Knickman ready for her 30th career marathon
At 48, last year’s runner-up among women shows few signs of slowing down
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.