, news editor, Adventist Review, with additional reporting by Walla Walla University
Gary Rittenbach’s full-time job is running between computers as director of academic computing at Walla Walla University, a Seventh-day Adventist institution in College Place, Washington.
His other big pursuit is running.
He’s good at it — so good, in fact, that he recently joined a small club of runners who have completed all six of the world’s top marathons: New York, Chicago, Berlin, Boston, Tokyo, and London.
Remarkably, Rittenbach is 64 and only started running 10 years ago after getting a nudge from his niece to get off the couch during the Christmas break.
“When I was young, our church had a lot to say about healthy living,” Rittenbach told the Adventist Review. “Most of it was what not to do to be healthy: Don’t smoke, don’t drink, and don’t eat meat. While these are important, not much was said about what we can do to be healthy.”
He added: “Today we are more aware that to honor God best mentally and spiritually we need to also be physically fit.”
For Rittenbach, that awareness came years after he completed his formal education and was already deeply immersed in implementing and maintaining computer labs, purchasing computers, and assisting faculty with computing problems at Walla Walla University.
His niece, Jolene Bauer Ketting, announced during a visit the day after Christmas 2004 that she needed to run 12 miles (19 kilometers) because she was training for the LA Marathon on March 6, 2005. She asked Rittenbach and his adult son, Jon, to run with her.
“We both told her that we couldn’t possibly run 12 miles,” Rittenbach said. “The most we had run was about 3 miles.”
Ketting wasn’t put off. She suggested that they join her in running 3 miles (5 kilometers), stopping to stretch, and then running 3 more miles before turning around and repeating this on the way home.
Rittenbach and his son finally agreed.
“Later that afternoon we had run 12 miles and the mental barrier had been broken,” Rittenbach said. “She talked me into signing up for the LA Marathon. So the LA Marathon was the first race of any kind that I ran.”
His quest to enter all six major marathons began in 2010 when he ran the Boston Marathon in April and the New York Marathon in November. It finished five years later in April 2015 in London. Upon crossing the finish line at the London Marathon, Rittenbach became one of just 428 Six Star Finishers of the Abbott World Marathon Majors.
Rittenbach finished his fastest marathon with a time of 3:43:19 at the Berlin Marathon in 2012. A marathon is 26 miles (42 kilometers).
In 2013 he ran the Boston Marathon for the second time.
“Providentially, I had a good run and finished 19 minutes before the bombs went off,” said Rittenbach, who was just a few blocks away when he heard the explosions that rocked the finish line.
The terrorist attack — two pressure-cooker bombs that exploded 12 seconds apart from each other —killed three people and injured 264 others on April 15, 2013.
“I will never forget my comment after the first explosion, ‘No sound like that should ever come from the finish line. I hope it’s just an accident and not malicious,’” Rittenbach said. “But when the second one went off, my heart just sank.”
Entering major marathons is no simple feat. The Boston Marathon is a time-qualification entry, but the rest are based on a lottery system. Rittenbach tried to get into the London Marathon for four years, but never was accepted in the lottery. In 2014, after running Boston for the third time, he signed up with a marathon tour operator to gain a spot in Tokyo. Not long after he got the long-awaited news that he had a place in the London Marathon.
In February 2015, Rittenbach completed the Tokyo Marathon, and in April he crossed the finish line in London.
“Running two marathons in one year is a big deal, especially when they’re nine weeks apart,” he said.
London was the last planned marathon, but Rittenbach, who has run more than 10,000 miles in the past decade, said he would always be a runner.
“My running has given me a lot of time away from phones and other distractions,” he said. “I have had a lot of time to think during those runs.”
He recently composed a list of eight life lessons that he has learned from running. No. 2, “Help and Encourage Each Other,” reads in part like this: “At a marathon, thousands of spectators shout encouragement to the runners: ‘Good job,’ ‘Black toenails are sexy,’ ‘You’re almost there.’ … Church should be like this, Christians encouraging each other on life’s way. … ‘Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:11).”
Rittenbach also has prepared a list of seven tips on how to get started running, including “vary your runs,” “follow a training plan that includes five run days per week,”and “get eight hours of sleep at a regular time.”
His advice to others? You don’t have to run, but do get active.
“If I could say just one thing to people, I would encourage them to go out and do something,” he said. “No matter what it is — biking, swimming, running. Rediscover the joy of movement. It will change your life.”