Knick­man ready for her 30th ca­reer marathon

At 48, last year’s run­ner-up among women shows few signs of slow­ing down

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By C.J. Doon

Denise Knick­man is al­ways on her feet. When she’s not train­ing, the 48-year-old phys­i­cal ther­a­pist and Bal­ti­more res­i­dent likes to bike, swim, ski, hike and do “pretty much any­thing out­doors.” Her friends make fun of her be­cause she of­ten falls asleep while watch­ing a movie. And like most ath­letes, she keeps to a healthy diet but can’t stay away from the oc­ca­sional bag of peanut M&M’s or vanilla milk­shake.

Asked to es­ti­mate how much of her day she isn’t on the move, not count­ing sleep­ing, she strug­gles to find an an­swer.

“I’m pretty ac­tive most of the time. I don’t know,” she said. “Even at work, it’s not a seden­tary job, so I’m up on my feet and Saturday, 8 a.m. Start line: Rus­sell and Cam­den Streets

walk­ing around and stuff. I mean, it’s not as ac­tive as run­ning, but it’s not a desk job.”

Knick­man will com­pete in her 30th marathon this week­end at the Bal­ti­more Run­ning Fes­ti­val, an event she has par­tic­i­pated in nine times, fin­ish­ing sec­ond last year among women and first in the age-40-and-up Masters Di­vi­sion. She has been run­ning com­pet­i­tively since she was a sopho­more at Eleanor Roo­sevelt in Green­belt, even­tu­ally earn­ing a track and field schol­ar­ship at Mary­land.

In1998, she fin­ished 21st among women at the Chicago Marathon in 2 hours, 47 min­utes, 25 sec­onds, still her per­sonal best, to qual­ify for the 2000 Olympic tri­als in Columbia, S.C. She suf­fered an in­jury dur­ing train­ing lead­ing up to the tri­als, but willed her­self to keep go­ing.

“I thought, ‘Look. I have four months to go. I’m just go­ing to run and fight through this pain,’ ” she said.

De­spite a 111th-place fin­ish, she re­mem­bers the tri­als as an “in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence,” the chance to meet women who liked run­ning as much as she did. She re­calls ob­serv­ing the scene at the start­ing area was “sur­real.”

“You just want to t ouch t he peo­ple around you. ‘Are you real? Am I real? Am I re­ally stand­ing with all these re­ally good run­ners? Should I even be here?’ ” Knick­man said.

In the years since, Knick­man has an­swered that ques­tion with a de­fin­i­tive yes. In statis­tics pro­vided by Ath­links.com, a web­site with race data from over 150 mil­lion events world­wide, her per­sonal-best marathon time ranks among the top 7.4 per­cent in the world. Her 17:19 per­sonal best in the 5K is among the top 5.5 per­cent. In the 10K, her best is in the top 9.6 per­cent, her best half-marathon is in the top 10.5 per­cent, and so on.

She ran her first marathon in New York City in 1991, and won for the first time at the Mont­gomery County Marathon In The Parks in Bethesda in 2003. In to­tal, Knick­man has par­tic­i­pated in 369 ca­reer races span­ning a to­tal of 3,114 miles. For com­par­i­son, the dis­tance from New York to Los An­ge­les is roughly 2,800 miles. Is she start­ing to slow down? “I feel changes in my body,” she said. “I get in­jured more eas­ily. I need more re­cov­ery time af­ter work­outs. I can’t run the way I used to, I can’t train the way I used to, so I cross-train now more than I did, so I swim and bike a lit­tle bit more.”

One of her run­ning part­ners, Tom Winkert, mar­vels at how Knick­man has been able to main­tain a high level on longer dis­tances.

“She’s much closer to her abil­ity when she was younger,” said Winkert, who met Knick­man when she ran on his brother’s track team in high school, and ran with her for Mary­land in 1987. “The rest of us have tailed off a lot faster.”

Winkert, 52, runs the Run­ning and Ori­en­teer­ing Club at God­dard Space Flight Cen­ter in Green­belt, where he works as a com­puter en­gi­neer. Though he hasn’t run a marathon in five years, he still com­petes in smaller events, de­spite a few in­juries here and there. To see Knick­man run­ning marathons in the low three-hour range is “pretty im­pres­sive.” What’s her se­cret? “I wish I knew, and if I did, I’d copy that,” Winkert said. Knick­man

Knick­man jokes that she feels she’s “get­ting slower and slower,” but last year’s sec­ond-place fin­ish at the Bal­ti­more Run­ning Fes­ti­val earned her the Bal­ti­more Road Run­ners Club Fe­male Run­ner of the Year award, an honor she called “sur­pris­ing” for some­one her age.

“I know run­ners that are in their 60s, 70s and 80s, and they’re in­spir­ing to me,” she said. “They can still go out there and run, def­i­nitely not as fast as they used to, but I hope I can run for a lot more years be­cause it just does so much for me.”

That in­cludes 15 sec­onds of fame at the Reg­gae Marathon in Ja­maica. She won a trip to the is­land coun­try in 2003, with one caveat: She had to par­tic­i­pate in ei­ther the marathon or the half-marathon. When she ar­rived, she was star­tled to learn she was the fa­vorite.

Nav­i­gat­ing the ter­rain turned out to be more dif­fi­cult than the com­pe­ti­tion. In­stead of street­lights, tiki torches lit the path as the race stretched into the evening. Knick­man re­mem­bers run­ning along the coast and hear­ing wild an­i­mals in the woods.

“It’s not that big of a marathon, so there’s not many peo­ple around,” she said. “I kept hear­ing all these an­i­mals’ noises, think­ing, ‘I sure hopethey stay in the wood­sandthey don’t come out and eat me.’ ”

She came out in one piece, and took first place. “They put me on their sports ra­dio show,” she said. “I was like a celebrity, I guess.”

Knick­man said she hasn’t thought about what she’ll do if she ever stops com­pet­ing. But af­ter she turned 40, she started seek­ing ad­vice from older run­ners about howthey dealt with ag­ing. The most im­por­tant thing they told her was that she couldn’t train as in­tensely as she used to be­cause her body needs more time to re­cover.

“I still have a hard time with that, but I try,” she said. “I don’t re­ally like rest­ing.”

Lead­ing up to a marathon, there’s hardly any time for it. Knick­man runs two to three hours ev­ery week­end, work­ing up from 11⁄ hours to three for a three-month pe­riod. Dur­ing the week, she’ll have “mod­er­ate” days dur­ing which she runs for 11⁄ hours. The re­main­ing days tend to be shorter, from 30 to 45 min­utes to an hour. With that sched­ule, she said, bal­anc­ing work and a so­cial life can be tricky.

“My friends know I’m go­ing to dis­ap­pear for a while and go for a run,” she said. “Some­times it means if I want to run I might not sleep as much as I should. You might have to get up re­ally early or run late at night, so it can be a struggle to get any­thing done in life.”

For many run­ners, that’s what makes cross­ing the fin­ish line so sweet. At big marathons, Bal­ti­more’s in­cluded, the end of the race is a party scene, with food, drinks and mu­sic.

Af­ter revel­ing in achieve­ment with her fel­low com­peti­tors, and shar­ing a few drinks and a meal with friends down­town, Knick­man knows ex­actly what she’s go­ing to do.

“I’ll prob­a­bly get a milk­shake,” she said.

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