Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:
July 8, 2011 — When she ran her first marathon in October 2006, Louise Knudson had low expectations. "My only goal was to finish it and not die," she said.
When she runs her next marathon in January, her goal will be a little loftier: a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. A 25-year-old nurse at the University of Virginia Health System's Thoracic & Cardiovascular Surgery Post-Operative Intensive Care Unit, Knudson qualified in April for the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon.
She ran cross-country and track for two years in high school. "I started running in high school because it made me feel good – it was my release," she said. Once she went off to college, she entered a couple of 5K races but didn't join her collegiate track team.
While attending nursing school in Denver, she saw an ad for the Denver Marathon and decided to sign up, downloading a training program from the Internet. Although a knee injury limited her training, she completed her first marathon in about 3:44. "After I finished, some friends asked me if I had qualified for Boston," she said. "I asked them, 'What's Boston?'"
While not yet familiar with the Boston Marathon, she enjoyed her first marathon enough to run the Denver Marathon again in 2007, improving her time by more than 15 minutes.
What did she learn from her first two marathons? "I like this. I want to do another marathon. But I need some guidance," she said.
After moving to Charlottesville in 2008 and getting a nursing job at U.Va., she heard about the Ragged Mountain Running Shop and met owner Mark Lorenzoni, who gave her a training plan and a race strategy. Her marathon times continued to improve, earning her an invitation to join Ragged Mountain Racing, a Charlottesville-based team of post-collegiate distance runners who train together with the goal of achieving success in national and international races.
Dana Thiele, who teams with Lorenzoni to coach Knudson, said it's unusual for someone who didn't run competitively in college to develop into an elite runner.
"I think the most notable thing is how quickly Louise has improved, and how much potential she may have," Thiele said. "Louise has all the ingredients of a great distance runner – she has the talent, mixed with a toughness about her and the desire to be great. She sets very high goals for herself, and so far I've seen her accomplish all of them."
Her rapid improvement culminated in April at the Boston Marathon, when she ran a personal record time of 2:42:42 to make the Olympic Trials by beating the qualifying standard of 2:46. "I just couldn't believe it," she said of her reaction after crossing the finish line and seeing her time. "It was the greatest thing ever."
As she prepares for the Olympic Trials, she'll draw on lessons learned from her work helping patients recover from surgery, including the importance of hydration and rest. "You have to listen to your body," she said. "If you listen to your body, it will respond when you ask it to do something hard."
Knudson knows it won't be easy to earn one of three Olympic team spots. "It's a really competitive year," she said, noting that a number of American women have posted times of under 2:30. But, she added, "If you put the limit on yourself, you probably won't accomplish your goal."