Brooke Novak and Dathan Ritzenhein on Overcoming Injury
by Jennifer A. Gritt
For high school all-stars Brooke Novak and Dathan Ritzenhein, cross country and track were more than just sports. Running defined who they were, where they were going, and what they wanted to become. Both had the ability to compete at a higher level and their mutual goal of becoming Olympians seemed not only attainable, but inevitable. With their high school legacies etched in the annals, Novak and Ritzenhein advanced to college with the high expectations of athletes who had only known success. There, however, for the first time in their lives, Novak and Ritzenhein had to contend with sidelining injuries. Faced with this formidable obstacle, they discovered a new understanding of themselves and what it means to be a competitive athlete. More importantly, the lessons learned from confronting their first injuries has made them stronger and more determined than ever to run, to compete, to win.
Small Town Stars
Brooke Novak grew up in the small community of Kaukauna, WI. As a freshman at Kaukauna High School, Novak was unaware of the running ability that would change her life and determine her future. “I didn’t know I had talent,” Novak recalled. “I did it because my parents wanted me to.” Somewhat new to running distance, Novak admitted that she wasn’t very into it. Her first running goal was to simply make varsity.
Dathan Ritzenhein grew up in the even smaller community of Rockford, MI. Unlike Novak, however, Ritzenhein recognized his running ability while still in grade school. “When I got into my freshman year I was pretty gung ho about it,” Ritzenhein recalled. But it was during the latter half of their high school careers that both runners made their mark.
Novak went down in history her junior year when she broke the Wisconsin state meet record for 1600m set by Olympian Suzy Favor-Hamilton back in 1985, running a time of 4:48.13. This was definitely a turning point for her. “[The state record] made it more exciting. I realized that I could possibly do this for life,” Novak revealed. Running had suddenly become very important to her, something she loved.
As a senior, Novak returned to states and broke her own record for the 1600m with a time of 4:43.20. She ended her high school career ranked number one in the nation for the 1600m and number six for the 3200m. She was a two-time Track & Field News All-American in the mile and garnered six state titles, setting new state records not only for the 1600m but the cross country 4K as well. As a result, Novak was one of the most heavily recruited high school runners in the nation.
The last two years of Ritzenhein’s high school career marked him as one of the future leaders in men’s distance running. In cross country, he won back to back titles at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships in 1999 and 2000. As a junior, Ritzenhein broke the course record for the Foot Locker Midwest Regional Championships (previously held by Jorge Torres, now a Colorado teammate), and returned his senior year to better that record by 20 seconds with a time of 14:35. In track, he ranked first in the nation for the 3200m as a junior and a senior. Ritzenhein rounded out his high school career garnering All-American honors and placing second at the U.S. Junior National Cross Country Championships.
Ritzenhein then expanded on his national status by competing at the international level. His second place at the USATF Juniors qualified him for the 2001 IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Osten, Belgium. There Ritzenhein took the bronze, the first American to medal in that race since 1981. Ritzenhein had dreamed of running World Cross since the previous year. “I had a teammate that ran it and just explained how awesome it was,” he revealed. But after his runner-up performance at the Junior Championships he had some doubts as to whether he could compete in such distinguished company. “[I] did well there, but not as well as I wanted to,” Ritzenhein said. “I came back and told my coaches that I didn’t think I was ready [for the IAAF] and they said, well, we can fix that.” Obviously, given his unprecedented success, they did. When asked what it was like competing at an international level, Ritzenhein took a moment before answering. “It was incredible,” he said. “I still think it’s probably my biggest accomplishment yet.”
The future looked bright for both Novak and Ritzenhein.
Transferring from high school to college can be a daunting experience for any teenager. For Novak and Ritzenhein, it also meant taking the next step in their careers as runners. Novak decided on the University of Tennessee, where she saw a unique opportunity. Coming into her freshman year, the women’s cross country team was ranked sixth in the conference. “I didn’t want to be part of a team already on top,” Novak stressed. “I wanted to be the reason why it got better.” Novak’s goal was to be the top freshman. “I was only the best in high school,” she explained. It was all she knew.
As her freshman cross country season got underway, Novak was ready for anything. “Going into the first race, I wasn’t nervous,” she said. She knew she was in shape, she knew what she could do, and she did it. Novak won UT’s cross country opener in an explosive college debut. Shortly after that race, however, Novak began feeling some soreness in her shins.
Ritzenhein chose the University of Colorado. Coming off a second place team finish at the 2000 NCAA Cross Country championships, the UC men’s cross country team was poised for a stellar 2001 season. Going into the year, Ritzenhein stressed the goal of winning the 2001 NCAA team championships and the UC men went on to do just that. “We talked about it all season long,” Ritzenhein recalled. “We saw that if we went out there and did our best that we would win, and we did. Just barely, but we won.” And there was no doubting that Ritzenhein’s fourth place finish was critical to the team’s success.
Closing out his freshman season in track, Ritzenhein was most proud of his 13:27.77 in the 5,000m which ranked him fourth in the nation for collegiate men, just behind teammate Jorge Torres. “I would have liked to do better in the championship races but I didn’t do bad. I thought I was in good shape after running the 13:27. It was a little disappointing every time I ran a NCAA championship race, but I can’t complain about the times I was running.” Being a bit disappointed about his individual performances, however, did nothing to prepare him for what he was about to experience. In August of last year, while preparing for the upcoming cross country season, Ritzenhein started feeling some tightness above his right knee.
Both Novak and Ritzenhein were about to face their hardest challenge yet.
According to University of Tennessee trainer Autumn Plympton-Crompton, Novak experienced a stress response in her tibia (shin). This type of stress-related injury, if left untreated, could escalate into a stress fracture. Novak was forced to stop running. “I never had any problems before,” Novak stated. “I didn’t know what to expect.” While Novak was able to catch her injury before it escalated, Ritzenhein was not so lucky. Upon returning to college, UC trainers quickly diagnosed Ritzenhein’s “tightness” and a bone scan was ordered to confirm that he indeed was suffering from a stress fracture. “I was pretty devastated at first,” Ritzenhein recalled. “It took a week for the shock to wear off because I’ve never been injured before.” When the shock was gone, however, Novak and Ritzenhein found themselves standing before that long road to recovery.
After a couple weeks off, both runners began cross training. The workouts, however, only served as a painful reminder that they couldn’t run. Novak combined pool workouts with bicycling. “I’d get bored with it,” said Novak. “I was on my own a lot and didn’t want to do it.” Ritzenhein hit the pool as well. “I hated it,” he stressed. It made both runners realize how important being able to run was, just how much it had shaped who they were. But what made cross training even worse was how much it dulled their competitive edge.
Novak admitted becoming deeply depressed. Questions had begun haunting her. Would she ever be as good as before? Would she keep having problems? If she couldn’t run as a career, what would she do? “There was a lot of crying,” Novak revealed. “I wasn’t able to be me anymore.” Even after her injury had healed and Novak was given the green light to start running again, the impact of being injured remained. “I forgot what it was like to race,” Novak recalled. While her body was ready to begin training for the 2002 cross country season, her mind still had a long way to go. Describing her first couple of meets, Novak stressed: “I was just racing. I wasn’t competitive at all. I couldn’t hold on.” What’s more, thoughts of becoming injured again plagued her. “I still feel some pain sometimes [while training],” Novak revealed, “and I’m like ‘oh my God,’ and I’d run to a trainer.”
Ritzenhein tried harder to keep his competitive edge while cross training. “When I went to the pool, I envisioned that I was racing,” he recalled. “I got a lot more competitive in other areas too,” he continued, such as driving and playing games. Ritzenhein admitted he pushed it a little too hard thinking it would help him get back to competing faster. In the end, he was forced to accept the fact that he was not going to be able to compete during the 2002 cross country season. “It just didn’t heal as fast as I wanted it to,” Ritzenhein said. But even after he was given the go-ahead to begin training again, Ritzenhein realized there was a lot more to recovery than just letting your body heal.
“I lost it all,” Ritzenhein said, describing what it was like to start training again. Mentally, he had to confront a new challenge. “I tried to stay focused on getting back into shape.” Being competitive right away was not an option, getting back to form had to come first. And like Novak, thoughts of injury slowed the process. Before the stress fracture, Ritzenhein admitted, he never thought about getting injured. “Now whenever I feel something, some soreness, it makes me think ‘what’s that?’ I felt a little gun shy. It was such a terrible thing [to get injured]… and I didn’t want to get hurt again.”
During the second half of the cross country season, Novak started to regain her competitive spirit. “I realized I have to run through it,” Novak stressed. “It took the whole cross country season to get my confidence back.” Finally, at the NCAA Regional Championships, Novak ran a race that she was satisfied with, placing fourth and helping the UT women to a victory. “It was the first race since high school where I felt like a competitor,” she said. Novak described herself as being in “okay shape,” but now more than ever, she’s ready to dig in and get the job done. Ritzenhein too, is ready to get back to work. “I’ve been running for eight weeks and things are going well,” he said in January.
For both Novak and Ritzenhein, however, the drive towards achieving their running goals went from “I am going to do this,” to “I hope I will be able to do this.” Such thoughts usually dampen a runner’s competitive spirit, but for these two, it reveals a greater level of maturity. “[The injury] made me realize that no one’s perfect,” Novak stressed. “I came in thinking I was the best and now I know that it can be taken away.” Ritzenhein: “Getting injured makes me realize that I’m not invincible. Even though I’m only six months older, I feel like I’m a few years older.” When asked how they would advise another runner facing injury for the first time, Novak and Ritzenhein stressed the importance of listening to and accepting your body’s limitations. “If you start feeling something—stop,” Ritzenhein said. “I tried to run through it. It was terrible to have to stop running for three months, but it could have been worse.” “Keep your head up,” Novak added, “and be happy about what you can do.”
Novak and Ritzenhein emphasized how much stronger and wiser they both feel in the aftermath of the injuries. But more importantly, they have a better understanding of what it’s going to take to gut it out, to stay the course, to win.
Knowledge is Power
As Novak and Ritzenhein head into the 2003 track season, both runners are ready to face the challenges before them. While they realize that they still have a ways to go before they can compete at the same level as they were before their injuries, Novak and Ritzenhein are focused, patient and determined. When asked what message they would like to send to their competitors, both runners paused. “Watch for me in the next year,” Novak said, “I hope to be there at nationals going for the title.” Ritzenhein was a little more aggressive. “I wouldn’t say that I’m back,” he said, but watch out, “I think I have a new fire in me.”
Jennifer A. Gritt is a freelance writer and runner from Appleton, WI.