Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein trains at GVSU


Alex Eisen

Rain yesterday, blizzard today, sunshine tomorrow. West Michigan weather is unpredictable. But the cold never bothered him, anyway.

When the elements get too harsh, local distance runner Dathan Ritzenhein from Rockford, Michigan can be found training at Grand Valley State’s Kelly Family Sports Center for the U.S. Olympic team trials, held next month in Los Angeles.

“I probably wouldn’t be able to train here if it weren’t for the facilities and being able to get on the indoor track at the Kelly,” Ritzenhein said. “It takes a little bit of creativity, moving things around and being flexible with the training.”

Ritzenhein, 33, will be competing in the marathon event on Feb. 13 with the ambition of making his fourth Olympic appearance in Rio de Janeiro this summer. The top three marathon finishers at the trials will represent the U.S. in the 2016 Olympic Games.

The Rockford High School graduate lived in Colorado while attending the University of Colorado -Boulder, then spent five years in Oregon with the Nike Oregon Project before deciding to return to Michigan last summer.

Ritzenhein remains comfortable and confident in the decision to come back home, despite the sometimes inconvenient weather conditions.

“A happy runner is a good runner, and like anything, you have to be happy in life,” Ritzenhein said. “My family is here and I don’t want to go away and be on a training trip somewhere by myself for a month. So, I’m just going to tough it out and get out on the dirt roads on the good days to do the long hard runs and come (indoors) and do the intervals when I have to.”

In October 2013, Ritzenhein finished fifth and was the fastest American at the Bank of America Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:09:45 to secure the qualifying time he needed to compete at the marathon event that kicks off the U.S. trials.

His personal best time of 2:07:47 in the 2012 Chicago Marathon leads the way among eligible entrants for the U.S. trials. More recently in April, Ritzenhein posted a 2:11:20 in his first Boston Marathon, fast enough for seventh place and top American finisher.

Since then, Ritzenhein uncharacteristically has not participated in another marathon, skipping the Chicago and New York marathons. Instead, he has selectively raced in a few shorter races, focused on getting completely healthy and has been relatively lucky, training in what has been a rather mild Michigan winter.

Ritzenhein is currently in his last big training push of roughly 110 miles a week before he begins to taper down his routine a couple weeks before the U.S. trials to recover. In those last two weeks, however, the climate change to presumably more humid temperatures in Los Angeles has to be accounted for.

“I think a lot of people in the running world think people from the Midwest are just tougher in general, and I think training in the weather is definitely part of it,” Ritzenhein said. “It takes a good 10 days to really get acclimated to the heat. So, I’m going to have to put on a lot of layers, spend some time in the sauna. If I have to run every day, the last 10 days before the trials, on the indoor track with a bunch of clothes on, I’ll do that.”

Adapting his training routine to keep his loved ones close by is a sacrifice worth making, and represents an opportunity for Ritzenhein to make an impact at GVSU.

“We really wanted to be back close to the family,” Ritzenhein said. “We wanted to live in the Grand Rapids area and to be involved in any kind of successful collegiate track team here, and (GVSU) is really the best one.”

GVSU provides Ritzenhein with the facility he needs to be successful and he returns the favor. Jerry Baltes, head coach of the GVSU cross country and track and field teams, undeniably values having Ritzenhein around the program to offer his advice and share his experiences.

“Dathan has been a great asset to our program over the last couple of years,” Baltes said. “His wealth of knowledge in the sport of running is endless and has helped us numerous times in helping take our student-athletes to the next level. We are eager to watch Dathan accomplish his goal of making his fourth U.S. Olympic team.”

Ritzenhein would join an exclusive group if he can represent the red, white and blue for a fourth consecutive time.

“I believe two men’s distance runners and maybe about five in all of track in field (have appeared in four Olympic Games),” Ritzenhein said. “Three (appearances) has been great, amazing and not many people have made three, but a fourth Olympic team has kept me going in training the last couple of years. I’m 33 now, so I’m not as young as I was.

“Just making that team is the biggest goal for me. I want to be on the line in Rio in August.”