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.”