Search

Ready to Rock High schoolers ALAN WEBB and DATHAN RITZENHEIN are the best young American distance running duo in 37 years

May 28, 2001
May 28, 2001

Table of Contents
May 28, 2001

Baseball

Ready to Rock High schoolers ALAN WEBB and DATHAN RITZENHEIN are the best young American distance running duo in 37 years

Two high school runners. One is a pure miler named Jim Ryun, a
slender junior from Wichita, Kans. He's graceful and fast and can
churn out killing 400-meter repeats until the sun drops past the
flat, distant horizon. The other is a pale waif named Gerry
Lindgren, a tiny senior from Spokane. He's frail and geeky, from
his spindly legs to his nerdy eyeglasses, yet he has an uncanny
capacity for running far in pain. It's 1964, and that year Ryun
and Lindgren write the greatest chapter in the history of
American high school distance running.

This is an article from the May 28, 2001 issue Original Layout

Ryun becomes the first high school runner to break four minutes
for the mile and wins a spot on the U.S. Olympic team at age 17.
A year later he runs four more sub-fours, including a 3:55.3 that
beats New Zealand's Peter Snell at the AAU championships in San
Diego, eight months after Snell wins the Olympic 1,500-meter gold
medal. Lindgren is even more spectacular. He runs 4:01.5 for the
mile and 13:44.0 for 5,000 meters, only nine seconds off the
world record. Better the longer the race, Lindgren finishes first
in the U.S. Olympic Trials at 10,000 meters and wins the same
event at a politically charged U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual meet in front
of more than 50,000 spectators at the Los Angeles Memorial
Coliseum.

The two runners, one fast, the other tireless, are just the
beginning. Generations of young Americans will follow, training
hard, running fast and beating the world. Won't they?

Two high school runners. One is a pure miler named Alan Webb, a
muscular senior from Reston, Va. He's strong and fast, with an
insatiable appetite for swift training and a gift for stretching
his speed over the four laps of his chosen race. The other is a
pale waif named Dathan Ritzenhein, a willowy senior from
Rockford, Mich. He has an elfin build and a fearsome ability to
run for miles at the edge of collapse. The year is 2001, and
these two young runners are linked across generations to Ryun
and Lindgren. "They are," says 30-year-old Bob Kennedy, the
U.S.-record holder for 5,000 meters, "the best two high school
runners to come along together in a long time."

Thirty-seven years have passed since the summer of '64, and it
turns out that Ryun and Lindgren were not so much pioneers as
comets. No high school miler has run faster than Ryun, no high
school 5,000-meter runner has threatened Lindgren's record. No
high school athlete has made a U.S. Olympic or world
championship team in any distance event. There have been a few
very good high school runners since '64, but none who could
seriously challenge Ryun's and Lindgren's marks and, more
significant, none whose career lasted long enough at a high
level to offset the crash of American distance running that
began in the late '70s. The failure of nearly four decades'
worth of schoolboys to match Ryun and Lindgren has been
repeatedly cited as symptomatic of the U.S. distance-running
malaise, attributable to everything from video games (Kenyans
don't play Nintendo!) to fast food (Ethiopians don't eat Big
Macs!) to youth soccer.

Change is in the air. On Jan. 20 in New York City, Webb became
the first high school miler to go under four minutes indoors--and
the first in 34 years to break four minutes, indoors or out--when
he ran 3:59.86. Ritzenhein finished an astonishing third in the
8-km junior race (under age 20) at the World Cross Country
Championships on March 25 in Belgium, beating all but one Kenyan
and one Ethiopian in an event that has long served as a
springboard to international distance greatness. A month later,
at the Penn Relays, Ritzenhein ran 13:51.69 for 5,000 meters
against open and college runners, the second-fastest high school
time at that distance in history, behind Lindgren's record and
ahead of the high school PR of Steve Prefontaine.

They're not finished. On Sunday, at the Prefontaine Classic in
Eugene, Ore., Webb, 18, will run the open mile and hopes to take
a shot at Ryun's venerable 3:55.3. "I don't think it's
impossible," said Webb in early May. "The competition [including
world-record holder Hicham El Guerrouj of Morocco] is going to be
so good, I'm just going to get in there and start clicking along
and try to have the race of my life."

Ritzenhein, 18, is chasing two records. On June 15, at the
national scholastic meet in Raleigh, N.C., he will run the
two-mile, the race he won as a sophomore (in 9:01) and as a
junior (in 8:48), and try to break Jeff Nelson's 22-year-old high
school record of 8:36.3, which was set in an open race. A week
later he expects to run in the 5,000 at the USA Track and Field
national championships in Eugene, again racing adults in pursuit
of Lindgren's high school mark. (The qualifying time for the
Eugene race is 13:51.50; Ritzenhein missed by .19 at the Penn
Relays, but he'll be allowed to run if he appeals, which he has
said he will do.) "I think I'll be in awesome shape by the time
the USAs come around," says Ritzenhein.

The two most recent U.S. distance records were set by two men who
immigrated to America and became naturalized citizens:
10,000-meter specialist Meb Keflezighi from Eritrea and
marathoner Khalid Khannouchi from Morocco. By contrast, Webb and
Ritzenhein are typical American teenagers, only faster. Webb
won't miss The Simpsons; Ritzenhein is a Seinfeld rerun junkie.
Neither eats more vegetables than absolutely necessary,
Ritzenhein because he dislikes them and prefers ice cream, Webb
because they're inconvenient. "Face it, you can't steam up some
broccoli and bring it to school with you," he says. Webb gets
pumped before races by listening to Everclear's One Hit Wonder on
his headphones; Ritzenhein tunes out the pain by hearing rock
music in his head as he runs. Both go to class; Ritzenhein
carries a 3.5 average, Webb a 3.0.

Athletically, they're utterly different from each other. "Polar
opposites," says Ritzenhein. Webb is 5'9", 140 pounds, with the
taut body of a wrestler. "We have to watch him in the weight room
because he can get overzealous with his lifting," says Scott
Raczko, Webb's coach at South Lakes High in Reston. Webb, with
his sprinter's back-kick, can run a sub-48-second 400. Ritzenhein
is 5'8", 115 pounds after a big meal, with the body of a Kenyan
runner. "Ideal for a distance runner," says three-time New York
City Marathon winner Alberto Salazar. Ritzenhein can barely break
54 seconds for 400 meters, yet over longer distances he can
maintain a grueling pace, even when he seems wasted. "Early in a
race, you hear Dathan breathing like a stuck pig all the way
across the track, but he can run at the point of exhaustion
virtually for a full race," says Brad Prins, Ritzenhein's coach
at Rockford High.

Neither was a prodigy. Alan, the third of four children born to
Steven, an economist for the World Bank, and Katherine Webb, a
speech pathologist for the Arlington County (Va.) public schools,
played on a traveling soccer team as a preteen but was most
accomplished as a swimmer; he was among the best breaststrokers
in the East as a 13- and 14-year-old. There was early evidence
that he could run, however. During gym class he ran a 5:44 mile
as a sixth-grader and dropped that to 4:52 by eighth grade. When
Alan's swim club dissolved shortly after he finished ninth grade,
he began to run more. "It was sort of obvious that I was good at
it," he says. "Probably better than I was at swimming. Probably a
lot better."

He ran 4:23 for 1,600 meters (about nine yards short of a mile)
as a freshman and in 1999 broke Ryun's sophomore mile record when
he ran 4:06.94. As a junior he cut his PR to 4:03.33 but was
disappointed that he didn't break four minutes. After clearing
that hurdle this year, he anchored South Lakes High to two relay
titles at the Penn Relays (running a 1:49.1 split in the 4 X 800),
but his season has been pointed toward the Prefontaine meet and,
possibly, beyond, if he qualifies for nationals.

In the first week of May, Webb could be found at the South Lakes
track, doing a speed workout under a scorching sun. Running in
lane 1 while his South Lakes teammates and opponents from Herndon
and Westfield warmed up for a meet, Webb cranked out seven 400s,
ranging from 55.1 to 56.6 seconds, with just a two-minute rest
between sprints. Only in the final 50 meters of the last 400 did
he seem to strain; the rest he ran within himself, with a
compact, efficient stride. "That's a 3:56 miler's workout," says
Ron Warhurst, coach at Michigan, for which Webb will run in the
fall. (On May 17, Webb would produce a startling triple at his
district meet, winning the 1,600 in 4:06.74--with the second 800
in 1:52--the 400 in 49.29 and the 800 in a personal best 1:49.53,
all within 80 minutes.)

Half a continent west, Dathan began running because his father
ran. Jerry Ritzenhein, a project manager for an underground
pipeline company, was 37 when he and Dathan's mother, Rae Marie,
divorced in 1992; Dathan was nine. The family's two children were
split up, older sister Brienne remaining with Rae Marie (now
remarried) and Dathan with Jerry. "It was just the two of us for
a long time," Jerry says of living with his son. "We got to be
friends."

Jerry coached Dathan in football and baseball and also took up
road racing and triathlons. Dathan tagged along to
Wednesday-night training sessions with the North Kent Running
Club. "You hear that a lot of kids in America grow up playing
catch with their dads," says Dathan. "Well, my dad and his
friends were into running and triathlons. So I ran with him."

Ritzenhein, five feet tall and a soft 100 pounds at age 12,
joined the seventh-grade track team and ran 12:00 for two miles.
The following winter, his passion blossomed. Each day after
school he ran the same four-mile loop on the rural northeast side
of Rockford. Usually wearing only tights and a long-sleeved
T-shirt or two in the Michigan winter, Ritzenhein tried to run
faster every time out. "Tempo run, every day," he says.

It worked. As an eighth-grader he ran 10:24 for two miles, and he
hasn't stopped improving. "You could see from the first day that
Dathan was exceptionally driven," says distance runner Jason
Hartmann, who was two years ahead of Ritzenhein at Rockford High
and is on a track scholarship at Oregon. Ritzenhein ran 9:30 for
3,200 meters as a freshman, 9:01 as a sophomore and 8:41.1 a year
ago. He has done 4:05.9 for 1,600 meters--the equivalent of a
4:07.3 mile.

His times tell only a portion of the story. Ritzenhein trains
ravenously and suffers better than most. Last summer, in
preparation for cross-country season, he once did 32 400-meter
repeats in 70 seconds each. "It wasn't that hard," he says. "Just
long and boring." He has done eight-mile tempo runs at
4:50-per-mile pace and piled up 90-mile training weeks. His
competitiveness is already the stuff of legend. At the
cross-country worlds, after surviving nearly five miles of
shin-deep mud, he still had the strength to pull away from
teammate Matt Tegenkamp, a freshman at Wisconsin, and 17-year-old
Nicholas Kemboi of Kenya to take the bronze medal. "Mental
toughness, guts, whatever you want to call it, he's got it," says
Tegenkamp. "He won't give up."

The tale of Webb and Ritzenhein must, by necessity, be a
cautionary, as well as a celebratory, one. Runners burn out, and
often those who run hardest and fastest while young are most
susceptible. "It's great to write and read about these young guys
now," says Mark Wetmore, track and cross-country coach at
Colorado, where Ritzenhein will run next season, "but if you want
to read about them in five or six years, my advice would be,
Treat them gently."

Consider that Lindgren never made another Olympic team after
1964, in part the victim of 300-mile training weeks. Ryun was
only 25 when he retired after the '72 Games. As track has become
more openly professional in recent years, runners have peaked
later. Kennedy set his American 5,000 record four days before his
26th birthday. Adam Goucher, 26, an Olympic 5,000 finalist in
2000, hopes to challenge that mark this summer. "It's good to run
fast young," says Kennedy, "but you definitely need some sort of
long-term plan."

Ritzenhein runs lots of miles, but not obsessively. He chose
Colorado because Wetmore believes in high-mileage training, and
Wetmore has faith in Ritzenhein's chances for survival precisely
because Ritzenhein doesn't seem recklessly passionate. "The kids
who come into my office giving the most profound speeches about
their dedication are the ones who are done the soonest," says
Wetmore. "Dathan sat down in my office and said, 'Whoa, these
mountains are cool!' That's encouraging."

It's more in vogue in running circles to worry about what the
future holds for Webb, who runs hard intervals and appears
physically mature. Yet Raczko has worked diligently at not
overtraining Webb. Last year Raczko pulled him out of the
Prefontaine mile when Webb developed a hip injury. This year he
had Webb skip an 800-meter race in Dayton, prompting howls of
protest from high school track fans across the country. Webb has
never run more than 65 miles in a week, and he chose Michigan
because Warhurst will increase his mileage only in small
increments. "I believe you have to push the envelope to run
fast," says Raczko, "but we're building toward the future."

Webb and Ritzenhein are neither naive nor frightened about what
lies ahead. "High school, then NCAA, then whatever comes next,
one step at a time," says Ritzenhein. "It's exciting."

"The world record is 16 seconds below my best, so I've got some
work to do," says Webb. "But I'm not trying to save the world.
I'm just trying to run fast. And I plan on running for a long
time."

Two runners, one fast and the other tireless. It's an old story,
made suddenly fresh and full of hope.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANUELLO PAGANELLI Off and strumming Aspiring guitarist Webb's (running) records are smash hits in U.S. track circles.COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Team dream Webb anchored his school's winning distance-medley run at the Penn Relays.COLOR PHOTO: STEVE WEWERKACOLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Mud and guts Ritzenhein took third at the junior cross-country worlds in March, becoming the first U.S. runner to earn a medal in that race since 1981.
"I'M NOT TRYING TO SAVE THE WORLD," SAYS WEBB. "I'M JUST TRYING
TO RUN FAST."
"WHATEVER COMES NEXT," SAYS RITZENHEIN OF HIS CAREER PLANS, "ONE
STEP AT A TIME."
"RITZENHEIN," SAYS HIS COACH, "CAN RUN AT THE POINT OF
EXHAUSTION FOR A FULL RACE."