Ritz on Running: Lessons from My Training Partners
Dathan Ritzenhein reveals what he has learned from three of his best training partners through the years, and why now is a great time to apply those lessons.
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In this isolating time of social distancing, many of us are missing our training partners, those people with whom we form some of the closest bonds. So much energy and passion is wrapped into our training and there are few people who know all the hard work that we put into achieving our running goals. It’s a camaraderie that is created on weekly long runs, grueling tempos and intervals at the track.
Many of us are simply missing companionship on those easy runs. As we go through this tough time we might not have those training partners with us at each workout, but we can lean on the lessons we have learned over the years from training with them.
I have been fortunate over the course of my career to train with some of the best distance runners in the world. They have left an imprint on me as an athlete and coach, and I continue to look to them as examples of how I can get the most out of myself or the athletes I coach. This past week I called Jason Hartmann, Jorge Torres and Shadrack Biwott to see what helped them have success long term with running.
Jason Hartmann: No Excuses
I have known Jason Hartmann for 25 years. Now retired and the Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field coach at Central Michigan University, Jason was twice the top American and 4th place finisher in the Boston Marathon (2012 and 2013). Long before that, we were high school teammates and he was the role model that I chased. Jason was two years ahead of me and beat me in every race we ran, until our final high school race together. He was the person who showed me what it took to be one of the best high school runners in the country and it blazed me a path to a dominant final two years of high school.
We were fortunate to come from a powerhouse team where we had a culture of hard work that trickled down across all levels. Jason says, “There were no excuses to not do the work when even the slowest runners were out there pushing themselves to exhaustion in practice. It didn’t matter if you were the best runner in the state or the slowest member of the team, you did the work otherwise you weren’t going to be proud of yourself.” Being in a competitive environment was essential for us and that started when we were impressionable young athletes.
Jorge Torres: Love, Patience, Confidence
After high school I moved to Boulder, Colorado. I was fortunate to have another athlete to show me what it took to be the best. Jorge Torres would go on to become an NCAA Champion in cross country and Olympian in the 10,000 meter. But before that, he would take me in as an elder statesman of our team at the University of Colorado and gave me an education in what it took to be an NCAA Champion. As I did before with Hartmann in high school, I spent the first two years of college as a rising American running star, chasing someone who was two years older than me.
I was always very driven as an athlete, but early on lacked the self control and confidence that Jorge had. I was a reckless trainer who had learned to always do more. Jorge on the other hand was an athlete that was always comfortable with himself and his ability. He ran strictly because he loved running and never felt the need to prove anything.
I was coming from a culture of running where we just outworked everyone. Jorge, in contrast, had a steady confidence that came from daily training and routine which he thrived on. He knew that to have passion for the training that he needed to love what he was doing.
When I started getting injuries, I lost the confidence I had as a young star. I poured myself into cross training because I felt I needed to make up for that lost time and do more than everyone else. I never loved cross training, but I had a compulsion to do it and always felt I needed to be in shape. It was part of my nature and something I learned at a young age.
Jorge also hated cross training and the mental wear and tear that injuries brought. But he was able to wait until he was healthy and slowly build himself back to full strength and fitness. It didn’t bother him how long it took, he was happier to let the injury come and go and build back slowly. I was never able to do that. I always felt a need to prove myself, but he knew that he would be able to return to full strength when his body was ready again. It took me a long time to trust that my talent never would go away.
We went on to train together professionally for a few years and he was the same as a professional runner as he was in college. Coming off winning the 10K at the USATF Championships in 2006, Jorge was injured for much of 2007. He wanted to make the World Championships Team in ’07 but he was not able to get back healthy in time. With the Olympic year looming he didn’t rush or panic, but instead took his time to get healthy.
He got back into his routine when his body was ready and had the calm self assurance in his abilities to just slowly build his fitness back. When the Trials came around later that year he was as determined as ever and kicked his way onto the team for Beijing.
When Jorge was focused on something, he was very hard to beat. That sense of self assurance was never easy for me unless I was training full steam ahead. I had the ability to race well off abbreviated training, but it would often lead to reinjury. He had the perspective and confidence to look long term and not worry about what others were doing. He knew that if he was healthy, he would have as good a chance as anyone on race day.
Shadrack Biwott: Stay in Your Own Sweet Spot
Shadrack Biwott shares that same sense of calmness and self assurance that Jorge possessed. “Shaddy” as he is affectionately known, is still a training partner of mine with the Hanson’s Original Distance Project. Over the last three years, I’ve had the chance to watch as Shaddy has finished top five in three major marathons, including a third place podium finish in the 2018 Boston Marathon.
In each one of those marathons, he showed the cool headed composure of a true professional. He made smart decisions in the race that helped him close better than most other runners and get the most out of himself on race day.
But I have observed in training with him daily that it doesn’t just happen on race day. He says, “I do what’s best for Shaddy and I don’t worry about what others are doing. Believe in yourself is my number one motto.”
In training for the 2018 Boston Marathon, Shaddy and I trained everyday together at our Hanson’s training camp in Florida. I was absolutely on fire in training. I was doing the most volume I had ever run and doing workouts better than ever. I was a man on a mission and it was obvious everyday. But I was also running the red line, and ten days before the race I ended up injured and unable to make the start line.
Shaddy, on the other hand, was steady and quiet in training. He was often far behind me in workouts but he never felt the pressure to prove anything. He saw the workouts I was doing and he was impressed, but he never felt the need to do everything I was doing. He knew his own strengths, which were a natural stamina over long runs and the daily grind of training.
“I’m in the sweet spot,” is what he tells himself in training and during the race. He was able to out last me in that training segment and he took that same mentality to the race in Boston. As the horrible weather took its toll on almost everyone, Shaddy was able to focus on himself and outlast almost everyone and finished on the podium in an inspiring third place.
It took Jason many years to learn that same confidence which Shaddy and Jorge had. He spent years training with other runners that he saw as more talented than him. He trained with me in high school and again as a professional with athletes like Jorge, Jorge’s twin brother Edwardo, and me. Like me, Jason started out feeling like he needed to do more than his opponents, something that was burned into our minds at a young age.
I remember, when we trained together, he would run one minute longer than me every day. Finally after a month of this I asked him, Why do you run up the street and back each run when we are finished? He told me it was so, at the end of the day, he could tell himself he was doing more than I was, even if it was only one minute a run. While that mentality helped him at a young age, it hampered the middle of his professional career.
He recalled the group training was foundational when he was younger, because it taught him work ethic, however, he found most of his success as he got older and started to train more on his own. This allowed him to stop comparing himself to others. He listened to his body more, and on race day he would focus solely on himself. That was the approach he took the two times he placed 4th in the Boston marathon.
The Opportunity: Learn to Focus on Yourself
In talking to these three training partners, a common thread emerged. Work ethic is essential, like Jason and I learned at a young age. You have to be able to do everything you can to be the best. But that doesn’t mean you have to do more than everyone. And you don’t need to prove yourself and make up for lost time like I did. These guys performed their best when they focused on themselves and did what they personally needed. Looking back, it was the same for me when I ran my best.
Jorge and Shaddy were great at focusing on themselves. For Jason, this lesson took time, but he eventually learned to be great at it too. It isn’t easy to do, especially when you’re training hard with people every day. But now, during this time of social isolation, you have an opportunity to do just that. And after this is over, training partners will be there to share the training load again.
But this is a moment to focus on what you as an individual can handle day in and day out. There is no clock on getting back. There is nobody else to compare yourself to. “Find the sweet spot” like Shaddy says and use this time to figure out what you need as an athlete.