May 7, 2020
The final member of the Big Three has hung them up. After a career in which he won national cross country titles in high school and college and made three Olympic teams, Dathan Ritzenhein has retired at the age of 37. Ritzenhein also set the American record at 5,000 meters in 2009 at 12:56.27 (since broken) and earned bronze medals at the World Half Marathon Championships (60:00 pb) and World Cross Country Championships (junior race) — the only US man to medal in either race in the last 38 years.
For many US distance running fans, Ritz was first known for his feats as a member of the high school class of 2001 with Alan Webb and Ryan Hall — who combined to form the most celebrated class in the history of American distance running. All three men would go on to great success as professionals, with Webb running the fastest mile ever by an American (3:46.91) and Hall running the fastest half marathon (59:43) and marathon (2:04:58) times.
Webb retired in 2014 and Hall in 2016; now Ritzenhein has joined them and, like his contemporaries, he has moved into coaching. Webb is distance coach at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock, Hall coaches his wife Sara, a 2:22 marathoner, and Ritzenhein coaches multiple pros, including Parker Stinson and Leah O’Connor.
Ritzenhein himself was coached by several high-profile American coaches, including Mark Wetmore, Brad Hudson, Alberto Salazar, and Kevin Hanson.
His stint with Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project from 2009-2014 was the source of some controversy. Though Ritzenhein has never been sanctioned for any anti-doping rule violations (ADRV), a leaked internal USADA report in 2017 suggested that Ritzenhein may have committed an ADRV by receiving an infusion of L-carnitine (a legal substance) over the legal limit of 50 ml in a six-hour period.
Ritzenhein had initially pushed back against receiving the infusion, telling Salazar “this doesn’t sound legal,” to which Salazar replied “everything is above board and cleared thru USADA.” Worried about his contract status and aware of the power Salazar wielded within Nike, Ritzenhein ultimately relented and received the infusion in December 2011.
“If you want to be in the Oregon Project, and you want Alberto to coach you, you have to do it,” Ritzenhein said he told his wife when Salazar was pressuring him to receive the infusion.
Ultimately, when Salazar was banned from the sport for four years — in part for the L-carnitine infusion given to assistant coach Steve Magness — a panel of arbitrators didn’t accept USADA’s argument that Ritzenhein’s L-carnitine infusion violated anti-doping rules. On page 72 of their decision, the arbitrators wrote “A majority of the Panel finds that USADA has not met its burden of proof with respect to the Attempted Administration charge as it relates to the NOP Athletes.”
Somewhat incredibly, Ritzenhein never won a US title on the track, but he accomplished plenty in over two decades of elite running. He’s one of just eight Americans to break 13:00 in the 5,000 and one of just five to break 2:08 in the marathon; Ritz and Galen Rupp are the only members of both clubs. His best distance was the half marathon — he broke 62:00 on record-eligible courses five times (the most by an American; he broke 62:00 an additional four times on aided courses) and remains the only American to medal at the World Half champs, earning bronze with his 60:00 pb in 2009.
“I’m probably the best American half marathoner ever,” Ritzenhein said in 2017.
That bronze at 13.1 was one of several fond memories Ritzenhein will take into retirement. Below, LetsRun.com’s five favorite moments from Ritzenhein’s career.
1) Ritz wins two Foot Locker XC titles in HS, including a 20-second domination of Alan Webb & Ryan Hall, then earns World XC jr bronze three months later
In a much-hyped battle between three future American record holders, Ritzenhein left no doubt and dominated at 2000 Foot Lockers, beating Webb by 20 seconds (at the time, the biggest winning margin in history) and Hall by 24. Ritz’s performance remains the highest ever recorded by HS expert Bill Meylan’s speed ratings. If this was a boxing match, it would have been a knockout.
Less than four months later, Ritz would solidify himself as the greatest US high school XC runner in history by earning the bronze medal in the junior race at World XC. This was a monumental accomplishment and Ritz gave hope to disillusioned US distance fans. Remember, the previous year the US entered just one man and one woman at the 2000 Olympic marathons. Ritz represented hope that, in the future, the US had a chance in the new era of African-dominated professionalism. A few months later, Webb’s 3:53 mile at Prefontaine would add further momentum to the US charge.
Ritz’s medal in 2001 (along with the silver by Ukraine’s Sergiy Lebid in the senior race that year) remains the last by a non-African-born man at World XC.
2) Ritzenhein improbably runs 12:56 for 5,000 to break Bob Kennedy’s American record
When Ritzenhein toed the line at the start of the 5,000 meters at the Weltklasse Zurich meet on August 28, 2009, expectations were low. At that point Ritz was an accomplished US runner, with two Olympic appearances and pbs of 13:16.06, 27:35.65, and 2:10:00, the latter time achieved just a few months earlier in London. But Ritz had never been a factor at all on the world stage as a pro and the 5,000 was viewed as his weakest event. Why would he be a factor in a race featuring Kenenisa Bekele in his prime, where some were speculating a world record could be in the cards?
Early on, Ritz was dead last and barely visible on the international television broadcast. He was struggling to stay in contact with the lead pack in a race that started super fast and was being run single-file after the first lap. But he hung on and finally passed someone around 3k. Then he passed a few more. On the penultimate lap, Ritz mowed down the field. What were we witnessing? Here is how we described it at the time:
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.
…[After he finished third in an American record of 12:56.27, Ritz] 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.”
Ritz himself was shocked as he said afterward, “I don’t know if I believed I could do it. I thought maybe three or four years from now. This is definitely the biggest moment of my career so far. I got in a race. By the end, I was closing on everybody … even Bekele.”
That 12:56 was shocking and it came just two months after Ritz picked up Alberto Salazar as his coach. Salazar gave credit to Ritz’s previous coach Hudson, telling The Oregonian, “Brad Hudson made the cake. I’m just putting the frosting on it.”
In hindsight, Ritz’s 12:56 makes us appreciate a little bit more what he did 11 days earlier at Worlds: finish 6th in the 10,000. Ritz’s 27:22 run in Berlin didn’t get much publicity as he was way back of the medals (Bekele won in 26:46, 3rd was 26:57). But given the warm conditions — the race was held at 8:50 p.m., and it was still 80 degrees at 8:00 in Berlin that day — it was certainly one of the finer 10,000 runs in US history (Rupp, who had beaten Ritz at USAs, was 15 seconds back of Ritz in Berlin).
LetsRun coaching guru John Kellogg says if someone runs a 27:22 in 78-degree weather (Dark Sky says it was 76 at 10:00 pm), they could potentially break 27:00 in better temperatures.
If you haven’t watched Ritz’s 12:56 race video, do so now. Here are some screenshots.
3) Ritz runs 60:00 for bronze at the 2009 World Half champs
Ritz was in the shape of his life in 2009, and following his 6th-place showing in the Worlds 10,000 and American record at 5,000, he traveled to Birmingham, England, in October, where he ran 60:00 to finish third. While the result was not a complete shock given Ritzenhein’s earlier success that year, it was a historic performance. Not only did Ritz run a personal best — just 17 seconds shy of Hall’s American record — but he did so on the championship stage against the best in the world (the fourth placer in that race was a guy by the name of Wilson Kipsang).
Consider: in the 29-year history of the World Half Marathon Championships, Ritzenhein remains the only American, male or female, to earn a medal. No other American man has even finished in the top 10 at the World Half. Ritz is also the only non-African-born man in the last 24 years to medal at the World Half. This wasn’t some fluke performance; Ritz really was that good in 2009.
4) Ritz becomes the third American to break 2:08 in the marathon at 2012 Chicago
Ritzenhein came just eight seconds short of making the US team at the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials, but rebounded from that failure in the fall by taking over two minutes off his PR to run 2:07:47 at the 2012 Chicago Marathon. Though Ritzenhein only finished ninth in the race on a perfect day for marathoning, he remains in exclusive company: among Americans, only Hall, Rupp, and Khalid Khannouchi have ever run faster marathons.
5) Ritz outduels Ryan Hall to win NCAA XC in 2003
Ritzenhein headed to Boulder for his collegiate years, where his 4th-place finish as a true freshman in 2001 helped Colorado earn its first men’s NCAA XC team title. After missing the 2002 season due to injury, Ritzenhein was back in fine form in 2003 and faced a familiar foe at NCAAs.
Three years after Ritz stomped Hall in the heat of Orlando at Foot Lockers, they renewed their rivalry on a bitter 21-degree day in Waterloo, Iowa. In a terrific home-straight duel, Ritzenhein once again took down Hall — this time by just 1.3 seconds — to become the fourth man to win Foot Locker and NCAA XC titles.
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