For Dathan Ritzenhein, Sunday's New York City Half Marathon will be the final checkpoint on the road to next month's Boston Marathon and the 32-year-old - who missed much of 2014 through injury problems - is looking forward to once again taking his seat at the top table among the world's best marathoners.
That race, though, is still five weeks away, and first of all he'll have to navigate his way through a 13.1-mile challenge on the streets of the Big Apple this Sunday morning, taking on some powerful challengers in the form of fellow Americans Meb Keflezighi and Chris Solinsky, along with the formidable Kenyan duo of Stephen Sambu and Wesley Korir.
Ritzenhein, though, feels confident about his form, and goes into Sunday's race off the back of a consistent block of training and races, something which was all too often a luxury he craved but just couldn't have this time last year. "I'm doing good," he says, before swiftly knocking the wooden table in front of him, unwilling to tempt fate when it comes to his health. "I'm trying to race a lot and be smart with my training and so far, so good. With five weeks to go before Boston this is a good time to do the NYC Half Marathon; it's good timing."
Ritzenhein revealed that he has taken a conservative approach to training this year, operating with the wisdom of a 32-year-old athlete wishing to avoid the mistakes of previous years. "Mileage hasn't been crazy," he says. "It's either around 100 miles in six days or 115 in seven; there are a lot of weeks I take a day off and just cross train - not every week but most weeks. I'm doing similar aerobic volume but just maybe a few more days where I don't hit the pavement."
So far, the approach has paid off, with Ritzenhein seldom missing days through injury in recent months, and always ensuring he listens to his body when it sends the warning signs he has come to know. "As a runner, you always have something that's bothering you, and every couple of days I'll feel something here and there, but it hasn't stopped me from doing anything," he says. "I'm just trying to be smart about those things, knowing that if I feel something maybe I need an extra day or don't go on the concrete or indoor track or whatever that day, and so far that's paid off."
On Sunday, Ritzenhein is looking forward to getting out there among some of the same athletes he will face next month on what he feels is a perfectly undulating course to act as a prep race for the big day itself in Boston. "New York [half marathon] is hilly and generally downhill in the second half, so I think it'll be a good simulation before Boston," he says.
"I've done well before in this race, but you never know how you're going to feel until race day. This will be the last test for me and no matter what, the half marathon is a fun distance. Sometimes it doesn't indicate necessarily where you're going to be in a marathon but I'm comfortable at that distance so I'm hoping my performance this weekend will let me know if I need to change anything in the last few weeks and if I'm on track."
And what kind of performance would satisfy Riztenhein, or indeed let him know that all is on track for a good finish in five weeks' time? "If there's decent weather there could be fast times," he says. "I don't have a specific time in my mind in order to deem the race a success, but I guess a few weeks ago I did 63 minutes [for the half marathon] during a controlled effort, and I've run a lot of 61 to 62 minutes, so I think about that."
If this weekend's race serves as a stepping stone towards Boston, then that race will play a similar role on Ritzenhein's quest to make another Olympic team in Rio next year. With the marathon trials taking place next February, he remains undecided as to whether he will run another marathon in the fall. "Part of me wants to do a fall marathon, but I need to see how I come off Boston first," he says.
"The biggest thing is going to the trials fresh and healthy. It's a tricky situation. If I don't run a fall marathon, I'll still have to race. I don't think training for too long is good for me, so I'll point to something in the fall; whether it's a marathon, half marathon or 10K, I don't know. I'll see how things go on April 20th in Boston."