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One year after finishing second, Denise Knickman ready for her 10th Baltimore Running Festival

One year after finishing second, Denise Knickman ready for her 10th Baltimore Running Festival
Denise Knickman runs in the Baltimore Marathon in 2013. (HANDOUT)

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&Ms or vanilla milkshake.

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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 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 High in Greenbelt, eventually earning a scholarship on the track and field team at Maryland.

In 1998, she finished 21st among women at the Chicago Marathon in 2 hours, 47 minutes and 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 touch the 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 tend to crosstrain 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 later ran with her on the Maryland track and field team in 1987. "The rest of us have tailed off a lot faster."

Winkert, 52, runs the Running and Orienteering Club where he works as a computer engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt. 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."

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What's her secret?

"I wish I knew, and if I did, I'd copy that," Winkert said.

Knickman jokes that she feels like 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," figuring someone younger would win.

"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 the only caveat that 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 street lights, 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 hope they stay in the woods and they 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's hasn't thought about what she'll do if she ever stops competing, focusing instead on trying to finish each race as fast as she did the previous year. But after she turned 40, she started seeking advice from older runners about how they 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 1 1/2 hours to three for a three-month period. During the week, she'll have "moderate" days during which she runs for 1 1/2 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. Families and loved ones embrace, and friends work their way through the crowd to meet up and discover how they finished.

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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