Niyo: Fourth Olympics in Ritzenhein’s sights

John Niyo
The Detroit News

The pack is thinning now. Dathan Ritzenhein can see that in the headlines. He can feel it, too, the way an elite marathon runner senses the chase group breaking up behind him

His contemporaries are starting to fade — and fast.

Alan Webb, who broke Jim Ryun’s iconic high school mile record in 2001, prompting a Sports Illustrated profile with Ritzenhein, retired from racing last year.

Ryan Hall, the other fellow distance prodigy in that high school class of ’01 — who went on to become the fastest American marathoner in history, called it quits last month at age 33.

Matt Tegenkamp, a two-time Olympian on the track and American record-holder in the two-mile run, announced he was hanging up his spikes a few weeks later, just after celebrating his 34th birthday.

Yet, here is Ritzenhein, the Rockford native who turned 33 in December, ready to push the pace again — and prolong his remarkable career — as one of the favorites at this weekend’s U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. With a top-three finish Saturday in the sweltering heat in Los Angeles, Ritzenhein would become only the third U.S. men’s distance runner to make four Olympic teams.

“A couple years ago, I was feeling a little older, beat up, maybe felt like the fire wasn’t quite as strong as before,” said Ritzenhein, whose record-setting career — one that began with multiple state and national cross-country titles at Rockford High — has been plagued by injuries. “But the way my training has gone the last year, I feel as good and strong as ever.”

And coming off a strong showing in his last marathon — the top American in Boston last April in a time of 2 hours 11 minutes 20 seconds — Ritzenhein credits a return home to Michigan two years ago for his rejuvenation.

He and his wife, Kalin, who also grew up in Rockford, decided to pack up their two kids — Addison, 8, and Jude, 5 — and move back from Portland, Ore., where they had spent the last seven years. Ritzenhein trained there with the Nike-sponsored Oregon Project, under coach Alberto Salazar.

“The biggest reason to come back home was we wanted to be close to our families,” said Ritzenhein, who finished ninth as the top American in the 2008 Beijing Olympic marathon.

Niyo: Rochester Hills marathoner races toward top

Coaching himself

The biggest change, though, is he’s coaching himself now, while also serving as an assistant for the track and cross country teams at Grand Valley State. And though he runs his training plans by trusted friends from Rockford like Greg Meyer, the former Boston Marathon champ, and Jason Hartmann, a top marathoner now coaching at Saginaw Valley State, it’s Ritzenhein who’s setting his schedule.

“I’ve been able to listen to my body, and the last year and a half is the healthiest I’ve been in a while,” said Ritzenhein, whose impressive Boston effort last spring offered some validation.

“It was important for me because I was kind of getting myself back to 100 percent again after being pretty banged up in 2013. And it was the first one I’d done where I coached myself. So it was a good confidence builder because I went in feeling good and came out feeling refreshed.”

And after cutting short his outdoor track season last fall to deal with some bursitis in his hip, Ritzenhein, a former American record-holder at 5,000 meters, says he was able to “push the envelope a little bit more” in the run-up to these trials. He doesn’t log the kind of mileage some other top marathoners do — Ritzenhein peaks at about 110 miles a week — but instead focuses “more quality” and faster workouts.

’Creative’ training

The return to Michigan winters forced him to “get a little creative” with his training, though a relatively mild December and January in west Michigan helped. He moved indoors to the Grand Valley State track for some harder intervals and also made use of an anti-gravity treadmill, adding layers and some time in the sauna for heat acclimatization in recent weeks.

Temperatures are expected to be in the mid-70s — uncomfortably hot for the marathon — for much of Saturday’s race in Los Angeles.

Ritzenhein was headed there Thursday, joined by his wife and a few friends. And while he’s optimistic about his chances, he felt something similar four years ago at the Olympic trials in Houston. That year, he missed the team by a mere 8 seconds, beat to the finish by Abdi Abdirahman, who clinched his fourth Olympic team berth that day.

Abdirahman won’t be at the starting line Saturday — he withdrew from the race last week, citing a calf injury. But Ritzenhein will be, and he’ll be plenty motivated.

“I want to make this team so bad,” said Ritzenhein, who scrambled to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics in the 10,000 meters after that marathon heartbreak in Houston. “That’d be a fourth team, and that would be an amazing accomplishment. To be able to keep going this long, especially with all the injuries I had, that’s something I’m pretty proud of.

“And the way I feel right now I don’t see any reason I’d stop anytime soon. … Hopefully, I can make this team and just keep going.”

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U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

When: Saturday, Los Angeles

Times: 1:06 p.m. (men) and 1:22 p.m. (women)

TV: NBC

At stake: Top three finishers qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics in August

Purse: $600,000, top 10 men’s and women’s finishers (1st, $80,000; 2nd, $65,000; 3rd, $55,000)