Ask athletes in the US distance running community to name the gutsiest guy in their sport and many would tell you Tim Ritchie. Over a decorated career, the New England native has fought through a plethora of ailments – most recently the hip injury he fought through to finish the Boston Marathon in 2019 – to win national titles and post elite times in distances ranging from 5,000 meters to the marathon. Finally injury free, he now has a shot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in his crosshairs. We talked to Tim about what he expects on the hilly trials course in Atlanta on February 29, his take on controversial carbon-fiber shoes, and just how much coffee the Dunkin’ Donuts devotee consumes each day.
MO: What’s been unique about this Olympic cycle?
TR: “I’ve been working full time as head cross country coach at UMass. This has forced me to be more flexible than ever before in my training. I’ve also had to become more mindful about the impact this job and lifestyle takes on my body, which has made me focus on recovery. In the past, I’ve had the freedom to train when I wanted, but recently my schedule has filled up and so training times are more confined. I actually view this as a plus, because now everything my coach and I do has to help me take at least one step forward.”
MO: How important is your mindset?
TR: “There’s no separation between mental and physical – they’re united. A good mindset can have a real impact on how your body reacts and vice versa. The best race feels effortless and your mind, body, and spirit are in harmony. Whereas the next one your body might fall apart and you’re just trying to get to the finish line in one piece. Fulfilling any ambition ultimately comes down to mindset. At this point, I make myself go for a run every day whether I feel like it or not. I’ve decided what my goal is so I’m going to get it. I also try to stay in the moment. On longer runs, I might be out on the road for two to three hours, which is a really long time. So I try to lock in the next few steps, rather than thinking half an hour ahead. Success in the marathon rests on developing a good relationship with pain, so I also need to embrace the discomfort and stay composed even when it hurts.”
MO: What are your expectations for the Trials race, and will the hilly terrain make a difference?
TR: “It’s the culmination of three years’ daily effort. I’ve been working on my weaknesses and trying to become more athletic. At the Olympic Trials in 2012 and 2016, there were a couple of guys who were virtually guaranteed a spot because their talent level enabled them to dictate the pace. This year, a lot of guys who’ll take the start line will believe they have a shot because there’s much greater depth. It’s going to be a tough race, but I believe I have a realistic chance of claiming one of the three spots on the team for Tokyo. I don’t see the hills as a real problem for the field, either. Everyone who shows up will have been putting in plenty of hill work because you always study the course in advance and know what to expect. But ultimately it will be the best three runners who claim their spot for the Olympics.”
MO: How does the depth of the marathon field speak to the state of US distance running?
TR: “I think it says a lot about the increase in depth we’re seeing. If you look at the results from the California International Marathon, you’ll see that 35 men and 65 women ran qualifying times – and that’s just one race. This shows that the sport has been on an upward trajectory for a few years. More and more athletes are coming out of college, challenging themselves, and seeing what they can do as a post-collegiate runner, rather than simply giving up and going into the working world. That’s creating more depth at the elite level, which then filters down to sub-elite and amateur racing, too.”
MO: Do you think that runners sharing their training via social media also plays into this American distance running resurgence?
TR: “Whenever you get to a high level in any sport, there’s going to be some degree of secrecy and healthy rivalry. In running, there’s competition between both training groups and the shoe companies that sponsor athletes. I’m proud to compete for Saucony Boston and we’re sending five guys to Atlanta who all have a chance to make the Olympic team. There have been times where we share facilities with three other teams and you see runners out there from another groups, so it’s great when everyone’s willing to put egos and team loyalty aside to help and encourage each other.
“It’s also easier than ever to share your data and see what everyone else is doing on social media, Strava, and other apps and platforms. I do some online coaching and that has really exploded. For the first time, you have people who are trying to qualify for the Olympic trials using a remote coach. I am a little cautious when athletes try to cobble together 30 or 40 resources and use them to create their own training plan because I believe you can benefit greatly when an expert helps put the information into context, but the fact that such knowledge is out there is a big change from what it was like 15 or 20 years ago. It’s an exciting time to be a runner and a coach.”
MO: Since Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier, everyone’s been talking about the carbon plate in his shoes. Do you think it provides an unfair advantage, or is it just technological progress?
TR: “The data shows that these shoes are effective. Recently a college cross country course was too muddy so it got switched to a road run. 19 of the top 25 finishers were wearing carbon-plated shoes. The same goes for the California International Marathon. Part of the benefit might be the mental boost that wearing them provides – you think you’re going to run a faster time, so you do. But when you track the actual performances, it’s clear there is a measurable enhancement.
“I envision a time when the governing bodies might step in. It’s hard to identify the exact point when technology starts to cloud actual athletic advancement. We saw that in swimming when the new streamlined suits that people broke world records in were outlawed. I’m excited to try Saucony’s new carbon-plated shoes, but I wouldn’t want to have a breakthrough performance while wearing them and have people question if that was why. While shoe technology has been advancing since the 70s, for me it’s still about putting in the work day after day.”
MO: Speaking of performance enhancement, you’ve been pretty vocal about your love of coffee. How much Dunkin’ Donuts do you drink?
TR: (Laughs). “I start every day in my living room armchair with a coffee and a brief meditation. Then by the time I get to campus and make it to my office, I’m usually freezing, so I’ll brew another one, or drink what I bought at the Dunkin’ drive-through. It’s usually just two cups a day – but I’m not saying how big those cups are!”
MO: If you could train anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
TR: “I honestly don’t think I’d change a thing about where I train. I follow another Boston runner on Twitter (Peter Bromka, @bromka), and before a recent race he wrote to a friend something like, ‘I expect extraordinary levels of New England grit from you.’ All of my role models were these ultra-resilient guys from teams like the Greater Boston Track Club, like Bill Rodgers. We’ve got phenomenal places to train, whether that’s roads, hills, trails, or tracks. I’ve been to some fun warm weather training camps, but this weather really toughens you up.
“It’s also important to me to come back to my wife every night. I train best when I’m happiest, and I’m happiest when I’m at home.”