It came to him during a race he almost didn’t run in 2013.
Tim Ritchie was three years removed from his time at Boston College and had just missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympic Trials when he decided to run Boston Marathon that year, giving it one last shot before calling it quits. A devout Catholic, he had recently undergone a period of spiritual reflection and he was desperately searching for a sense of purpose and belonging. He wasn’t sure running was the answer, but two hours later, standing 150 yards from the finish line, he heard the booming explosion of two pressure cooker bombs, which would end up killing three and wounding over 250 more. A nightmare had just unfolded before his eyes, but as he began to reflect on the community that evolved in the event’s aftermath, Ritchie had no doubt left in his mind.
Running—that’s what Ritchie was meant to do.
“My whole perspective shifted … Everything just took on a greater meaning,” Ritchie says. “There was a lot of triumph shown that day and a lot of goodness within that community, and in that moment I was just like, ‘Yeah I’m a runner. This is who I want to be.’”
Nearly six years later, that’s exactly who Ritchie has become. He signed as a professional athlete with Saucony in 2014 and spent six years as an assistant coach at Boston College before joining the University of Massachusetts as the team’s head coach last fall. He’s qualified for the Olympic trials twice and became a USA Track and Field Marathon Champion in 2017.
And when he once again makes his way to Main Street in Hopkinton, Mass. on April 15, Ritchie, now 31, will approach it with new purpose. He’ll remember the lessons he learned from that race in 2013. He’ll remember that it isn’t just about winning the Boston Marathon or about preparing for the 2020 Olympic trials. That it isn’t about the personal records or the wins.
That running is about something bigger.
Ritchie's road to self-discovery started when he was just 15-years-old. After playing Little League for years, he hoped to devote himself to baseball in high school, but failed to make the team. Instead of spending the spring on the diamond, his two older brothers encouraged him to follow in their footsteps and give track a try.
“After one year of running, I knew I couldn’t leave,” Ritchie says. “Not making the baseball team ended up being the best thing that happened to me because I went to practice and my whole life changed.”
It wasn’t the results that kept Ritchie in the sport, however. While he was by no means slow––his senior year, Ritchie placed fourth at the Massachusetts All-State meet in cross country and indoor track––there was nothing suggestive of a phenom runner. Ritchie was simply having fun. To him, that was all that mattered.
“I never wanted to take the sport for granted or assume that it was about chasing a time or result,” Ritchie says. “It was about appreciating the gift of movement and sport, the strong work ethic it helped me build and the sense of pride in what we were doing. I was just trying to embody that even then.”
It was the same story when he arrived at Boston College and began performing well enough to compete at the regional level. His senior year, Ritchie ran a personal best of 14:20.44 in the 5K at the ACC Outdoor Championships and placed 12th in the same event at the NCAA Regionals.
It wasn’t until his coach, Matt Kerr, signed him on as an assistant in 2010 and noticed his potential that Ritchie started to wonder if he could build a career around running.
But by 2012, Ritchie found himself at a personal crossroads. He had been training for the 10K, his sights on the U.S. Olympic Trials that June in Eugene, Ore., and had failed to meet his goal. Slowly, Ritchie began to lose sight of what he calls the “real joy” of running. Results hadn’t mattered before; they did now. And after months of tempo work on the roads, running on trails and dedicating himself to fartleks and interval work, Ritchie began to consider walking away.
“Over the course of that year, I had gone through some personal changes and I was feeling this call from God to explore serving him in that role as a Catholic priest,” Ritchie says. “The fact that it would have been a total life transformation did scare me. I needed some clarity.”
He got that clarity after making his debut in Boston in 2013—the race altered his outlook and marked a turning point in his competitive career. Ritchie followed his 2:21:31 at the Boston Marathon with a fourth place finish at the USATF Half Marathon Road Championships and shaved more than seven minutes off his first race in a sixth-place finish at the national marathon championship.
Ritchie was on the ascendancy—he felt healthy. Strong. Indestructible. Until suddenly, he didn’t.
Kirstin Ritchie had never met a runner like Tim before 2013.
A member of the Boston Athletic Association running club, Kirstin first saw Ritchie in action during a 5K in Hollis, N.H. She knew he was fast—Ritchie ended up recording the fastest 5K ever in the state with a time of 13:47—but it was his support and respect for his competitors that stood out to her.
As his girlfriend and now-wife, Kirstin watched Ritchie handle trying times with similar grace. Ritchie had just signed his professional contract with Saucony and was running some of his best races when a stress fracture to his femur derailed him in March 2014.
“There were times where he felt like he was really letting people down,” Kirstin says. “But then he just accepted it and just said, ‘Ok, this is what I’m dealing with right now, and this is how I’m going to get through it.’”
At first, Ritchie looked for ways to stay active. He spent hours in the pool and on the elliptical, doing everything he could to recover quickly. But when another stress fracture––this time to his sacrum––took hold in September, Ritchie had to remind himself that there were other ways to be embrace being a marathoner. That he didn’t have to be active to be an athlete.
That there was more to being a runner.
“Boston 2013 taught me that you can be a runner without having to take a step,” Ritchie says. “There are other ways to embody that identity. So I just took a deep breath and said, ‘Ok this is a challenge. How am I going to get to the other side?’”
The first step, he realized, was accepting that he was no longer the athlete he was in college. Then 27-years-old, Ritchie had to maximize on aspects of his life that he previously hadn’t considered. He began focusing more on his nutrition and sleep schedule and underwent physical therapy and strength training. By Oct. 2015, Ritchie had found his way back, recording top finishes at various races, including a win at the Philadelphia Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon with a time of 1:01:23. Ritchie was feeling confident heading into the U.S. Olympic marathon trials in Feb. 2016.
It would end up being one of Ritchie’s most difficult races in his career. A 25th-place finish left him discouraged. “When it didn’t come together, it hurt,” he says.
But as Ritchie sat in the recovery tent battling disappointment, he forced himself to look to the sidelines. Overcome with emotion, Ritchie decided to put 2016’s shortcomings behind him. He had people still supporting him, a community still behind him. Ritchie was lucky to be here, and this wasn’t the end.
“The opportunity to race against the best athletes in the country, I’m honored to be able to do that,” Ritchie said. “I had this rough race and finished ten minutes outside of the top three, but I thought to myself, I still think there’s a chance for 2020.
“I still believe I can do this.”
Ready to take his professional career to the next level, Ritchie decided to quit his assistant coaching job at Boston College and move to New Haven with Kirstin during the fall of 2016. He also took that time to approach his new coach, Tim Broe, with upfront expectations.
“He said just two things when he first met me,” Broe says. “‘I want to win a national title before I quit, and I want to make an Olympic team.’”
Determined to make that happen, Broe and Ritchie decided against pursuing a spring marathon or world major in the fall that year. Instead, Ritchie ran various distances on the road in 2017, including five different USATF Championship events. After a 16th-place finish in the 15K, Ritchie began to see progress, recording top-five finishes in the 20K, 25K and half-marathon.
And on Dec. 3, 2017, at the California International Marathon in Sacramento, Ritchie became a national champion.
“I never saw that coming,” Broe said. “Nothing could have hinted at the performance he put out there that day, but it sure felt good to see him do it.”
There’s a reason Ritchie took Broe by surprise that day. When planning for the race, Ritchie and Broe decided to approach it conservatively. By the race’s 10K split, Broe was over a minute behind Parker Stinson, who was steadily clipping off 4:55 miles in his debut marathon.
Ritchie waited in the ranks, biding his time. He split 66:52 at the halfway point while positioned in just 16th place. It wasn’t until mile 23 that he and the chase pack were able to catch Stinson after the rookie marathoner struggled to maintain the hot pace. Ritchie seized his opportunity, overtaking the lead to win in 2:11:56.
The result was the second-best mark by an American in 2017 behind only Galen Rupp, who won a bronze medal in the marathon at the 2016 Rio Olympics. It remains the sixth-fastest among Americans in the field today. “I never saw that coming,” Broe says.
For the first time in his professional career, Ritchie the marathoner had officially arrived.
Tim Ritchie has a hard time putting it all into words.
When asked to describe how far he’s come since his first marathon, how much his journey has meant to him, the 31-year-old runner has to pause. He didn’t think he’d be here six years ago. How does he begin to reflect on it all now?
“It’s like going whitewater rafting,” Ritchie finally says. “The more you try to fight the current or avoid the rocks, the more you crash into them and get spun around. But when you just let go, the river guides you through it all.
“That’s how running has been for me. I’ve watched myself continue to learn when to grow and when to let go, and I feel very lucky to have been able to navigate through some rapids with the grace of God and supportive friends and family. It’s been a transformative experience.”
Ritchie isn’t sure how much longer that experience will continue. He knows the end of his running career is closing in, but he's not thinking about that just yet. For now, he’ll prepare to return to the race where it all started, knowing full well that he has another goal to check off of his list: making an Olympic team. And if that doesn't happen, regardless of where he is and what he’s doing, Ritchie knows he’ll be content. He may not accumulate any more medals or tally any more personal records, but having the community he loves and his friends and family by his side will be enough.
After all, that’s what running is all about.
“There will come a point in my life when running may not be there anymore,” Ritchie says. “But my community, the people in my life who have given me this opportunity and the lessons I’ve learned along the way––those will last forever.”