T&FN Interview — Dathan Ritzenhein

Himself a 3-time Olympian in his running days, Ritz is now the chief button-pusher of the burgeoning On AC. (KEVIN MORRIS)

ONE WOULD BE hard pressed to point out an athlete-to-coach transformation quite like that of Dathan Ritzenhein, the longtime distance star whose last race was the ’20 Olympic Marathon Trials.

A 21-time U.S. Ranker in his 2-decades-plus as a runner, Ritz ground out sparkling PRs — 12:56.27 (’09), 27:22.28 (’09) & 2:07.47 (’12) — and placed 9th in the ’08 Olympic marathon.

Since putting aside his own racing at age 37, in just two seasons as coach of the Boulder-based On Athletics Club Ritzenhein has built one of the elite sport’s most formidable training groups.

Ritz’s first two signees to the OAC, Joe Klecker and Alicia Monson, reached the Olympic and World Champs 10K finals in ’21 and ’22, and earned World Rankings spots for the first time in their still young elite careers: Klecker No. 9 in the 25-lapper, Monson No. 10 at 5000.

Klecker’s wife since October, Sage Hurta-Klecker, raced brilliantly as a first-year pro on the DL circuit last season to score the 800 Rankings No. 10 spot. Recent OAC addition Josette Norris-Andrews rated No. 9 in the U.S. 1500 Rankings last season.

Ritzenhein’s squad sponsored by Swiss shoe and apparel company On — even today a new kid on the block which three years ago hadn’t yet produced a spike model — features a talent-rich international cast, as well, with ’22 World Rankers Olli Hoare (Australia) and Mario García (Spain) on the roster along with Geordie Beamish (New Zealand), Morgan McDonald (Australia) and newly signed Sinta Vissa (Italy).

Multi-medaled twice world champion in the 5000 Hellen Obiri, now 33, chose Ritz as the coach to guide her fledgling marathon career, which began in New York in November.

Ritz spoke to T&FN by phone in December while walking the family dog during his brief holiday break. He and wife Kalin (née Toedebusch, a fine runner in her own right in the early 2000s) have two children, Addy and Jude.

Last fall, in her first prep season, Addy raced to 18th as first frosh in the NXN harrier race so congratulations on that were in order.

“She surprised us. It was kinda crazy,” admitted her proud dad. Jude, 12, runs “like two days a week” in a youth program. The emphasis is on “fun stuff, good team things, which is probably more important for him at this point,” Ritzenhein says.

From there the chat played out.

T&FN: As the 2023 season is about to begin, do you have a New Year’s resolution for the On AC?

Ritzenhein: Well, I think our team has been probably synonymous with the same way the brand has been recently. The growth has been crazy for the last 3 years —within the company but also the team.

Every year we’ve grown and we’ve gotten better. And one of our big resolutions, for myself and some of our leadership management, like [global head] Steve DeKoker, [marketing specialist and ’08 Olympian] Andy Wheating and even Flavio [Calligaris-Maibach, head of athlete strategy & partnership] and all our people over in Zürich, I think is to create some sustainability with it and get to where it’s not just nose to the grindstone for me all the time — creating a sustainable infrastructure around the team.

They’ve got the results now and we have the talent and the team culture is good and all that — so [next up is] making it really sustainable for the long haul.

We’ve gotten to be one of the best clubs in the world in a short period of time, and now we gotta make sure that the machine is flying fine-tuned. We aim to get better with our process of everything. That hopefully will be what can take us even to the next level.

T&FN: Makes sense. There needs to be balance.

Ritzenhein, bronze medalist in the World Cross Junior (U20) race 2½ years earlier, earned his first T&FN cover for winning the ’03 NCAA XC as a Colorado soph.

Ritzenhein: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I love it. I love traveling like crazy and being at all the races and doing all this stuff, but at the same time I want to be able to spend more time with the athletes one-on-one, and that gets harder the more people we get.

So Andy Wheating actually moved here now, and he is coming in as a basically operations type manager, sort of like for an NCAA program. We’ll probably look for an assistant coach at some point later in the year.

T&FN: What are you most excited about from the past two seasons, both in terms of the club’s achievements and your development as a coach?

Ritzenhein: I think one of the things that’s most impressive is that the athletes have really continued to grow and have ownership in the team. You know, they started out all like babies basically, that they just didn’t know anything. They were first-year pros and really just didn’t have any sense of how the sport operated. So they needed me a lot from that standpoint, for guidance and stuff. But they’ve definitely gotten better and better and just understand the landscape.

We’ve thrown them in full-on into pro running — big Diamond League races, the World Championships and Olympics — and they’ve learned a lot now, and they’ve taken ownership into the growth of the team and the direction that it’s going. That’s something that I’m pretty proud of and excited to go be going forward with, because we’ve got a lot of young talent too now.

Signing Yared Nuguse and Mario García and Sinta Vissa this past year, we have the foundation for, I think, just such an amazing team. So they really are excited about the next year, or two really, going into this Olympic cycle.

The first one in Tokyo was kind of like, we didn’t know if that was even gonna happen and they were first-year pros. Now we actually have the chance to go into a couple-of-years cycle here with seasoned veterans and a young team, and it’s just very broad and diverse. We have a team that’s about 50% U.S. and 50% not.

We’ve got Sage Hurta-Klecker in the 800 all the way up to Hellen Obiri in the marathon. Hellen’s definitely a veteran, but the rest of the team, they’re growing and they’re becoming something that’s, I think, really special.

They’re exciting to watch too. They have a great personality. They have a fan base, which is cool. We go to races with these guys, like The Coffee Club Boys [Geordie Beamish, Olli Hoare and Morgan McDonald], and they get full-on cult followings. That’s just cool stuff to see. People have a real vested interest in them as fans of the individuals.

I love the diversity of the team. In some ways, it makes it harder for me cuz it’s easier if everybody’s on the one Olympic U.S. cycle and they all go to the same championships. Everybody is doing something different yet I try really hard to keep them all together and connected as much as possible.

So we meet for practice 6 days a week; we’ve got our own gym space that’s like a landing place, a meeting place for them to be invested in each other as a team.

I want to do better for them than I did. I made a lot of mistakes along the way and I think I could have had a lot better career had I had the kind of guidance that really would’ve helped me.

I try to create that connection with the team, each of them individually. Like the boys who are all here from down in Australia and New Zealand, they’re far away from their families so I’ve become very close with them trying to create that bond and environment for them so they feel at home. (Continued below)

Another example: The team was invested in Hellen’s marathon, even though they couldn’t train much with her. First of all, she was doing such crazy [impressive work] that a lot of them couldn’t do at this stage.

They were just watching it happen as they were coming off their fall break and their excitement grew.

Or even having an athlete like Sage who had this huge breakout year in the 800. She didn’t make the World Championship team — even though it’s probably the hardest team to make, the U.S. women’s 800. But she went on to have this amazing season and really invested in her Diamond League racing schedule. That stuff is exciting for all of us.

T&FN: You mention mistakes you made in your career. What sorts of decisions do you want to make differently for your athletes?

Ritzenhein: Joe and Alicia, for example, I know that eventually they will be marathoners, but they’re on different trajectories. I’m trying to get some information to help me make the right decisions on when.

When I did my first marathon, I was 23 years old. I want to make those kinds of right decisions for them because I think they really do trust me and I think about this stuff a lot. But then I try to find people who maybe know more, or are smarter than me, who can help me analyze some of this data to make those right decisions.

At the end of the day, it shouldn’t really fall on those athletes. It’s my job. And if they trust the coach, even if I don’t know the answers, I’m gonna work hard to try to find them.

I do think a lot of the things that happened to me in my career, injuries and stuff like that, have been valuable for my coaching career. If I have athletes who go through those kinds of things, most of the time I’ve always been through it before [laughs] so that is helpful. It doesn’t mean that we always do everything right, but I know the pain and frustration of having that happen too.

But I also am the kind of person that I always push, always I would push the envelope in training, and I think as a coach, it’s my job to push them. Sometimes there’s even anxieties about how far, you know.

I sign athletes because we think that maybe they have the potential to medal. And if I see that in them, I want to push them, but also help them to make sure that they’re making the right decisions. (Continued below)

T&FN: Could you briefly discuss your period of transition from athlete to coach? I know you ran the Marathon Trials in 2020, hung up your racing shoes and then not long later this opportunity came along.

Ritzenhein: Not a lot of athletes walk right into something that they could be as passionate about as they were in their own running career. And for me, I was able to do that.

As an athlete, I knew that I wanted to get into coaching about 10 years ago and I first started as a volunteer assistant at Oregon with [now-Washington coach Andy Powell].

There’s not a lot of opportunities in pro coaching. So I said, “Well, I’ll maybe go into collegiate coaching” — and Andy had the best job in the world at the U of O.

When I moved back to Michigan and I was continuing running, it was 2014 at that point, and I asked Jerry Baltes at Grand Valley State, which is a D-2 powerhouse, if I could be a volunteer assistant there.

I did that for a few years, and it was kinda the opposite end of the spectrum. Jerry built this powerhouse out of just grit and grinding hard work, but huge challenges compared to something like the U of O where you have vast resources.

I learned a lot from Jerry actually. With a certain talent level things are different for sure, and he just built basically a machine.

Ritz made the cover of the December 2009 T&FN after a 7-week stretch in which he placed 6th in the Worlds 10,000, set a 5000 AR in Zürich and took bronze at the World Half-Marathon Champs.

But after a couple years I was still running but getting worse, [laughs] probably. And I started coaching some more sub-elite athletes, really. I had some 4-minute milers, 14-flat 5K guys and athletes like that.

Really I was getting to the point in my career where I liked the training but I physically started to have problems. I have a problem with my foot on one side, a big toe joint that started causing severe limitations of training.

And just honestly, I don’t know if I had the fire to hurt the same way as I did when I was younger. I could do it occasionally but I just didn’t have it like I had it before where no matter what, you could put yourself in the place, that hole.

I started knowing that it was getting towards the end. Basically I just couldn’t even work out on the track anymore. [laughs] It just was not possible.

But Kevin Hanson [coach of Hansons–Brooks] had given me a chance to have a few years at the end. And then coming to the Olympic Trials in 2020, I got injured about 8 weeks before, and I didn’t run more than 5M like three times before that. I was on the AlterG, on the bike.

But I wanted to give that one to Kevin and said I’m gonna give it a shot.

Amazingly, I made 15M with the leaders off like zero training, and I made it to 20 OK. And then I actually physically couldn’t finish. My legs were just — maybe I could have crawled across the last 4M, but I had to have people help me in, my quads were destroyed.

T&FN: Right about that time your now boss Steve DeKoker was moving over from Brooks to this new company called On. Yet COVID was simultaneously coming on with a vengeance.

Ritzenhein: COVID hit and things were just all over the place, we didn’t really know what was going on. And when I got this call a few months later in the middle of the spring, we started talking and it was something that I knew was kinda like a dream job come true.

But I didn’t know anything about On, honestly. It was very unknown. I mean, I knew some of the athletes we were looking at, but it was a big leap of faith because I didn’t know anything about the product. I didn’t know anything about the leadership. But after talking to Steve and then Andy, we set up a call with Olivier Bernhard, the cofounder of the company [and a former pro triathlete].

Within minutes we just had a connection, me and him, a lot of things as ex-athletes that we would’ve gone through from our days at Nike together.

You could just feel the energy from him right away and I think we had kindred spirits in that way. It was like you could just tell this was gonna be something good. So we went full in and moved the family, started the team.

We started signing the athletes, a few athletes we could with small dollars at a weird time, and they all moved out here and it was just carving out your own niche. I just kinda hit the ground running. I said, “I’m gonna try to do it my way, what I think is gonna be right and just put all my energy into it.”

It was hard at the time to start in that process where you’re literally like a salesman. I’m not a salesman. I don’t come from that background — but I try to just create an authentic conversation with the athletes and sell them. (Continued below)

T&FN: You have athletes from 800 up to the marathon on the team. Do they all train together?

Ritzenhein: We do train together a lot. But there are very different training styles for some athletes. I would say the training theory we have is we can do the first bit of the year quite similar; it’s all foundational, though volumes are definitely different.

Some emphasis is different on certain things. I mean, Sage, we try to start sprinting early. Things like that. But as the year goes on, it becomes more and more individualized, which is hard.

But at the same time I try to put a lot of thought into always having them together. Even if they’re not training together, just the presence and the energy, I think they feed off of each other in that way.

So if, say, Sage is sprinting on the track I have the boys take her out in something that is like flat out for her, or Alicia runs with the new guys and crushes them in a long tempo or long run — things like that. It takes some creativity but I do try to keep them together because I think there’s a strength in that, and that’s something that I don’t want to give up.

Now there’s a lot of times when [for example] we get towards the end of the summer and people are just all over the place, but even then, I try to keep them at least in small groups or pairs, because I really do think it’s a lonely world to be traveling all over the place by yourself without the support system.

I’m there most of the time, but if I can’t be there, having that familiarity I think is important. So yeah, we really do spend a large amount of time together. You can tell a lot about an athlete just by spending time with them. The splits sometimes don’t tell the whole story.

So whether it’s them as athletes together or me with them as the coach, I think that that personal touch is something I want to maintain.

T&FN: On a less upbeat topic, you were coached for some of your most successful years by Alberto Salazar. You ultimately assisted USADA with its investigation of his coaching practices and in the end he was banned. Is there anything that you took away from that mixed bag of an experience that has helped you develop perspective as a coach?

Ritzenhein: Yeah, for sure. It was a big part of my time as an athlete. I think the conclusion sometimes is you don’t know anybody’s stories except for your own. And there were a lot of good times with him, but also a lot of hard times and rough times too.

I think those experiences helped me base my decisions on taking time, thinking. Alberto had a lot of passion and energy aside from all the other things that he’s gone through now.

But also not being reactive on anything is important. And so I try to take those lessons in situations I go through with my team. From a training standpoint, I definitely learned a lot of things from him. There’s certain things in the program that I think that we utilize. But there are a lot of elements that I think are my own, or they’re not entirely my own but I’ve taken from others and created my own something that’s unique. But I try to make sure that the athletes always trust what I’m doing and I involve them a lot.

Putting the athlete first always is important. No matter what, that’s gonna live past your own career. So I try to put the athletes first and gain the trust and make them feel really good about what we’re doing.

T&FN: While recognizing the OAC is a team with a bunch of athletes running exceptionally well — could you talk a little about two of your first recruits, Joe Klecker and Alicia Monson, who have each made Olympic and World Championships teams under your guidance?

Ritzenhein: Yeah, they’re on maybe slightly different paths, but Joe was really the first athlete we signed, and me and him have a special connection, I think for sure, and he trusts me greatly. And it’s funny as I look at our team now — aside from Hellen, who’s a world champion — I want to say our whole team have been NCAA champions except for Joe [laughs], and now he has made a transformation in his pro running career. He was already a very developed athlete so really finding the balance and the trust for him with me was important.

He’s the ultimate athlete that will just destroy themselves if you don’t rein him in, but you never have to worry about him not doing all the little things, stuff like that. He’s just very focused too, determined. You can’t deter Joe when he makes his mind up about it. And he went from the guy that never won an NCAA title to making the Olympic team and then won [the 10,000] at the U.S. Championships last year. He’s 13-ohs in the 5000, he’s competitive in these world-class races, 9th at the World Championships this year. So huge, huge transformation for him.

I think right from the start we had that connection. He was the first athlete. We hadn’t signed anybody else. I came out here, he did a 20-mile run and I rode the bike with him and since then we have that.

T&FN: And Alicia?

Ritzenhein: Alicia took a long time to convince. Not convince exactly, but she thinks about things. She’s very smart and she took a long time and found that this is the right situation, I think for her and me.

I think the sky is the limit for her. I think she has the potential to be one of the best all-time American distance runners. She’s just 24 years old, scratching the surface on stuff. She’s already there.

She’s very smart, does all the little things, but she’s literally one of the toughest people I’ve ever met. She can go to a place, a focus in a race that is just unparalleled.

They’ve both gotten much more mature as athletes, and I think that’s a really healthy, good relationship to have with both of them.

This last year, Alicia’s year, you could just see it. She was just so consistent, it’s amazing. She started the year just with a bang and every race was either winning or on the verge of winning, massive PRs, top-3 all-time times already. And there’s a lot of room for growth for her, honestly. She’s still just building right now. That’s the exciting thing to me. I just think that she has very good long-term perspective.

Joe’s maybe a year or two older than her. In his family background, they know running, he’s been around it. [Joe’s parents, Janis & Barney, accomplished much as distance runners. Janis won the OT marathon before the ’92 Games and placed 21st in Barcelona.]

Alicia, she’s definitely not a late bloomer. I mean, she won Millrose Games when she was 20, but she didn’t have consistency early on, and she had some injuries in high school, things like that. So we’re just still building her.

I just think if they can just continue to be consistent like they have been — and that goes for all my athletes that have run really well: Olli, Geordie, Joe, Sage, Alicia. These are the consistent ones. They do it week in and week out, everything. They don’t panic about stuff, they stay level-headed.

The team has that. We try to find the right people when we recruit athletes, and there’s a reason why when we started the team Joe and Alicia were our first athletes that we signed. Those are the big qualities and leadership examples that I think are important for the team.

Plus, they showed that with the results this year as well.

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