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The fortune cookie broke open with a familiar crack, and Dathan Ritzenhein fished out the small, wrinkled paper from its core. "Look at this," he said, dropping the slip onto the table, eyeing it with a mix of suspicion and hope. THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR YOU TO REACH YOUR GOALS. He laughed like a balloon deflating--pffft--and shook his head. Was his food mocking him or foretelling greatness at last? � Four years ago Ritzenhein appeared in these pages, coupled with fellow high school senior Alan Webb, two homegrown American running prodigies with the drive and the talent to someday take down the Africans who have dominated distance events for more than two decades. That potential remains intact. On Sunday afternoon at a muddy hippodrome in southern France, Ritzenhein will be among the favorites in the brutal 7.45-mile race at the 33rd IAAF World Cross Country Championships. "The toughest footrace in the world," says former U.S. marathoner Alberto Salazar.
No American man has won a medal at the worlds since Salazar took silver in 1982. Yet Ritzenhein, 22, has had a stunning, breakthrough winter. On New Year's Eve he finished third, just one second behind Sergey Lebid of Ukraine and 2004 Olympic marathon champion Stefano Baldini of Italy, in a 10,000-meter road race through the streets of Bolzano, Italy. Ten days later Ritzenhein won the Belfast International cross-country race by surging away from three disbelieving Kenyans on the second of five laps. "They didn't go with me," says Ritzenhein. "It was easy. I shut it down and waved to the crowd." On Feb. 13, in Vancouver, Wash., Ritzenhein toyed with the field at the U.S. cross-country championships, dumping Webb short of halfway and cruising to a 14-second victory. "I bit off a little more than I could chew, running with Dathan," says Webb, a solid cross-country runner but primarily a miler. "The guy is on fire right now."
Says Ritzenhein, "I'm not going over to France to concede victory to those guys. I'm going over there to duke it out and win a medal. I'd be doing an injustice to myself to think that I can't."
This is not naive bravado. In the four years since graduating from Rockford ( Mich.) High, where he was one of the most successful high school long-distance runners in history, the 5'8", 125-pound Ritzenhein has been matured by success and pain. He won team (2001) and individual (2003) NCAA cross-country championships at Colorado and last summer joined the trend of track and field athletes' forgoing all or part of their college eligibility to compete as professionals (chart, page 82). Yet he missed nearly a year of training over the course of 2002 and 2003 with disabling stress fractures in both femurs, and though he earned an Olympic berth last summer in the 10,000 meters, he tortured himself in the process.
Last June 19 Ritzenhein went to the Colorado track for an interval workout. He had been healthy for 10 months and had run an American collegiate record of 27:38.50 for 10,000 meters at Stanford in May. "I was in great shape," says Ritzenhein. He ripped off 16 400-meter repeats in 62 seconds each, a monster workout, but awoke the next morning with severe pain in his left foot. An MRI showed a stress fracture of the fourth metatarsal. The Olympic trials were three weeks away.
Colorado track and cross-country coach Mark Wetmore advised him to skip the trials. "My advice was that he sit it out and get healthy for his college season," says Wetmore. "But he was determined to run."
Ritzenhein says doctors told him that even if he ran the trials' 10K, he would not turn the stress fracture into a complete break because the pain would force him to stop before a break occurred. Colorado assistant athletic trainer Andrea DuBay, who now also works as Ritzenhein's trainer on a freelance basis, says, "The theory is that the body's pain response will make you stop. The problem is that Dathan is somewhat of an anomaly when it comes to pain tolerance."
His former teammates at Rockford High already knew that. "I've seen him, after workouts, crawling on the ground, crying," says Phil Astras, who ran with Ritzenhein for four seasons and remains a close friend.
"All great distance runners are tough," says Jorge Torres, a two-time NCAA champion and one of Ritzenhein's former teammates at Colorado. "But Dathan is different. He's got God-given talent, and he will run until his body drops."