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Mile 20 By Jacob Sweet

Tim Ritchie wasn’t asking for much. A professional runner, he just wanted to get through a solid 26.2 miles without completely falling apart. In his two previous attempts at the distance — the New York City Marathon and the U.S. Olympic Trials — his legs failed him in the final few miles. But the USA Marathon Championship was different. He held back for the first half and passed everyone in the second. For the first time, Ritchie was a national champion.

Then he got on a plane and headed back to his apartment in East Rock.

As a follower of track and field, I was vaguely aware that there was a professional runner who lived in New Haven, but something about that didn’t really register. You don’t come to New Haven to run professionally. You move to Boston; to Eugene, Oregon; to Boulder, Colorado; to Flagstaff, Arizona; or to some other big city with a glut of professional competition. The Nike Oregon Project, based in Eugene, has two coaches, a psychologist, a physical therapist and a masseuse. The runners train on a five-lane, all-weather track and run on “anti-gravity” treadmills. Surely this New Haven runner was only here part-time, I thought. There was no way he actually trained here.

***

Tim Ritchie has short brown hair, a long face and sharp features. He’s clean-shaven, with a high hairline and bright blue-green eyes. Though he is 5 feet 10 inches, he appears at least an inch or two taller, likely because elite long-distance runners tend to be on the shorter side.

Two years ago, Ritchie’s then-girlfriend and current wife, Kirstin Rudd, was admitted to the Boston College William F. Connell School of Nursing. It seemed perfect. Tim had spent 11 years at Boston College already — first as an undergraduate, then for his master’s degree and finally as an assistant coach for the varsity cross country and track teams. Boston’s running culture may be the strongest in the country. The Boston Marathon is the world’s oldest annual marathon. Even recreational runners in Boston seem unnaturally dedicated. But Rudd decided Yale would be a better fit. They moved into an apartment complex with a bunch of graduate students, away from the seven other members of Saucony’s Freedom Track Club, Ritchie’s Boston-based training group. He’d still be with the group, but he’d train primarily by himself, following the plan developed by his coach, Tim Broe.

There was nothing to indicate that Ritchie would be any good at running. He didn’t come from a running family, like Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz, whose father was a professional. No one looked at young Tim Ritchie and thought, “Wow! This is the future of the sport,” as many did when they saw a young Galen Rupp. Ritchie’s parents didn’t run. His mother was an elementary school teacher, and his father a machinist. Ritchie’s main athletic competition consisted of neighborhood games of hide-and-seek and capture the flag in Worcester, Massachusetts. Ritchie played baseball. He was not a runner.

Later on, a friend of Ritchie’s two older brothers convinced them to join the Doherty High School cross country team. By the time Ritchie was a freshman, the coach expected him to join too. In one season, his 5K improved by two minutes, from 20 minutes to 18 — pretty good for a freshman. He was catching up to his brothers.

“I just loved competing. Our coach made it really obvious that hard work was important and pride was important and just getting the most out of yourself,” Ritchie said. “I guess I just never really had somebody make it that obvious to me. It was like, ‘Oh, if I work really hard, I can improve!’”

Ritchie was running against local guys, not the toughest competition in the state. Running collegiately, or even at a statewide level, wasn’t on his mind. It wasn’t like he was dismantling his competition; it took Ritchie until his junior year to qualify for the state cross country championships. He finished 65th with a time of 17:42, nearly two minutes behind the winner.

“My field of vision of the sport was pretty narrow,” Ritchie said. “It was like ‘Try to be the best in Worcester.’ Then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, there are other runners in central Mass? I guess I'll try to be the best in central.’”

Unlike some other local schools, Doherty High School rarely sent athletes to run in college. When Ritchie contacted the coaches at Georgetown, Villanova and Providence universities, they told him that they couldn’t help him get into the school or offer him a spot on the team. Even if he got into the school without help, there was no possibility of an athletic scholarship and a chance he wouldn’t make the team. Of all the schools he was interested in, Boston College was the only one that put some effort into recruiting him. Boston College had no scholarships to offer, but the coach showed up at some of high school races and brought him on a tour of the school. Ritchie decided to go there.

As a freshman, Ritchie found himself, once again, at the bottom of the athletic totem pole. But even as he was getting beat during workouts and trying not to get left behind on long runs with the team, he was enjoying himself. He was pushing himself hard, and his times were improving. Maybe a little too hard: After his first season of cross country, he ended up with a stress fracture.

“I wasn't thinking about running professionally because I was coming in 100th place in the region,” Ritchie said. “It was like, OK, I’m back in square one. How can I get better piece by piece?”

By his senior year, Ritchie was a good enough runner that his coach wanted him to return for a fifth year. Because of the time he missed with a stress fracture, he was still eligible to compete. After double majoring in biology and theology as an undergraduate, he spent his fifth year enrolled in a master’s degree program in theology. Ritchie was a good, if unspectacular, collegiate runner, finishing his final year with All-ACC First Team honors.

That’s where Ritchie’s running career was supposed to end. Guys like Ritchie were a dime a dozen, by his own estimation. In running, there aren’t that many opportunities to get paid, and Ritchie, a guy who hadn’t broken four minutes in the mile or won any big collegiate meets, wasn’t attracting any sort of national attention. Ritchie knew this, but it didn’t matter much. He had done what he wanted in school — studied theology and become closer to God. He felt like he could get a job in that area, maybe in campus ministry. His only running-based earnings had come from a third-place finish in a local 1,500-meter race. The race coordinator had handed him $50 at the finish line.

Then Matt Kerr, Ritchie’s coach at Boston College, offered him a job as assistant coach of the varsity team. Ritchie took it. He had never considered coaching, but there was no reason to decline. He could earn money, stay in Boston and continue training with the team. And now, his coach was his boss — someone interested not only in the team’s achievement but also in Ritchie’s. Practice doubled as training time. Ritchie could help coach the workouts and run them too.

Coaching alone wasn’t enough to pay rent and student loans, and running wasn’t helping much. Often, he’d work the 5:15 a.m. lifeguarding shift at the Y, train for a couple hours, head over to Boston College to coach and then close down the local shoe store at night.

But Ritchie was improving. Two years after graduation, he began competing in higher-tier races that gave out a little more prize money.

“Maybe you'd win a thousand bucks at a race. … That's worth 10 lifeguarding shifts.” Ritchie said. “I was like, ‘If I can keep doing this, I don't have to get up at four in the morning to lifeguard anymore.’”

Ritchie was comfortably in the “sub-elite” category of runners — a group of serious athletes not quite good enough to contend for major race victories. They’re usually not sponsored and don’t make much money. But for Ritchie, the small cash earnings were tempting. He could go out every weekend, win $150 — or, if he was lucky, $500 — in a 5K and help pay off his rent and student loans. He’d be paying his bills and doing what he loved. But his coach warned him that, if he settled for small winnings, he wouldn’t improve as a runner; he’d just get really good at beating poor competition.

There is no running equivalent to the NBA or MLB. NBA players get paid by their teams through the league. Most professional runners’ salaries come primarily from sponsorships with shoe companies, like Nike, Adidas and Asics. You can get cash prizes and bonuses for winning meets and running fast times, but most money comes from representing your brand. Even at the elite level, most runners don’t make a ton of money, especially compared to more mainstream sports.

“It was just kind of like, just trying to get to a point where you could get into better competition,” Ritchie said. “Trying to run well so that next time you could run in a bigger race against better people and try to beat them.”

In 2012, Ritchie’s running career started to pick up. After running a decent race in Connecticut, the race director of the USA Track & Field 15K Championships in Jacksonville, Florida, contacted him out of the blue, offering to pay for Ritchie’s flight if he agreed to run the race. In his first national championship race, he finished second.

“I made some bold moves and beat some people that I had heard of,” Ritchie said, “Which was like, ‘Oh wow, I know you, that means you're pretty good. I beat you.’ … This is what I want to do — compete in these national championships and go up against the best guys in the country and win some, lose some.”

With some income coming in from running, Ritchie was able to quit lifeguarding and his job at the shoe store. He spent the next two years competing in races around the country, regularly finishing close to the top. In 2014, he signed a sponsorship agreement with Saucony, a shoe company based in Lexington, Massachusetts. He was finally one of the few runners nationwide with a shoe contract. Things were looking good.

Six weeks later, Ritchie got a stress fracture in his femur. Two months later, another one developed in his sacrum, a bone at the base of the spine. Ritchie, who is religious, wondered if it was a sign that his career was over. He would spend the next few months recovering. Getting back to the level at which he was competing before the injuries would be a challenge, and there was no guarantee he’d continue to get better. But Ritchie refused to see the injuries as a sign.

“I knew deep down that I wasn’t ready to put it behind me, that I hadn’t achieved what I think I’m capable of achieving,” Ritchie said. “I just kind of mourned the loss of my season and got healthy and picked up the pieces and started again.”

A year later, Ritchie joined the elite, with a surprise win at the Philadelphia Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon, prompting Runner’s World to ask, “Just who the heck is this guy?” Ritchie was suddenly a surprise contender for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. At the time of the marathon trial, Ritchie was not yet ready, running the second half of the race nine minutes slower than the first and finishing a disappointing 25th.

“First marathon?” a reporter from LetsRun.com asked him at the finish line.

“Third marathon,” Ritchie responded. “I qualified back in 2013.”

“I don’t know why I said first,” the reporter nervously said.

“It felt like a first,” Ritchie said, half laughing, half grimacing after running a disappointing race.

The New York City Marathon wasn’t any better. He made some aggressive moves halfway through the race but lost steam in the last few miles once again. He decided that, for his next marathon, he would let the race come to him. It’s often said that in the marathon, the race starts at around mile 20. For the USATF Marathon Championships, Ritchie wouldn’t tire himself out before the race really begun. He wanted to prove to himself that he really could compete in a marathon, a distance at which he had found limited success.

Ritchie went out conservatively. He wanted to get to the halfway point feeling fresh, and he did. But he was also two minutes behind the leader and 50 seconds behind the trailing group, running by himself. Yet, in the middle of one of the highest stakes races of his career, Ritchie was completely calm.

“It's kind of a funny thing,” Ritchie said. “You’re just feeling your heartbeat, your arms’ cadence, and you’re just kind of absorbed into the run. There’s not much of a separation between mind and body.”

Around mile 20, Ritchie approached the chase pack, and his race instincts kicked in. When the race leader began to cramp up at mile 23, Ritchie and two other runners passed him. Ritchie figured the two other runners would be content holding back at this point, but he felt good. He went for the win.

“It was kind of a split-second thing. It was like, now’s your chance. You can be a national champion, you just have to run really hard,” Ritchie said. The next mile was the fastest of the race. In the last 3 miles, he pushed 30 seconds ahead of the second-place runner. “You’re just trying to pile on the pain just ’cause you never know. In a marathon, it can fall apart any second, so you just got to go hard, because at any moment he can come back on you.”

No one came back on him. He won the race by 30 seconds. In 25 races, Ritchie had finished in the top three three times and the top five ten times. This was his first win. Most importantly, it was his first strong marathon performance in four years. With the Summer Olympics two years away, Ritchie has solidified a spot among the nation’s elite marathoners.

***

Sitting on Ritchie’s couch in his apartment, I wanted him to tell me his running philosophy. I wanted him to reveal that running is not just what he does, but who he is. In “14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life,” Alberto Salazar describes training so relentlessly that his heart literally stopped. I figured that Ritchie, a professional runner with a master’s in theology, would probably give me some wisdom about what it means to truly run.

It quickly became clear that Ritchie does not think that way. “Obsessive” is not the best word to describe Ritchie’s relationship to running. In his living room, cat-related supplies were as common as running-related one. There were board games, books and a nearly completed puzzle that he and his wife have been working on but no visible trophies or medals. It took me an hour to realize that that the glass vase holding peanut M&M’s leftover from his wedding was actually Ritchie’s National Championship trophy.

People at the top of their professions are often asked, “What would you be doing if you weren’t what you are?” It’s usually a pretty bad question because the response is always so hypothetical that it’s meaningless. There was likely never a moment in LeBron James’ life when he seriously contemplated becoming a teacher or going into finance. But with Tim Ritchie, you get the sense that he could have gone into several other careers — teaching, ministry or coaching — and been completely fine. There is no doubt Tim Ritchie would miss running enormously if his competitive career ended tomorrow, but at the same time, I get the sense that he would be okay.

“I just love running. I’m going to be doing it anyway, even, I think, when I'm an old man working a 9 to 5. I'll get up and go for a run in the morning,” he says. “Even now, realistically, I'm doing this as a professional, but I'm not going to do it forever. There are other things in life that matter to me, and I do make sacrifices now for the sake of my training that, eventually, I might not. The balance might tip away from that in a few years. I mean, it was definitely a challenge in my early post-collegiate years to do everything I wanted to do, but if there's an inkling that you can achieve some of your goals, you’re just going to try, you know?”

Ritchie usually runs around 80 miles a week, lifts weights and eats carefully. He makes sure he gets enough sleep and that he follows his coach’s instructions. But Ritchie also volunteer coaches Yale’s varsity cross country and track teams, coaches another 12 athletes privately and coordinates a spirituality group through the Ministry for Catholic Athletes at Yale. He and his wife watch Seinfeld, do puzzles and play with their cat, Hollis. They play a lot of cards and read a lot of books.

Ritchie thinks his career might end in 2020. He thinks that would be an appropriate time to move on with his life. His goal is to make the U.S. Olympic marathon team. If it happens, great. If it doesn’t, he’ll know he did everything he could.

“But it’s hard to say,” Ritchie says. “It’s hard to plan that far in advance. I could get a major injury in the next six months that could change my perspective on that or I can make the Olympic team in 2020 and then realize that I still have more in the tank and race another three years. But I think you’ve got to look at it in short stages and be realistic about your potential and where running is in your priorities of life. … If I have three years to do this, I’m going to do this as best as I can for three years and then be satisfied with that effort.”

***

On an early January morning, Ritchie and I exited his Honda CR-V and walked onto the Farmington Canal Trail in Hamden. Ritchie warmed up for 20 minutes, and I bought a bagel from Dunkin Donuts and watched him stretch.

“I feel like this is going to be torture for you … and for me, so we’ll be suffering together,” Ritchie joked. I was wearing two pairs of socks and still could not feel my toes. The trail was dotted with patches of ice. Ritchie handed me his keys in case I got too cold.

Ritchie anticipated running a little slower than his coach assigned. His training was just ramping up after a period of generally recovery following a marathon in January, and the weather was not ideal. I almost slipped and fell two times while walking to the straightaway where he’d be running.

Ritchie looked smooth. His head stayed straight ahead, his face relaxed, his mouth a little bit open. He was running under a 4:30 mile pace, but he looked like he was zoning out to a Netflix documentary. He looked less like he was running and more like he was gliding.

I wanted to tell someone that this guy, right here, is a national champion — that they’ve likely never witnessed someone with this athletic ability in person. But there was no one to tell. It was a Friday morning, and everyone was headed to work. Drivers passed by, one by one. Twenty feet away, something special was happening.

Credits:

Schirin Rangnick

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