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“She Has The Talent To Be The Best In The World In The Marathon”

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Last week, Mac Fleet and I traveled to Boulder, Colo. to spend some time with the On Athletics Club and coach Dathan Ritzenhein. We got a chance to sit down and chat about the highs and lows of OAC’s 2022 outdoor season + Hellen Obiri’s upcoming marathon debut in New York City on Nov. 6.

Obiri’s move to Boulder has been in the works since she signed with the Swiss sportswear company in January with the intention of focusing on the roads. Ritzenhein worked closely with her agent and former coach Ricky Simms to make the transition as smooth as possible following her 67:05 victory at The Great North Run in September. We also spoke with Obiri about her fall plans a day before she won a silver medal in the 10,000m at the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon.

If you’re looking for a little bit of extra hype for your weekend or the New York City Marathon, you can watch our full conversation with Ritzenhein here…

I’ve transcribed a few parts of the interview below, which have been edited lightly for clarity. It will be available in podcast form so you can listen on-the-go soon. So be sure to subscribe to the CITIUS MAG Podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle Play or Stitcher so you don’t miss that when it drops.

CITIUS MAG: So another year of coaching OAC, what’s your report card for the season?

DATHAN RITZENHEIN: The team’s just been crushing it. I’m amazed at what they’re able to do. We launched in 2020 and there weren’t many opportunities, but we took what came our way. We had some small meets but some opportunities for the talent to really show…We assembled the crew and 2021 was the first year we had a chance to dig our hands into it, get everybody together, and put in a full year. They were incredible. We got five people to Tokyo and they took a massive leap in that first year. You hope that you continue to have these huge jumps, but it’s also harder the better you get.

So this last year, in 2022, I sometimes had to pinch myself at how good they were. They really took it to the next level. We had a lot of national records for the team; national titles were won; Olli’s race at Commonwealth Games – just honestly too many moments to even recap. They were incredible. We say it every year, ‘We just got to keep getting better.’ But they’re they’ve come a long way in two years. It’s pretty incredible.

CITIUS MAG: How emotional can this job get as a coach?

DATHAN RITZENHEIN: For me, we have 12 athletes now. I’m fortunate that we’ve had a lot of really good moments – probably way more good moments than bad. That’s not always the case. The hardest part for me is dealing with those rare disappointments. Because whenever you have these great moments, you’re celebrating all the hard work that was put in before, so you get a chance to showcase that. But if something goes wrong, that’s really when it’s it’s tough for me.

World Champs was not the best meet for us by any means. That was really one of the only low moments that we’ve had. That was harder for me to process but as the coach, I had to look at the things we could do differently. Nothing you say can make a difference at the moment…I try to be like a stable person when it’s rough but I celebrate when it’s when it goes great. I don’t hold back either because they put a lot into it and I put a lot into it so we celebrate those moments. The competitions are really like just this little tiny 1% that you see. It’s everything that goes on around it – day in and day out. We meet six days a week. We don’t take vacations. I don’t anyway. I gave them about a month off, but they earned it. It’s one of those things where it’s not just a career, it’s not just a job. I don’t leave it here at the gym. It’s kind of one of those all-encompassing things. The family feels it. Trying to put in that kind of energy each day is important because the team feels the energy. They feed off of each other’s energy. So if I can elevate that and they can elevate each other, that’s what gives them the power when they go into the race.

CITIUS MAG: You got off a hot start to the year indoors and progressed super well throughout the outdoor season. When Worlds doesn’t go as well as you hoped, afterward there were these other opportunities like Comm Games or European Championships. You have your own family in Boulder but you decided to go to Europe to be there for a lot more of those moments. These are pro athletes, they can go off on their own in some cases but you were there for these redemption moments. Was that important for you to be there?

DATHAN RITZENHEIN: I think it was really important to be with them after the hardest moments. I was tired at the end of the season too. But I questioned a little bit like, ‘Did I do something wrong in the training that led up to the world champs?’ Because they had run so well for the year before. We had a meeting afterward, like a real heart-to-heart, and talked about these things and talked about redemption. We could stop and we can build and look to next year but I just thought that they were ready. And I said, ‘Let’s make something out of it.’ So they came out swinging again and they all closed their season great. Comm Games European Champs, Diamond League final – they were fit you know. I had to take away the lessons of that race. There are things I will change going forward and them too. Those are hard learning moments but for me, it was important to be with them and say like, ‘Yeah, I’m disappointed with that too. But I just stay here (yeah, I’m tired) but I want more. I know we’re better than that and I’m going to be there with them.” I think it meant a lot. It made those moments mean a lot too. Spending time with them is super important. Without doing that, you can’t form that great bond and connection. I hope we don’t have too many times we have to do that but at the same time, I think it was super important for me this year and for them.

CITIUS MAG: We’re at a dozen team members. How much bigger are we getting?

DATHAN RITZENHEIN: We’re up to 12. I like the size of the team, but it’s growing. We’re very meticulous about who we bring into the team now. I think we will tone down our recruiting process and be very selective. They’re all very young runners for the most part. These are athletes we’ve invested heavily to Paris and L.A. in thinking of what they can do over the next two and six years. For us, we’re at a point now where we’ve built a really solid foundation. We’re trying to create the infrastructure around the team to continue to sustain that. Now we just bring in the final missing pieces and whatever athletes those are.

I personally want to build the women’s side quite a bit right now. It’s something where we have a really good foundation. We have a few more men though. I want to get that pretty equal.

We really have to observe the landscape and say ‘That athlete is the next athlete we want on the OAC or this person fits that mold.’ Whereas before and before you have results, you’re selling yourself hard. The early athletes on this team – Joe (Klecker), Alicia (Monson), Olli (Hoare), Geordie (Beamish) – we were selling them on something that wasn’t there yet. It was a leap of faith. Now the results are there. We don’t have to do that as much. We still do it because we’re proud of it. I’m very proud of what we’ve created. I think it’s unique, but we want the right people that really buy into that now. For me, we identify talent really specifically and really early now. It’s fun to do it differently now.

CITIUS MAG: I want to discuss the latest addition to the team – Hellen Obiri. How did this all come about with this all-time track talent falling into your hands?

DATHAN RITZENHEIN: She is an all-time talent. An amazing, amazing runner. We knew that from her results, obviously. It kind of started with the fact we knew she wanted to move to Boulder. She was friends with Edna Kiplagat and she had the desire to do that already…So that alone told us, ‘Hey, this is a really good potential right here.’ I had a lot of discussions with her agent and her former coach, Ricky (Simms). Sometimes you don’t know if a coach is BSing you. But I’ll tell you, he was telling me the truth – pretty incredible training. I’ve known Ricky for a long time in the business…I think having a hands-on coach was something that they were excited about as she moved toward the marathon because there are so many little things that can be can be changed.

She came to Eugene and just off pure talent, she probably should have won that race. I’m just going to go out and say it on the record. She did that off of three or four weeks of getting on the track again. She had no plans to do that really. But she was like, ‘I feel pretty fit. I’m going to do the world champs.’

I think for her, she’s wanted to be here sooner but it’s just it’s very difficult with the visa situation. So we’re getting close now to a permanent solution. She’s been here now training with me. The team all went on vacation. I felt a little bit bad because at first she came and it was like the only time when we were not meeting was that month. So I just met with her very early in the morning, a lot of days. Now the team is back and it’s good. She’s staying with some of the team members. It’s good to integrate her. She’s an incredible talent. It’s good for me to see what’s possible.

It’s funny because I’ve told some people around town, some of the sessions that she’s done and they’re like, ‘It’s not believable.’ So I said, “Okay, well, we’ll find out in New York.”

CITIUS MAG: You’re clearly excited but do you ever feel stress or pressure that this once-in-a-generation talent is on you?

DATHAN RITZENHEIN: Now that you put it that way…(Laughs) I think I operate well in high-stress environments. That’s pro running. You never know with the marathon. Things can happen metabolically after 35K that you just can’t know until you’re in the race. But I feel very confident in her ability. Keeping her healthy these last few weeks – to me, that’s goal number one because she’s ready physically to run well. I don’t have any doubts. Maybe somebody else is going to be better on the day. I think she can run well, no matter what. Now holding her back is so important because all the confidence-building things have been there. All the volume has been great. Her long runs are amazing. That was maybe one thing I thought she was lacking. I don’t have worries there anymore after seeing her these last five or six weeks now. I have no worries there. The ability is there. If she has the legs, nobody can run that fast at the end. She has a lot of power still. We saw that in Eugene, so she’s coming right off of that right now. As long as the fuel is in the body, then I think she’s she can run something really, really impressive at the end.

CITIUS MAG: What’s it been like pushing Hellen to her limits in practice?

DATHAN RITZENHEIN: Today was the first time that I felt like I finally got her tired…She gets done with these really fast long runs. This is her thing: I say, ‘How is it?’ She says, ‘Not too bad.’ That’s her thing. We have a little joke now where I say, ‘How are you doing? Not too bad?’ ‘Not too bad.’

Today, FINALLY, we put things a little closer together. It was a 2K-1K workout. The first was supposed to be 75s. She said, ‘75s felt like 65s’ But then by the end, she’s running way faster than I told her. I think she’s finally starting to feel that 6-8 weeks of pretty specific work, which is good. I like that. Before, I wasn’t comfortable giving her more than I was. She never failed at anything. She didn’t look overly exhausted. I was almost kind of happy today to see her say, ‘Oh it felt hard to start. But then by the end, it felt pretty good.’

CITIUS MAG: What’s a ‘not too bad’ marathon?

DATHAN RITZENHEIN: For her? I think we’ll be disappointed if she’s not on the podium. She would definitely be. New York can be anything. The course record is 2:22 (by Margaret Okayo in 2003). It’s been won in the upper 2:20s quite often. If it’s relatively fast, I think she can run significantly under the course record. If she catches a good day and it’s fast early, I’m not going to tell her to push it early. So like, I’ll give that away.

You got to be cautious early on. You have to have that healthy fear. In my first marathon, I was with the leaders through 20 and I barely made it in. I think it was 7:30 for the last mile and it was miserable. So being ready for that, I think is important and respecting the distance. Sometimes we overthink it. The marathon is just another race, but there is a metabolic component that makes it different. If you go way too fast, you will pay for it and it will be really bad. You can go a little too fast and survive. I don’t think she wants to be the aggressor early on. You want to get in your first one and race it – make it more just like a race and not have to think about anything else. She’s not going to be looking at splits, I’ll tell you that. She doesn’t. If I tell her that, then she’ll run those splits. But she’s not. She often doesn’t even hit her watch. She just goes based on intuition and a feel…She’s a competitor and that’s why we chose New York because it’s a marathon with no pacemakers. It’s just a race.

CITIUS MAG: For the casual running fan, can you explain how special seeing Hellen run her first marathon is going to be?

DATHAN RITZENHEIN: Kipchoge, for example, is very different from some people. He had this big, long track career where a lot of people thought he waited too long to go to the marathon but he’s been flawless since. I think Hellen can be like that. A lot of athletes just go straight to the marathon – no track PBs, nothing. Hellen is fast. She has the national record for Kenya in the 5K and mile but she’s never been a time trialer. Maybe she didn’t care about that as much. Maybe it was shoe tech or things like that. She’s certainly capable of those things but she thrives on the competition.

I think she’s the only woman to have won world champs outdoors, indoors and world cross. I think she’s going to translate that to the roads. You never know with that first one because there’s a lot of learning but I think she’s gonna do something that shows what’s going to happen over the next couple of years. She’s got a lot of great competitors out there now. Women’s marathoning is starting to elevate to a level that’s super exciting. I think she is excited by that too. It’s not gonna be a runaway by any means. There’s competition there.

I think she has the talent to be the best in the world in the marathon – just like she’s been the best in the world in track and cross-country as well. So that’s exciting. I think it’s just scratching the surface.

Some people might not know this, but because she’s been a world-class athlete for a decade, she didn’t really start training seriously till she was like 21. She was like a late bloomer. And so I think there’s a lot of years in there. We were looking at Edna Kiplagat is 42. She is the Boston champion. I think we can see that kind of career maybe with Hellen. And so that’s exciting to me.


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