Watching Dathan Ritzenhein run the final part of the Worlds 10K was a look both at his past and the real promise of talent fulfilled on the world stage at the same time.
When Dathan burst on to people’s radar it was with a stunning run at the Junior World XC Championships in 2001. In a muddy, sloppy course that most HS coaches in the US wouldn’t allow their team to run on, Dathan and Matt Tegencamp ran 3rd and 5th respectively against the Kenyans and Ethiopians, Dathan showing an ability to take his twice winning Foot Locker nationals talent and have it translate to real guts and glory on the international stage. Yes, we had seen any number of great high school runners win Foot Locker, only to be shown up on the larger stage, or to stall out in college and never run again. The list of great HS runners to make that transition is a lot smaller than the list of those that failed.
With the moribund level of US distance running in the 1990’s, it was great to see the big 3 come along in 1999: Meb, Alan and Abdi. The three of them would trade off the US nationals XC title for the next 7 or 8 years for the most part, as well as the US 10K titles. And the emergence of Dathan and Matt in that 2001 Junior Worlds gave us hope that there was a generation that would come up behind the Big 3.
Ritz had showed an ability to push himself outside the envelope to get the win in the heat and humidity of his second Foot Locker win that reminded me of watching Alberto Salazar back in the early 80’s. Neither had killer foot speed, but a preternatural desire to win that would really push them beyond their limits. It also has a tendency to produce injuries and burnout as the body goes to the well again and again.
Ritz’s career at Colorado and post-college as a pro was solid but also a frustrating combination of injuries. I believed that he would never run 2:08 without two years of uninterrupted training. History is rife with guys whose 10K speed never translates to sub-2:10 simply because they can’t get the training in, consistently, over years. Those guys always run 2:13 and wonder why they can’t get that last couple of minutes. And its because you run the marathon off of your last 2 to 3 years of training, not your last one year.
The move to train with Salazar this year was a welcome announcement to those of us who were fans. The training under Hudson, while not the slow motion car wreck that was happening over at the Alan Webb camp, was yet another situation of unfulfilled expectations. I respect Dathan’s run to get 9th in the Olympic Marathon as a tremendous achievement, especially given the unparalleled pace that was set up front, but I think that Victor Rothlin’s 6th place should have been his. I think that he’s as tough an athlete as the Swiss, and with more talent. Somehow, in the Colorado/Hudson years, Ritz’s ability to make the race defining moves had been blunted and lost. He simply didn’t look like the same athlete. Neither did Salazar in 2003.
Cut to 2009, and there was Dathan, running the final laps of the World’s 10K final with a leg turnover and laser like focus that I hadn’t seen in years. It reminded me of the 2001 race all over again, and his time, making him the 4th fastest American of all time in warm conditions is a tremendous achievement. Unlike Alberto, who by 1983’s inaugural World’s 10K had completely cooked his body, Dathan looks to be responding to the change in training and environment, and, as a fan who has followed his career for all these years, it’s a great thing to see. 27:21 is a staggering achievement in those conditions.