 2017, believes that those challenges are a necessary part of Stinson’s development.
“Sometimes if you’ve been in a situation where everything’s controlled and you don’t make those decisions, you don’t learn either, and you have to be able to learn,” Ritzenhein says.
Ritzenhein has challenged Stinson to become more independent and learn the rhythm of his body, a crucial skill for any marathoner.
“I give him a lot of things where I say, don’t even look at your watch until afterwards,” Ritzenhein says. “I want him to say, this is the effort level that we’re going to go for, so that that way he starts to learn so he doesn’t make mistakes in the marathon and he doesn’t feel like he has to press for things, he can worry about himself in those situations. Because ultimately in the marathon, that’s all that matters. Rarely are you kicking down at the end. It ends up being about what your body can handle, and not what your competitors can.”
But there are other sessions where Ritzenhein gives Stinson specific times to hit, which allows Ritzenhein to get a gauge of where Stinson’s fitness is at since Ritzenhein has run many of the same sessions during his 15-year professional career. Sometimes, Stinson looks at the times on paper and doesn’t believe he can hit them. That was the case last week, when he hit the track solo for his final big track workout before Houston: 1600-1200-800-400-400-800-1200-1600, with plenty of rest (between two and four minutes after each rep).
The session was notable for a couple of reasons. First, this sort of intense track workout is not something that Stinson would have done under Hudson.
“I think Brad was always secretly training me as a marathoner even when I didn’t realize it,” Stinson says. “When we were training for the half and I thought I was doing half marathon training, I think it was kind of sneaky marathon training.”
One thing that Stinson had always admired about Ritzenhein was his ability to race well across a variety of distances, most notably when he came back from a few years in the marathon to run 12:56 on the track for 5,000 in 2009. Under Ritzenhein, Stinson feels like he’s training like a 10k/half marathon runner as opposed to all marathon, all the time.
Second, the session would test him mentally as well as physically. Stinson had run plenty of sessions where the distance would drop and the pace would quicken as the workout went on. He hadn’t done one where he had to drop down and then build back up, with the longest rep coming at the end of the workout. Alone. At altitude.
He read the splits Ritzenhein had assigned and grew nervous. But Ritzenhein’s belief in Stinson made Stinson believe in himself. He wound up hitting every split, going 4:29-3:19-2:09-62-61-2:08-3:17-4:26.
Stinson and Ritzenhein text frequently, but they only talk on the phone once every other week or so. This time, Stinson couldn’t wait.
“I literally called him the moment after and I was talking to him and he asked me about it and he was like, Wait are you cooling down right now?” Stinson says. “Because we had been talking so long I started to have to jog, and he was like, Dude, get off the phone and finish your cooldown!”
The workout told Ritzenhein that Stinson is in shape to break his half marathon PR of 62:38, which he ran to finish 2nd at the US Half Marathon Championships last year in Pittsburgh, though the forecasted winds in Houston (10-20 mph on race day) could put a damper on that.
How Stinson races this weekend will be the first test of the latest iteration of Stinson and Ritzenhein’s relationship. Their new arrangement as athlete-coach (Stinson doesn’t currently pay Ritzenhein for his coaching services, but Ritzenhein says that will change in the future) requires a deeper connection. Before, Ritzenhein could be the shoulder to cry on, the guy that could pop in when it was convenient and pump Stinson up when he was feeling down. But a coach is more than that; would things change once he was required to give feedback every day?
“He knows I’m really hard on myself, so when I have a bad workout or two, he gives me what I need, which is not someone else being hard on me,” Stinson says. “It’s easy to be a really positive and great person when you only talk to somebody every four months. But the more I’ve gotten to know him, that’s actually who he is.”
Ritzenhein, meanwhile, has been impressed at how Stinson has risen to the challenge of training on his own.
“I’m really amazed at how much he’s taken the reins on it,” Ritzenhein says. “The only hesitation [when I decided to coach him] was, would he be able to do it solo? Because I had done it solo a lot over the years, and it’s hard. It’s hard to be at the track by yourself, it’s hard to organize those things, organize people, organize support. But he’s really done an amazing job, and to tell you the truth, I think he thrives off it a little bit.”
Next year, the Ritzenhein-Stinson relationship could undergo one more transformation: competitor vs. competitor.
“I think I have a great chance, still, to make the Olympic team,” says Ritzenhein.
It remains largely unspoken, but both men understand that they’re trying to peak for the same race: the 2020 Olympic Trials in Atlanta next February 29. They’re approaching the event from different spots — Ritzenhein, 36, is the fourth-fastest American marathoner ever (2:07:47) and will be trying to make his fourth Olympic team; Stinson is much more of a long shot and will be aiming for his first team (they’ve raced six times; Stinson has never come within 30 seconds of Ritzenhein). But for each of them, the math is the same: there are only three spots available for Americans on the start line in Tokyo.
Stinson doesn’t view this as a problem at all.
“I just feel so lucky, man,” Stinson says. “I just can’t believe that someone of his caliber, someone of his character, and someone with all of his knowledge and enthusiasm is willing to work with me and try to help me achieve that. I have no issue with it…If I run well in my marathon this year, I’ll be in the conversation, but I’m not a favorite. I just look at this as a great opportunity for me to have a chance to make the team in 2020, but honestly, if you talk to him too, I’m just excited because I think this is going to be a really long relationship.”
Ritzenhein says that coaching Stinson, who bleeds enthusiasm with every word, has helped to keep him motivated midway through the fifth Olympic cycle of his running career.
“It kind of lights a little fire under me,” Ritzenhein says. “I think, this guy wants it, and you have to always want it, because there’s others out there that don’t wait for you. So I gotta stay on my game.”
In addition to Stinson, Ritzenhein coaches steeplechasers Leah O’Connor (two-time NCAA champ) and Emily Oren (5th at USAs last year) and several sub-elites. Of course, he won’t have to race any of them in Atlanta, but the way Ritzenhein sees it, in order to make the team he will have to be fit enough to finish in the top three no matter who else is on the start line. He hasn’t given much thought to the fact that Stinson will be one of those opponents.
“On race day, he’ll be a competitor like anybody else, but all the way up to February 28, 2020, and even that morning before the gun goes off, I’ll be right there in his corner,” Ritzenhein says. “But he’s going to have to beat me just like he’s going to have to beat everyone else.”
Talk about this article on our fan forum / messageboard. MB: Now coached by Dathan Ritzenhein, Parker Stinson is ready to PR at the Houston Half.