GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Dathan Ritzenhein has run an estimated 75,000 miles during his career — but never the 15.5 of his hometown’s most prestigious event: the Fifth Third River Bank Run.
“It’s the hometown race and I’ve really wanted to do it all these years,” he said.
The long-distance pro who grew up in Rockford was a state and two-time national high school champion, and a three-time NCAA national champion while attending college in Colorado. He spent most of his adult years living there and in Oregon while sponsored by Nike, but would spend nearly half of each year on the road, training and racing all around the world.
“The biggest thing about this race (the River Bank Run) is it’s such a strange time in the year for a guy who is either a marathoner or a track runner,” Ritzenhein said. “So in the past, up until 2013, I always ran track. It’s about six weeks before the U.S. Track Championships, so that long 15-mile road race, it’s kind of hard on the legs.”
Ritzenhein set an American record in the 5K in 2009 and is a three-time Olympian in three different events. He hobbled through the 5,000-meters on a stress fracture in Athens in 2004, finished first among the Americans and ninth overall in the marathon in Beijing in 2008, then finished 13th in the 10,000-meter finals in London in 2012.
“When I ran the American record, when I ran a 5K in 12:56, I was fast,” he recalled. “I had that speed, but I was younger and I know I’m never going to see that again. But I know I have a lot of potential, especially in the longer races, the marathon. I haven’t really tapped out any potential there yet, so I just want to keep seeing how good I can be.”
Now 34, Ritzenhein is beginning perhaps the final leg of his racing career back where it began.
“This race kinds of supersedes even running for this area,” he said. “This is one of the biggest sporting events here in West Michigan. It’s kind of been a staple. You know, it was the start of the running boom.”
But he also will make his River Bank Run 25K debut on Saturday coming off a serious injury.
“In the New York City Marathon in November, I ruptured my plantar fasciitis about 50 percent,” Ritzenhein said. “So anybody’s that’s had plantar fasciitis or heel spurs, you kind of know what that feels like and then it ruptured and tore.”
The injury forced him to pull out of the New York City Marathon, miss the Boston Marathon and stop running altogether for a good three months in between.
“It’s the first real catastrophic injury I’ve had,” Ritzenhein admitted. “And (having suffered it) later in my career, 33 at the time, now I’m 34, it was difficult to come back for sure. It took me quite a few months, but I finally feel strong again.”
>>Inside woodtv.com: Fifth Third River Bank Run coverage
Injury or not, expectations for Ritzenhein couldn’t be higher.
“Dathan has a reputation,” said elite athlete recruiter and seven-time River Bank Run champion Greg Meyer. “They have to beat that reputation, not just the guy. I mean, he scares people.”
Even with three Olympics and nearly 20 years on the world stage behind him, Ritzenhein admits there’s a lot of pressure heading into his first hometown race as a pro.
“I think I do feel a little bit of pressure because three Olympic teams, American records, things like that, maybe some people just expect that I’ll win the race,” Ritzenhein said. “But there really is a great field.”
Including Christo Landry, who owns the 25K American record and won last year’s River Bank Run while Ritzenhein was serving as the lead analyst for WOOD TV8’s live coverage of the race.
“I’ve got the harder job this year. I didn’t get to sit behind a desk and just call the race,” Ritzenhein said. “But this is really a great race for me to kind of get back out there.”
It could be the first race of many to come. He is not ruling out a shot a fourth Olympic team, something few American athletes have accomplished.
“Who knows? 2020 Tokyo is three and a half years away, so who knows,” Ritzenhein said, smiling.
“I still feel good sometimes. There’s a lot of times I feel as good as ever,” he continued. “Last year I was hurt a lot, but I trained as good as ever, too, so I think I can do it.”
But for now, his focus is on home.
“Hopefully I can do great and make the hometown proud,” Ritzenhein said.