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Dathan Ritzenhein, a high school prodigy who went on to become a two-time global medalist, three-time Olympian, five-time national champion and a 2:07 marathoner, has decided to retire after 16 years of professional running. The 37-year-old, who grew up in Rockford, Mich., and competed for the University of Colorado during his collegiate career, decided that he had accomplished all of his main goals and the time was right to shift his focus away from competitive running.
"I guess I'm not necessarily 25 and retiring in my prime," Ritzenhein told Race Results Weekly by telephone from his Michigan home yesterday just after finishing a hard 10-mile run. He continued: "I have things that I wish that I have done in my career, but I'm also very satisfied, too. I think right now it's something that I thought a lot about the last year. I've had a lot of nostalgic moments, looking back a lot more than looking forward. So, I don't know that I had a lot more goals that I was looking to accomplish."
Ritzenhein turned heads as a teenager, coming to national prominence in the late 1990's. He won the 1999 Foot Locker National Cross Country Championships as a high school junior, then successfully defended his title the following year as a senior beating both Alan Webb and Ryan Hall. It was at that race where Ritzenhein finished a whopping 20 seconds ahead of Webb, where he began to imagine his future as a top runner.
"The year before that I started to realize what it meant to be the best," he reflected. "It kind of launched me into that whole different stratosphere, I think. I remember just starting to understand professional running a little bit. I was coming in as the reigning champion. There was this big build-up with Alan and Ryan. They were so good and it was exciting, but I felt a lot of pressure at the same time. But, I had just poured so much into the goal of winning. That was one of those days that I just put everything onto the line. Gosh, it was 20 years ago, but it was kind of a mentality that started for me back then."
In his senior year of high school in 2001, Ritzenhein finished second at the USATF Cross Country Championships in the under-20 division, earning a place on the national team for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. In his first global championships, held on a muddy course in Ostend, Belgium, Ritzenhein's athletic potential was fully on display. He won the bronze medal in a race won by a then-budding superstar, Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia.
Ritzenhein entered the University of Colorado in the fall of 2001 where he joined twins Jorge and Edwardo Torres on a powerful cross country team. The trio led the Buffs to the Big 12, Mountain Region, and NCAA titles under coach Mark Wetmore. Ritzenhein would win the individual NCAA cross country title in 2003 edging Ryan Hall of Stanford by just 1.3 seconds. That victory was particularly special to Ritzenhein because he had only a short build-up due to injury, and because Hall was so good.
"In high school and early in college I had straight, steady success," Ritzenhein recalled. "It kind of felt preordained or destined to be this great runner, and the year before (I was) completely out for the whole year with injuries. Coming back that season, talking to my coach Mark Wetmore going into that race on very little training, and Ryan was completely on fire. I was not confident at all. But, it was something that I had started to learn early on, the ability to push really hard and push myself to the well. That was probably one of the most painful races I ever ran."
While still competing for Colorado, Ritzenhein made his first of three Olympic teams in 2004, despite finishing only 22nd at the USA Olympic Trials in the 10,000m. Ritzenhein made the team because he was one of only five athletes entered who had the Olympic "A" standard of 27:49.00 (he had run 27:38.50 in his debut at the distance in April, then a U.S. collegiate record). Trials winner Meb Keflezighi opted for the marathon (where he would win the silver medal) and Bob Kennedy dropped out. That left Abdi Abdirahman, Dan Browne (who would also compete in the Marathon) and Ritzenhein to run the 10,000m in Athens, the three remaining finishers who had the standard. Running on a badly injured foot in Athens, Ritzenhein failed to finish.
"My first one was a miserable experience where I hobbled my way on," Ritzenhein said of making his first Olympic team. He continued: "I made the standard, and just not many people had it. Bob Kennedy had it and Meb, and Dan Browne and Abdi. Meb ended up running the marathon and Bob Kennedy dropped out of the 10-K, and I knew I just had to finish the race."
Ritzenhein made his professional racing debut at the Boclassic 10-K in Bolzano, Italy, on December 31, 2004, the day after his 22nd birthday. He pushed the pace with two laps to go in the 8-lap race and finished third behind Sergey Lebed of Ukraine and Stefano Baldini of Italy (Baldini was the reigning Olympic Marathon champion). Ritzenhein had signed with Nike just prior to the Athens Olympics, and Brad Hudson became his coach. He won both the USATF cross country and 10-K road running titles in 2005, and under Hudson's coaching jumped right to the marathon in 2006, making his debut at the New York City Marathon. It was a controversial decision, and after a 1:05:35 first half he finished 11th in 2:14:01, calling the discomfort he endured in the last four miles "undescribable."
Almost exactly a year later, Ritzenhein returned to New York for the 2008 USA Olympic Trials Marathon (which were held in November, 2007), and he finished second to Ryan Hall in 2:11:07, a personal best. He would go on to finish ninth in the Olympic Marathon the following year in Beijing, and it looked like Ritzenhein was going to focus mainly on the marathon.
But unlike other track runners who moved up, Ritzenhein wasn't so quick to abandon the track, cross country or road races below the marathon distance. He used his marathon strength to great effect in training, and his track running was never better. In one of his best years, 2009, he set the American record for 5000m of 12:56.27 (since broken), ran a 10,000m personal best of 27:22.28 when he finished sixth at the IAAF World Championships 10,000m, and won a bronze medal at the IAAF World Half-Marathon Championships, running 1:00:00. He was also the runner-up at the USATF championships for both the 10,000m and half-marathon, and finished 10th at the London Marathon.
"That's what always drove me," said Ritzenhein. "I would always have these goals and you'd have these valleys between them. Really high moments, like the American record, bronze medal at the world junior championships (in cross country), or the world half-marathon championships. Those are the races where you just feel invincible."
But he was not invincible. Ritzenhein suffered numerous injuries throughout his career (he recalled having over 40 MRI's), and had to have surgeries three times. He missed most of 2011 due to a surgery to his right Achilles tendon, but his long recovery (made even longer by a lingering infection) set him up for his most dramatic year, 2012.
"That was one heck of a year," Ritzenhein said with a laugh. He continued: "But 2011 was a year I almost was done running. I had two surgeries on my Achilles, and one on my foot, and I was crawling around for months, basically trying to get back to where I could live normally, versus training at a high level like a professional athlete. It was a very short period before the Olympic Trials (in January, 2012). I got myself into pretty good shape, similar to how I was when I won the NCAA championships. I was pretty short on time."
Ritzenhein finished a soul-crushing fourth at the 2012 USA Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston. He ran what is still the fastest-ever Trials time which didn't make a team, 2:09:55, then a personal best.
"I did the best I could to get fit, but to see the team slip away by just eight seconds," Ritzenhein lamented. "I felt like the left man out."
Coached then by Alberto Salazar of the now-disbanded and controversial Nike Oregon Project, Ritzenhein rallied back in June to finished third at the Olympic Trials for 10,000m in the pouring rain, breaking the Olympic Games qualifying "A" standard of 27:45.00 in the race and making his third Olympic team. He went on to finish 13th in the London Olympic 10,000m behind his then training partner, Galen Rupp, who won the silver medal. Things were really clicking.
"After three years away from the track I had doubts," Ritzenhein said. "I poured it all out there. At the Olympic Trials it was an epic day. I didn't have the standard and quite a few people in the race did." He added: "It seemed like an impossible task."
After the Olympics, Ritzenhein geared up for the Bank of America Chicago Marathon in October. Paced by his old friend and high school teammate Jason Hartmann, he finished ninth and clocked 2:07:47, the fastest time of his career. He would never run faster.
"I still wanted to do so well in the marathon, so I had that big goal to come back (after the Olympics)," Ritzenhein said. "To tell you the truth, everything was pretty good training-wise. It was the one year where I thought I had put in a really, really good year, and it showed in Chicago that year. I was just ticking off three-minute kilometers, perfect weather, my good friend Jason Hartmann pacing me the whole way, someone who I trained with for years as a high school teammate. I was just sitting behind that big guy, waiting and biding my time. He would just hit every K in three minutes; he was completely locked-in. It was a huge, huge success for me to put it all together like that in the marathon."
Ritzenhein maintained a high level in 2013, finishing tenth in the IAAF World Championships in the 10,000m and running a very solid 2:09:45 at Chicago. But he spent most of 2014 injured (he only raced once), and despite several bright spots over the next several years --seventh at the 2015 Boston Marathon, a USATF 25-K title in 2017, and second at the 2018 United Airlines NYC Half-- he did not make the 2016 Olympic team and he dropped out of the TCS New York City Marathon in the same year with another foot injury. He ran a fast half-marathon in 2019 (1:01:24) but finished a disappointing 19th at the Boston Marathon. At this year's Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta he was unable to finish after splitting halfway in 1:05:43. He started to think seriously about retiring.
"I was really having trouble with my foot," Ritzenhein explained. "At the Trials I didn't know if I'd make it to the line until a week before."
Looking back, Ritzenhein said that his greatest strength was being able to go to the redline and hold it. He relished a fast pace, and if somebody was going to beat him he was going to make it hurt.
"The 10-K and the 5-K, those were intense events," Ritzenhein explained. "Even the half-marathon I could redline very well, grind it out. I was very good at that. Even in training I liked to do that. I thrived on that." He added: "I always fought my way back."
Ritzenhein was thankful for the support he received over his career from sponsors, coaches, physios, teammates, and his family. He maintained sponsored status for all but a brief period in 2017 before he accepted the invitation from coaches Kevin and Keith Hanson, whom he had known and respected since childhood, to join the Hansons-Brooks Original Distance Project in July, 2017. He ably represented by agent Dan Lilot for most of his career (his kids called him "Special Agent Dan," Ritzenhein said.
"Dathan is a good man with a genuine love for the sport," said Kevin Hanson via text message.
But Ritzenhein said that the support of his wife, Kalin, was the most important element of his success. The couple have two children, daughter Addison, 12, and son Jude, 9. Kalin carried a lot of weight, he said, while he put in the miles.
"I don't know if there's anybody else out there who knows the highs and lows like my wife Kalin," Ritzenhein said. "Everybody sees the American record and Olympic teams, but those are the blips on the radar. Truthfully, she did most of the heavy lifting in raising our kids. I'd be gone for a month sometimes. I was off training and she was by herself. We got to be really close as a family. She's everything to me."
Ritzenhein said that he will always be a runner, and that he'll still run hard sometimes (he averaged a six-minute pace on yesterday's 10-miler, he said). He already coaches a few athletes, including marathoner Parker Stinson.
"This isn't the end for sure," he said. "This is all I know. The sport of running is my passion and my love." He added: "I'm looking forward to continuing to give back to the sport; coaching is a passion of mine. I love writing, to talk to people, and give people advice. It's in my DNA. I'll always run. It's just something I can't go without."
Ritzenhein by the Numbers:
2 Miles: 8:11.74 (#9 USA performer all-time)
5000m: 12:56.27 (#3 USA performer all-time)
10,000m: 27:22.28 (#9 USA performer all-time)
Half-Marathon: 1:00:00 (#4 USA performer all-time)
Marathon: 2:07:47 (#4 USA performer all-time)
XC: 2005, 2008, 2010
2004: DNF, 10,000m
2008: 9th, Marathon, 2:11:59
2012: 13th, 10,000m, 27:45.89
World Championships Performances:
2001: 3rd, U20 XC 7.7-K, 25:46
2005: 62nd, XC 12-K, 38:46
2007: 9th, 10,000m, 28:28.59
2009: 6th, 10,000m, 27:22.28; 3rd Half-Marathon, 1:00:00
2013: 10th, 10,000m, 27:37.90
Track & Field News Rankings:
5000m: 8th 2002, 3rd 2006, 6th 2007, 3rd 2009, 4th 2012, 7th 2013
10,000m: 5th 2004, 3rd 2006, 3rd 2007, 10th 2008, 1st 2009, 2nd 2012, 2nd 2013
Marathon: 8th 2006, 2nd 2007, 2nd 2008, 3rd 2009, 3rd 2010, 3rd 2012, 1st 2013, 2nd 2015
(c) 2020 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, used with permission