Michigan churns out more than its share of great runners. Problem is, it’s hard to be great in Michigan without being tagged “the next Ritzenhein.” While not many actually have to wrestle with the burden of this expectation, a young man in Grand Blanc does.
Ever since Grant Fisher won the Foot Locker national title in 2013, the phrase “the next Ritz” has been popping up. When his breakout track season the following spring included a huge state record in the mile as well as an 8:51.28 two mile, the “next Ritz” buzz got louder.
Taken as a compliment, it is indeed massive. Ritzenhein, who did his prep running at Rockford, won his first national title in the two mile as a sophomore. He followed that with two more two mile crowns, plus two Foot Locker national cross country titles. His stellar career in the years following took him to three Olympic Games, an American Record 12:56.27 in the 5000m, and a 2:07:47 marathon.
It’s easy to see how the comparisons could get a little burdensome for Fisher. The Portage Invitational was the senior’s first truly hard race this fall, and the headlines and chatter afterwards made much of the fact that he missed Ritzenhein’s course record of 14:42 by one second. Yet not only wasn’t that Fisher’s goal, he confessed afterwards he had no idea what the mark was. After the race, I even got a text from his coach asking how fast Ritzenhein had run 14 years earlier.
Leading up to the state finals at Michigan International Speedway, the buzz turned to whether Fisher could challenge Ritzenhein’s legendary course record of 14:11 (rounded up, as per the rules, from the 14:10.4 that is usually reported). As I said in one of my spiels on the announcing team that day, it was an unfair expectation. For one, Fisher doesn’t run for time. Maybe that will change a little in the spring if the four-minute barrier looks tempting, but at this point, both coach and athlete believe that racing to win is the job at hand. Says coach Mike Scannell: “Whatever the time is, that’s for someone else to start and stop their watch and tell him. But what record that is and what rank that is, I don’t care… No one finishes in front of him.”
Secondly, the speed of the course at MIS varies depending on the weather and ground conditions. In 2000, it was perfect. Highs were in the mid-60s all week. Not a drop of rain. At racetime under overcast skies, the wind blew about 10mph from the northwest (a tailwind for the first mile and the finish stretch). The hard ground made the race all the more explosive.
This year, though the week started out warm (75 on Monday), it soon turned cold and miserable. The three days leading up to the race saw a high of 48. It rained on Tuesday, then another quarter of an inch on Friday (with a trace of snow). At race time, the temperature was 38, and the wind howled, with frequent gusts. The weather people say winds reached up to 19.6mph at race time. My trusty wind gauge (never leave home without it) measured the gusts at 23mph at the mile mark, where the athletes turned into the teeth of the zephyr. The well-traveled paths on the course had started getting sloppy, the grass in some spots turning to well-churned mud by the time the 1,229th runner of the day—Fisher—had passed.
Then there was the approach to the race. Back in 2000, Ritzenhein told Scott Collins of RunMichigan.com, “I knew that if I could go through the first mile fast enough that I would just be thinking about how fast I could run. I just wanted to run as fast as I could.” He took it out hard, hitting the mile in 4:29 (runner-up Chris Toloff already seven seconds back). He passed two miles in a stunning 9:03, leading by 33 seconds.
In contrast, Fisher did not set out to chase any records this year. He ran the first mile side-by-side with Waterford Mott’s Ryan Robinson. They passed the mile in 4:37. Then Fisher, sticking to the plan he laid out with his coach, destroyed Robinson in the next half mile. He hit two miles in 9:26, with a lead of about 200m. While it’s not fair to say he “coasted” in, he had plenty left en route to his 14:53.
Perhaps the biggest reason we should not waste too much time comparing Fisher to Ritzenhein is that the two runners are fundamentally different. Ritzenhein ran serious mileage in high school, up to 100 miles per week at times. He raced hard and from the front. Fisher is a low-mileage guy, his training leading up to MIS less than 50 miles per week. He races tactically with great skill—and he has a scintillating finishing kick. If we had a magic time machine and could put the 2014 Grant Fisher in that Ritzenhein 14:11 race, who knows? We’ll never be sure if Fisher could have stayed with Ritzenhein—but if the two were together at two miles, we would see one hell of a race.
Last summer when the “next Ritz” chatter started amping up, Scannell said, “I would never compare Grant. Grant is Grant. Everyone wants to know what’s Grant compared to Dathan. I don’t know. Because Dathan is Dathan and Grant is Grant… There is no real comparison. My job is to make Grant the best Grant Fisher. I don’t want to make him better than Dathan– I want to make him the best Grant Fisher. That’s my whole job. I don’t compare any times.”
Fisher himself has always dismissed any comparison in interviews. However, Ritzenhein feels that Fisher may have the tools to go even farther than he did in his own storied career. “I believe that Grant has much more potential than I did, mainly because he was wisely held back through high school. I ran so much in high school, up to 100 miles a week but mostly around 80-85 as a senior. He has never been close to that volume, so his upside potential is very big.”
In addition to his mind-boggling MIS record, Ritzenhein also won a medal at the World Juniors Cross Country Championships—running against Kenyans and Ethiopians—and clocked a 13:44.70 on the track a few weeks after his graduation from Rockford. He admits it came with a price. “I was training at a very high level. I was always too aggressive training and it led to injuries later on. I hope he can avoid the mistakes that I made. If he can concentrate on overall strengthening, hopefully his body will be strong when he gets to college and as a professional. It wasn’t until I was 26 and went to train with Alberto [Salazar] that I concentrated on all the other things that I needed to stay healthy.”
To saddle Fisher with “the next Ritz” label—old timers take note—is like comparing Jim Ryun and Gerry Lindgren. Both of them were phenomenal prep runners in the 1960s, but as different as apples and oranges. Ryun was the boy wonder of the mile, Lindgren the 10K wunderkind. Fifty years later, Fisher is lighting up the mile, and may be successful at the 5000m eventually. Ritzenhein rocked in the 5000m and 10,000m and ended up a marathoner (and he never broke 4:00 in the mile, though he certainly had that capability at times). They are cut from different fabric.
Ritzenhein agrees: “The other big difference is that he seems to be faster than I was. I ran 8:11.74 [2M] and 12:56.27  but I just never had the closing speed, and I did very intense speed work. I was very strong but at the highest level in the world, you don’t just run away from these guys.”
Maybe it’s Fisher’s kick that will make the difference. Certainly it won’t be far from the minds of his opponents in Kenosha and San Diego in the coming weeks.