Once again, Dathan Ritzenhein held our emotions in the palm of his hand. We are crushed by his lows, and his highs make us dream of his ultimate potential. His 2:07:47 at yesterday's Chicago Marathon is more than just an emotional high point. Ritz became the 3rd fastest marathoner in US history through proper execution of a master plan that included preparation, and most importantly, balance as a distance runner.
Ritz's theme coming into Chicago, as he revealed in his post-race interview on Flotrack, was to treat it as "just another race." Often marathoners let the event become the sole focus of their careers. This approach creates a dynamic of marathon exclusivity in training and racing. Everything revolves around a spring and fall marathon, and room for development of a complete distance runner is squeezed.
Ritz ran Chicago just 60 days after the Olympic 10k. Traditional marathon thought would say that this is not enough time for proper physical preparation. How can Ritz get enough tempos and long runs under his belt in only 8 weeks? I argue that if the complete distance runner is built throughout the year, maybe textbook marathon build up is not necessary.
A stronger factor may be the mental strain of long-term marathon focus. This can be absolutely draining. Ritz's coach Alberto Salazar did not let this frame of reference enter into his athletes psyche. Rather, Ritz was finishing 2012 with a marathon, not having his season revolve around it.
Very few marathoners can pop big races without good build up races. Meb and Ryan Hall can do it consistently, but that is also what makes them unique (in addition to being all-time greats).
Ritz, along with Amy Hastings, demonstrated in 2012 that what may appear as a back up plan may actually make them better runners in 2013. Train for the marathon, and shift focus to the track to develop speed and intensity. Both have comprehensive training in their legs in addition to several excellent performances at different distances. I would much rather have a Ritz or Hastings on my squad that is a 10k runner who has marathon skills than just a twice-a-year marathoner. They will have longer careers, win more races, and have more tools to compete in a variety of race situations.
Clearly every race is not "just another race," but this approach eases the burden of needing to turn in a life-changing performance in any single race. Why should any athlete stack the deck against themselves in this manner? Ritz's take on 2012 was to have healthy year and race well. Mission accomplished. His range gives him options, which removes massive pressure coming from any single distance.