For the last four years, two-time Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein opened his year with cross country races in Britain. He did well, even nabbing a victory in what was only his second race as a pro in Belfast in 2005.
But with the Flora London Marathon on April 26, his key spring goal, Ritzenhein and coach Brad Hudson have decided he should open his year on the roads. He'll be competing in Sunday's USA Half-Marathon Championships hosted by the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon.
"For the last four years I've gone over and done some cross country in Europe," Ritzenhein explained in a telephone interview from his home in Eugene, Ore., while playing with one year-old daughter, Addison. "I came away from it a little banged up last year. After the (Olympic) Marathon Trials I wasn't really ready for that."
Nursing a leg injury, Ritzenhein nonetheless went on to win the 2008 U.S. Cross Country Championships by half a minute last February in San Diego. Unfortunately, his leg problem worsened, forcing him to scrap his spring racing program. He didn't lace up his spikes again until the U.S. Olympic Trials in July where he finished 8th in the 10,000m.
"I didn't want to risk that again," he said.
Ritzenhein, who placed ninth in the Beijing Olympic Marathon in only has third attempt at the distance, sees the race in Houston as a good opportunity to test his strength prior to beginning his marathon build-up for London. He's been focusing on strength training over the last six weeks.
"We haven't even started training for a marathon, yet," he said. "We probably won't until after the U.S. Cross Country Championships. I learned from my first marathon that... 10 to 12 weeks is about perfect for me. I've been doing a lot of strength stuff. I haven't put a ton of emphasis on the workouts. I've been doing a good amount of mileage; just trying to get myself in all-around good shape."
The half-marathon has been a good distance for Ritzenhein, who turned 26 on Dec. 30, although he's only raced it twice. In his half-marathon debut in 2006, he ran a surprising 61:25 to take third at the prestigious BUPA Great North Run in Newcastle, England. Last summer, in his build-up for the Olympic Games, he ran 61:38 at the New York City Half-Marathon, also good for third place.
"It really worked out good into the schedule," said Ritzenhein of the U.S. Half-Marathon Championships. "I think I've got a pretty good engine for that coming from a track back ground. I really like the pavement, too."
Ritzenhein will be facing a strong field in Houston assembled by elite athlete coordinator Dave Chester. Four Olympians --Ritzenhein, Brian Sell, Meb Keflezighi and Ian Dobson-- lead the entry list of nearly 60 invited men. Other strong contenders include Jason Lehmkuhle, Andrew Carlson, Fasil Bizuneh, Fernando Cabada and Peter Gilmore. Ritzenhein sees this as a great title to win.
"Coming from the background that some of us have, the road titles tend to be so many that you don't put so much emphasis on it," he said. "But, it's a deep field with Brian, Meb and Ian. These guys are very accomplished."
From Houston, Ritzenhein plans to defend his USA cross country title in Maryland on Feb. 7, then buckle down for marathon training. His goal in London is simple: run fast.
"This will be a little bit different for me," he said of the London race. "All the other marathons I ran there was no emphasis on time at all. That's generally how I do best. I was starting to think I was the best 2:11 marathoner in the world. I really wanted a chance to run fast."
Ritzenhein, whose daughter recently uttered her very first word ("Go!"), isn't intimidated by the all-star field assembled by race director Dave Bedford. The quality of the race has clearly motivated him to train harder.
"Looking at the field that there is it's one of the best fields ever put together," he concluded. "I think I also need to put myself in a position to compete with those guys and run right through to the next level. I've gotten progressively better through each one, but I haven't had a chance to run that fast pace. Still being young, I want to be ambitious and go for a good time. I think I can get in there."
PHOTO: Dathen Ritzenhein with wife Kalin in 2007 after the Healthy Kidney 10-K in New York City (photo by David Monti)