The fortune cookie broke open with a familiar crack, and Dathan Ritzenhein fished out the small, wrinkled paper from its core. "Look at this," he said, dropping the slip onto the table, eyeing it with a mix of suspicion and hope. THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR YOU TO REACH YOUR GOALS. He laughed like a balloon deflating--pffft--and shook his head. Was his food mocking him or foretelling greatness at last? ¬∂ Four years ago Ritzenhein appeared in these pages, coupled with fellow high school senior Alan Webb, two homegrown American running prodigies with the drive and the talent to someday take down the Africans who have dominated distance events for more than two decades. That potential remains intact. On Sunday afternoon at a muddy hippodrome in southern France, Ritzenhein will be among the favorites in the brutal 7.45-mile race at the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships. "The toughest footrace in the world," says former U.S. marathoner Alberto Salazar.
No American man has won a medal at the worlds since Salazar took silver in 1982. Yet Ritzenhein, 22, has had a stunning, breakthrough winter. On New Year's Eve he finished third, just one second behind Sergey Lebid of Ukraine and 2004 Olympic marathon champion Stefano Baldini of Italy, in a 10,000-meter road race through the streets of Bolzano, Italy. Ten days later Ritzenhein won the Belfast International cross-country race by surging away from three disbelieving Kenyans on the second of five laps. "They didn't go with me," says Ritzenhein. "It was easy. I shut it down and waved to the crowd." On Feb. 13, in Vancouver, Wash., Ritzenhein toyed with the field at the U.S. cross-country championships, dumping Webb short of halfway and cruising to a 14-second victory. "I bit off a little more than I could chew, running with Dathan," says Webb, a solid cross-country runner but primarily a miler. "The guy is on fire right now."
Says Ritzenhein, "I'm not going over to France to concede victory to those guys. I'm going over there to duke it out and win a medal. I'd be doing an injustice to myself to think that I can't."
This is not naive bravado. In the four years since graduating from Rockford (Mich.) High, where he was one of the most successful high school long-distance runners in history, the 5'8", 125-pound Ritzenhein has been matured by success and pain. He won team (2001) and individual (2003) NCAA cross-country championships at Colorado and last summer joined the trend of track and field athletes' forgoing all or part of their college eligibility to compete as professionals (chart, page 82). Yet he missed nearly a year of training over the course of 2002 and 2003 with disabling stress fractures in both femurs, and though he earned an Olympic berth last summer in the 10,000 meters, he tortured himself in the process.
Last June 19 Ritzenhein went to the Colorado track for an interval workout. He had been healthy for 10 months and had run an American collegiate record of 27:38.50 for 10,000 meters at Stanford in May. "I was in great shape," says Ritzenhein. He ripped off 16 400-meter repeats in 62 seconds each, a monster workout, but awoke the next morning with severe pain in his left foot. An MRI showed a stress fracture of the fourth metatarsal. The Olympic trials were three weeks away.
Colorado track and cross-country coach Mark Wetmore advised him to skip the trials. "My advice was that he sit it out and get healthy for his college season," says Wetmore. "But he was determined to run."
Ritzenhein says doctors told him that even if he ran the trials' 10K, he would not turn the stress fracture into a complete break because the pain would force him to stop before a break occurred. Colorado assistant athletic trainer Andrea DuBay, who now also works as Ritzenhein's trainer on a freelance basis, says, "The theory is that the body's pain response will make you stop. The problem is that Dathan is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to pain tolerance."
His former teammates at Rockford High already knew that. "I've seen him, after workouts, crawling on the ground, crying," says Phil Astras, who ran with Ritzenhein for four seasons and remains a close friend.
"All great distance runners are tough," says Jorge Torres, a two-time NCAA champion and one of Ritzenhein's former teammates at Colorado. "But Dathan is different. He's got God-given talent, and he will run until his body drops."
Says U.S. 5,000-meter record holder Bob Kennedy, "Dathan is tough as nails."
On July 9 in Sacramento, Ritzenhein ran the 10,000 at the Olympic trials. Having done nothing for three weeks but extreme cross-training (swimming laps while holding his breath, sprinting madly on an elliptical trainer), Ritzenhein hung with the pack for a few laps, then quickly lost ground. Because he was one of the few runners in the U.S. who had achieved the Olympic "A" qualifying time, there was a chance he could be named to the Olympic team regardless of his finish at the trials--as long as he finished the race. So he kept running, his stride gradually turning to a labored limp as racer after racer lapped him. "Heartbreaking to watch," says Torres.
By Ritzenhein's guess, the bone finally snapped with a couple of miles to go. (X-rays taken after the race showed a complete break.) Ritzenhein finished in 31:13.91, more than three minutes behind winner Meb Keflezighi and four seconds slower than women's winner Deena Kastor would run seven nights later. "It was humiliating, getting the pity clap from the crowd at the finish," says Ritzenhein.
He had broken the foot so badly that even in a plastic boot, he was limping for two weeks. But in a sense the gamble had paid off. He was named to the Olympic team, went to Athens, and though he was far too unfit to be competitive (he dropped out of the final with four laps left), he experienced the Games from a competitor's perspective. Upon his return to Boulder, he had the Olympic rings inked onto his right calf. The yellow ring blends with his skin and is barely visible. "I'm going to get the yellow one outlined in black when I accomplish something more in the Olympics," he says.
Between Sacramento and Athens, Ritzenhein turned pro, hiring agent Peter Stubbs and signing a five-year contract with Nike worth more than $200,000 a year. Ritzenhein had two full years of eligibility remaining. "I needed a new approach to training," he says. "I was always rushing back from injuries for the next NCAA season. I'm sure it's the right decision for me."
Ritzenhein continues to live in Boulder with his fiancée, Kalin Toedebusch, a teammate in high school. His new coach is former marathoner Brad Hudson, who has gradually introduced strength-building short hill sprints and long intervals (one session: 3,000 meters at a 68-second 400-meter pace, 2,000 meters at a 66-second pace, 1,000 meters at a 64-second pace, twice). Their long-term plan is obvious: to move Ritzenhein up to the marathon, possibly as soon as autumn 2006.
Ritzenhein has serious goals: break the American records for 10,000 meters and the marathon. "I see him running sub-13 for the 5,000 [Kennedy is the only American to have done this], sub-27 for the 10,000 [the U.S. record is 27:13.98], and then the marathon will be his best event," says Salazar.
Keflezighi is a naturalized American citizen who won a silver medal in the marathon in Athens, but he was born in Eritrea, bordered by Ethiopia, and came to the U.S. at age 11; American marathon record holder Khalid Khannoucchi was born in Morocco and arrived in the U.S. at age 21. "Dathan is the great American boy," says Torres. "He comes from a little hick town in the Midwest, and he can deliver the performances, too. He can be our Lance Armstrong."
Ritzenhein's quest moves to a larger stage this weekend when he attempts to begin elevating his sport and his profile in one afternoon, far from home. The challenge is inescapable and drives him every day. "I don't want to be remembered as the greatest American distance runner," says Ritzenhein. "Because it's just not good enough to be a good American runner."
A GROWING NUMBER of runners are passing up part or all of their college eligibility to compete as professionals, freeing themselves of team obligations so they can focus on long-term individual goals. "In general, college coaches are paid and evaluated for scoring points in NCAA meets, not for developing someone who's going to win Olympic medals at 28," says U.S. 5,000-meter record holder and two-time Olympian Bob Kennedy. In addition to Dathan Ritzenhein, here are some others who have veered away from college track in the last three years.
ALAN WEBB The high school mile record holder left Michigan in 2002 after one year; in 2004 he was the top-ranked U.S. miler and competed in the Olympics.
SHALANE FLANAGAN The two-time NCAA cross-country champion left North Carolina in 2004 with one year of eligibility remaining; she won the U.S cross-country title in February.
TIFFANY MCWILLIAMS (above) The two-time NCAA 1,500-meter and one-time mile champion stopped competing for Mississippi State in 2004 with one year of eligibility left.
CAITLIN CHOCK The high school girls' 5,000-meter record holder briefly attended Richmond last fall before joining Alberto Salazar's Nike-funded Oregon Project; Salazar told SI that Chock retains her college eligibility.
GALEN RUPP The high school 5,000-meter record holder has thus far bypassed college to train with Salazar's Oregon Project; Salazar told SI that Rupp retains his college eligibility.