Schaumburg native Patrick Rizzo will be one of the elite athletes in the hunt during Sunday's Bank of America Chicago Marathon.
He knows he won't be pushing the lead pace with the Kenyans and others who have clocked in blazing marathon times. But that's OK with Rizzo as he's OK with his steady-as-it-goes approach. Sunday's race will be his eighth marathon overall and fourth in Chicago. He looks to continue his progress and set a new personal record.
"Anyone who has ever gotten to compete against me knows I am not a very fast runner," Rizzo said. "Thankfully I don't need to run very fast in a marathon. I just need to outlast people."
And outlast people Rizzo has. His personal best of 2:13:42 is certainly impressive as far as marathon times go. He clocked that at his most recent marathon -- the U.S. Olympics Trials in Houston on Jan. 14, 2012 -- where he finished 13th overall.
In that race, he strategized with his coach Brad Hudson to run conservatively in the first half and left enough in the tank to pick off runners in the second part. At the halfway point, he was in about the top 50, then ran one of the fastest half marathons among the field to climb the charts. He ran nearly even splits -- 1:06:52 in the first half and 1:06:50 in the second.
Rizzo was thrilled with his performance.
"To go (somewhere) from 40th to 50th place at halfway and to finish at 13 was what I thought I would do," Rizzo said. "To actually accomplish everything and execute it to a 'T' is such a feeling of triumph. You can prepare for it every time. Preparation can sometimes go flawlessly. The race day does not always collaborate."
The success Rizzo had in his last race will provide momentum for Sunday's showdown against some of the fastest runners in the world. Chicago Marathon Executive Race Director Carey Pinkowski calls the field "the deepest ever we've had in Chicago" and notes he has gone back to the marathon roots by bringing in athletes with impressive track credentials.
Ethiopia's Tsegaye Kebede (2:05:18) will be a top contender along with Wesley Korir (2:06:15) of Kenya, who won the 2012 Boston Marathon. Kenya's Levy Matebo is the fastest entrant in the field, with a 2:05:16 performance at the 2011 Frankfurt Marathon. Three-time U.S. Olympian Dathan Ritzenhein (2:09:55) is someone to watch as well.
On the women's side, Russian Liliya Shobukhova looks to capture her unprecedented fourth consecutive Chicago Marathon. She ran the third-fastest time in history (2:18:20) to win last year's race. Kenya's Lucy Kabuu (2:19:34) and Atsede Baysa (2:22:04) of Ethiopia will push her. The top female American runner is Dot McMahan (2:31:48).
For Rizzo, he looks to shine.
He was a seven-time all-American in cross country and track at North Central College in Naperville and a standout runner at Schaumburg High School.
Wrestling was his first love as a kid, but he became partially deaf due to an infection and had equilibrium issues. Rizzo then devoted himself to running.
After graduating college, he spent five years as a member of the Hanson-Brooks Distance Project in Michigan. Rizzo then moved to Colorado three years ago where he has been training with Hudson as part of the Hudson Training Systems group. They train at elevation, about a mile high, and even do one run a week at 8,000-9,000 feet during the warm summer months. Rizzo averages 125 miles a week in training.
"It is a joy to work with Patrick because he is just an athlete," said Hudson, an elite runner himself who has trained Olympians. "He has done a lot of training in his life and has a good understanding of his body."
Rizzo added, "My main goal (Sunday) is to run a personal best. When you are racing/training at elevation, often times the race will seem like it came out of nowhere. I know I am in personal best shape. I tend to be an even-pace kind of guy. I don't tend to have a whole lot of gears in my gearbox. I am able to use everything that I have got to my fullest.
"It looks like a no-excuse type of day (with the high temperate forecast around 50). The kind of day, if you came prepared, everything is going to come together."
The 29-year-old looks forward to battling the front runners and representing the U.S. well, especially as the winning marathon times get faster and faster. The current world record is held by Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya at 2:03:02, set in Boston in 2011.
"It is excellent to see," Rizzo said. "This is a result directly of people getting into the marathon younger now. It is no longer the guys who are too washed up to run track. Now you have guys coming into it in their 20s. With the East Africans, you see them coming into it in their teens."
As for competing against the East Africans, Rizzo said: "We have gotten rid of our fear of the East Africans being just better. For too long, we let that be a crutch and an excuse. We have taken back that old post World War II mentality that we are going to be the best. It has been a long time since we have seen Americans to be so fearless in the marathon."
Of course, there is nothing like running a Chicago Marathon where some 2 million spectators are expected to pack the streets to cheer all of the runners.
"That is really the biggest thing -- to have my family and friends there is second to none," Rizzo said. "The experience is just amazing. When you have people cheering with all of their hearts for you to do well, it really just motivates you when times get tough."