Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ritz, the remix - New coach, new city, new focus...same Ritz

by Matt McCue for DyeStat ESPN RISE

Dathan Ritzenhein is running, but he’s going nowhere.

He’s zipped into the AlterG, the anti-gravity treadmill originally developed to hold astronauts down on the belt as they ran in outer space. Except the end result of the invention was just the opposite. It now holds injured athletes “up” by allowing them to run at a fraction of their body weight and reducing the impact on their legs. It essentially offers those with lower limb flare-ups the chance to gain fitness and keep the muscles firing all while not aggravating the inflamed area. It’s the closest thing the sport of running has to a miracle.

To slip onto the AlterG, Dathan pulled on a pair of neoprene half-tights (think scuba suit material) and greased them up with Vaseline to reduce the friction between his legs. He lowered himself into the belly of the machine—that looks like a robotic horse from somewhere on the other side of the galaxy—zipped in, and punched the power button. His assignment is nine miles.

On one hand, nine miles on the AlterG is better than not running. On the other—who are we kidding?—being fastened to a machine feels like prison.

Dathan would rather be lost somewhere in Portland’s endless trail system, eating up the hills and dirt in Forest Park with his legs. But he has a bit of tendonitis in his foot (it’s nothing serious message board posters…), so he’s wisely heeding caution and allowing the hot spot to heal. It’s one of the lessons he’s learned from piling up the miles over the past ten years:

If it hurts, back off.

When he was in high school, he says he could hammer five days a week. Not anymore. He’ll turn 27 in late December and the impressive fact isn’t that he’s faster than ever. It’s that he’s training smarter than ever.

I race to win. That’s the point.

It’s beautiful outside, a crisp, clear early December day in Portland, his new hometown. (He recently left Eugene.) This morning, he’s driven from his rented apartment in Beaverton, where he lives with his wife Kalin and their two-year-old daughter Addison, to the Nike House, the mythic pleasure palace for aspiring long distance runners and home/training base to members of the Oregon Project.

The Nike House sits high on a hill overlooking downtown, and Mount Saint Helens far in the distance. It was described to me as being easy to locate because it’s the one crappy house in a neighborhood full of traditional Tudors and historic brick manses. That’s true. Nike has rented the place for the past eight years and it resembles a communal frat house without the partying. Evan Jager lives there, Simon Bairu was seen walking around, and Alan Webb just moved in.

Piles of Nike running shoes greet guests inside the front door. They give off the strong odor that one would expect from a pile of sweat-filled running shoes. Ah, guys being guys…

The living room doubles as the medical center. An industrial icemaker and cold tub are steps away from the big screen TV and couch. On the coffee table are DVD’s like Without Limits and Casino Royale. On the ground next to the table is an $18,000 ultrasound machine. The small room is set to 8,000 feet altitude, the air being pumped into it by a half dozen machines that give off a constant hum, which turns to white noise in the background.

The cramped living room at the "Nike House" in Portland, Oregon - Photo by Matt McCue

Behind the couch, steps away from a large window, a stationary bike waits for the injured. Next to it is a brand new AlterG…and it’s broken. Has been ever since the fall. A repairman from the company made a home visit and decried that it worked just fine. Except that it doesn’t, which is a pain because the alternative is to use the old AlterG in the basement garage.

That’s where Dathan is running, in the cold, cramped, car-less space filled with moving boxes, a lawn mower, garbage cans, and every other random knickknack you can’t imagine being there. Strapped into the AlterG, he can’t see Mt. Saint Helens in the distance. For the entire run, and all runs of late, he stares at a metal beam three feet from his face.

This is the distance runner rock star life? One supported by Nike and with every necessity, luxury, and indulgence needed to excel, including $75,000 anti-gravity treadmills?

As Dathan points out, at the end of the day, he could own every conceivable device to help him lower his times, but he still has to run. Today, he’ll record 14 miles over the course of two runs totaling 92 minutes in the dark basement garage.

He passes on watching the TV mounted a few feet from the treadmill. Why? It’s one part self-punishment for being in this position and one part concentration. He doesn’t want to lose focus. Pop in that movie and pretty soon you’re wrapped up in the plotline and your form goes to pot. Dathan’s form is nearly textbook. His arms easily swing back to a 45-degree angle from his body. His feet rhythmically hit the belt in a steady pitter-patter of whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. He has always been tiny, but his body has matured physically since college and he’s grown into his five-foot-eight 125-pound frame. Veins snake through his slender calves, ropey thighs, and knotted biceps. Hugging Dathan feels like embracing a skeleton, and that’s a compliment.

He warms up for 20 minutes then dives into a light session of eight 75-second pushes at five-minute pace with 75 seconds recovery (at six-minute pace) after each interval. He wears a heart rate monitor; his pulse hovers around an effortless 145 beats-per-minute the entire time. In 2004, he had his VO2 Max tested at 83. Lance Armstrong has been tested at 85; Pre 84.

Giant windpipes certainly help his engine go, but what’s equally important is something that returned this past summer: his confidence. For proof, watch the video of his 6th place finish at the World Champs 10k in Berlin. Notice his steely eyes: focused, calm, looking ahead. They reveal a man who believes in himself. That attitude sparked a string of head-turning races, including his 12:56.27 American 5K record in Zurich eleven days later and his third-place finish at the World Half Marathon Championships in Birmingham, UK this fall (He actually clocked 59:59, but the IAAF rounds up, so he was given 60:00).

After his morning session, during his 20-minute cool down, Dathan reflects on the third-place finish at the World Half. “I could have run for second,” he said, “but I raced to win. That’s the point.”

Grit and Guts

Ritzenhein leads the 2000 Foot Locker National Championships
Photo by Vic Sailer, PhotoRun
Ten years ago, as a junior at Rockford High School in Michigan, Dathan broke out on the national scene in a big way, winning the 1999 Foot Locker Cross Country 5k Championships in Orlando by going for the win with a half mile left and stomping a future Olympian, Ian Dobson, and four-minute miler, Don Sage, in the process. The next year he did it again, this time dominating Alan Webb and Ryan Hall. After each race, he collapsed in a pool of exhaustion, which is how he reacts after most races: wobbly, falling to his knees, sometimes being helped off the track or course. Some people think it’s an act. It’s not. Dathan has a unique ability to push his body to a level of discomfort, pain, and suffering that few possess. In the past, this has sometimes hurt him as he ran into injuries and missed entire seasons. But, on the right day, his grit and guts produce a kind of mind-blowing magic that inspires runners young and old across the country.

That’s why DyeStat has named Dathan the boys cross country runner of the decade. He’s a two-time Foot Locker champion and finished third at the World Junior Cross Country Championships in 2001 (a guy named Bekele placed first that day). The chapters of the story he has written with his legs over the past ten years have included a bit of everything. But they all boil down to this simple formula: Run. Recover. Refuel. Repeat.

DyeStat was fortunate enough to spend a day with Dathan, so that’s why, after his morning run at the Nike House, we’re off to the Nike campus for a lifting and core session.

For those who haven’t seen it, the Nike campus in Beaverton is like Disney World for fitness fanatics. Its lush green grounds boast fields, courts, and trails for every athletic endeavor. When he’s running on dry land, Dathan will often jump on the two-mile woodchip path that circles the campus or stride across the soft soccer field, which measures three laps to the mile. This morning, he’s meeting the other athletes in Alberto Salazar’s stable, his new training group (Dathan parted ways with his former coach, Brad Hudson, this summer). The talent in the upstairs rec room at the Bo Jackson Center is incredible: Kara and Adam Goucher and Alan Webb. Paula Radcliffe is in town, so she’s there (but she’s not coached by Alberto). Galen Rupp is finishing his degree in Eugene or else he’d be there. The irony is that this assembly of taut bodies only joins one another for about half of their miles. Most of the time they are training by themselves for different distances and races—or they are returning from an injury. That’s kind of how it is with professional distance runners—everyone seems to be on their own schedule.

They begin the stretching and strengthening routine by rolling out their sore muscles on the foam rollers. Then they twist and turn through “corrective exercises.” (Each elite was tested earlier for muscle imbalances at the Michael Johnson Center on the Nike campus and was given an individually-assigned program to follow.) As Dathan works his hips and shoulder muscles, the conversation among the group this morning touches on…cars. Everyone seems to have a temperamental automobile in a various state of repair.

Alberto observes his charges, taking mental notes, and occasionally offers a suggestion or joke, but he’s also partly watching Paula Radcliffe’s daughter, Isla, while Paula hits the iron. Knowing that his coach has won major marathons, Dathan has bought into Alberto’s program. Dathan tells Alberto about his morning session, that he felt good and Alberto is pleased, both with the workout and the patience required for healing.

Dathan has been described as the kind of guy, who, if he were stranded on an island, would build a track out of palm trees so he could work out. His motivation comes from within and he takes care of business quietly finishing his weight exercises—lunges, dumbbell reps, seated core twists, about 12 in all. When they are done after an hour, the group says goodbye to one another and disbands. Everyone goes their separate ways for lunch.