By Bob Ramsak
ZÜRICH (28-Aug) -- Just behind the very familiar sight of Kenenisa Bekele kicking towards yet another 5000m victory tonight at Letzigrund stadium there was another less familiar one.
Unfamiliar because the determined face finishing just four seconds behind Bekele's world-leading 12:52.32 was not, according to the standard Big Meet playbook, an African one, and unfamiliar because it was a runner who wasn't at all expected to finish in sub-13 territory in the first place.
"I can't believe I did that!" said American Dathan Ritzenhein, still trying to come to grips with the fact that he left the Zürich track as the new American record holder in the 5000m. With a gritty run that left him searching for words, Ritzenhein clocked 12:56.27 to eclipse Bob Kennedy's 12:58.81 set at this meet in 1996 when "Ritz" wasn't yet a teenager.
"I never thought of myself as a 5-K runner, I've always thought of myself as a 10-K and marathon runner," he said still beaming. "I might stick around the track for a while. "I still can't believe it. I never thought it would be the 5-K. Marathon, 10-K, maybe, anything but the 5-K."
Coming on the heels of his solid sixth place finish in the 10,000m at the world championships, the highest finish ever in that event at a world championships by an American man, Ritzenhein knew he was in good shape this month, which led to the decision to come to Zürich.
"Just everything's going right," he said. "It's not often that these things happen, so that's why we decided to come to this race. It's not very often that everything's clicking like this, so we thought, let's just give it a shot."
Ritzenhein said that an assault on Kennedy's mark wasn't on his agenda, but admitted that he was bringing sub-13 ambitions to the start line.
"Well, I did put it in the back of my mind, but I didn't want to go and put myself in there and then blow up. But I wound up doing that - I put myself in there and didn't blow up. So that was the awesome part."
Sitting in 11th position and about seven seconds behind the leaders at the 3000 meter point, Ritzenhein began to steadily forge ahead through the field, working his way into seventh with three laps to go. That's when the record entered the picture.
"With four laps to go I moved into a really good spot overall, and I looked at the clock and thought that if I could just hold it for the last two laps, I might have a shot. And I just tried to keep that in my mind the whole time."
Third at the bell after a series of steady 62 to 63-second laps, he finished off the race with a lap of just over 60 seconds to reach the line third, just a little more than a second behind Edwin Soi's 12:55.03. The pair's strong finish didn't go unnoticed by the leader.
"Kenenisa was hoping to run a little more relaxed tonight," said the Ethiopian's manager, Jos Hermens. "But the pressure from Soi and Ritzenhein made him run a little harder over the last lap."
Ritzenhein credits new coach Salazar, with whom he's worked for fewer than two months, with not only his improvement, but for helping to reignite a spark that he said was missing a few years ago.
"It's brought a new life into my training," he said. "I just didn't have the desire I had a few years ago."
His new regimen incorporates more speed work which Salazar and Ritzenhein believe will ultimately make him a better, perhaps even a great, marathoner.
"I did years and years of big aerobic training with my other coaches, and then Alberto, he just really tried to work on my speed over this past summer. I've been doing intervals I haven't done in years. I felt really good in the strength stuff and then the speed just started to come."
The first indication came in the Berlin 10,000m. "I knew that I was in incredible shape after that, I knew that I was in 27-minute shape in a flat out race. But coming into this race I didn't know how I'd feel. A 10-K tends to beat you up for awhile. But we did something right in St. Moritz because I felt great out there."
As he was for many runners of Ritzenhein's generation, Kennedy was an idol, giving Ritzenhein's accomplishment tonight a somewhat surreal aura.
"He dominated distance running in America for so long and just to be able to get close to that, or past that, is just amazing," Ritzenhein marveled. "It was a far dream, a little bit of a pipe dream. I knew I was in great shape. I just needed to get in that race. I just tried to hang on and run the same pace all the way. I'm so happy!"