By Paul Clerici
Balancing training, racing, and family, is never easy. For Denise Robson, a 45-year-old single mother of three teenage daughters, the difficulty is even greater as she endeavors to maintain sub-6:30s in the marathon. “It is challenging, but it can be done,” she assures.
At the 2010 Boston Marathon, her 2:43:16 earned her the 40- 44 masters crown, which garnered her multiple accolades that included her name being etched in stone on the Boston Marathon Centennial Monument in Copley Square alongside the names of every male and female overall, masters, and wheelchair champion since 1897. And at the 2014 Boston Marathon, in her rookie year in the 45-49 division, she came in second in 2:53:16.
But that’s quite a leap from where she came. The elite Canadian record-holder has also had to manage through life altering blood clots and the time consuming normalcy of a full time job – not as a top-tier athlete with a shoe company contract – but as a disability specialist with Manulife Financial in Nova Scotia.
Despite running’s appearance as a solo effort, Robson’s achievements are the direct result of a team effort. For life on the roads and the track, she relies on a coach and running partners. But for life at home, she relies on her parents and children, who were all a major part of the decision-making discussion to go forward with the increased training and travel.
“There’s no way I could do any of this without the support from them,” noted Robson. “My mom basically moves into my house when I’m away racing, and she comes in early Sunday mornings and watches my three girls so that I can do my long runs. But I really try not to take much time away from the girls because I don’t want them to not like mommy running and taking time away from them. So I run to and from work and I run during my lunch hour, so really there is only one night a week that I go to the track that I take away from them.”
The commitment was made when Robson began to realize she possessed unforeseen talent that was worth exploring. “I wanted to see where this would take me, even though I was 37 at the time,” she said of when in 2006 she added a coach and speedwork that produced a 2:44:36 sixth-place age-group finish at the Chicago Marathon. “When you’re passionate about something and you enjoy it so much, you find the time to make it work. I wouldn’t be able to do this without them.”
It all began after a self-imposed 15-year layoff from running after a year of college, when Robson’s life entered a stage of marital divorce from which she emerged as a new person with a new passion. Friends at work talked her into low-mileage runs during lunch, which led to training for longer distances that five months after her first lunch-time jog landed her at the 2004 Prince Edward Island Marathon sans those friends, who for one reason or another were unable to toe the line as originally planned.
“I went to the race by myself and I had so many negative thoughts going through my head. I had no idea what I was doing there,” said Robson, who in 3:13:27 was the first woman to cross the finish line. “It was just a huge surprise to me and everybody else.”
Great success followed. She steadily improved with several top-10 age-group places, including first at the 2008 California International Marathon (2:41:12), fourth at the 2009 Boston Marathon (2:48:15), and second at the 2009 California International Marathon (2:43:30). She also set numerous records, including a course record at the fabled Cabot Trail Relay Race, a Nova Scotia record at the 2006 Berwick Gala Days 5-Miler, and the third-fastest Canadian women’s time at the 2009 National 10K Championships in Toronto (34:58).
Then came the setback, one which frightened her and forced a two-year layoff from marathons that was both frustrating and necessary. The blood clots that traveled to her lung had seriously diminished her breathing capacity and overall health to the point where it was a struggle to simply walk around her house. “The clots started in my legs and then dislodged and went to my lung,” said Robson, who really felt the affects on a flight home from a race. “They [doctors] said I had a 25 percent chance of instant death by flying.”
But it was that same support from her family that she needs for her training and racing that also enabled her to recover. And recover she has as evidenced by the aforementioned 2:53:16 at this year’s race.
Paul Clerici, a veteran runner of more than 40 marathons who has also covered the sport of running since 1987, including being a regular contributor to Marathon & Beyond magazine, is the author of the Boston Marathon History by the Mile and History of the Greater Boston Track Club books (The History Press). This article originally appeared in the May/Jun 2014 issue of Level Renner. Get your free subscription today (box in upper right portion of screen). Since it’s all free, the little things like getting on our subscriber list go a long way in helping us grow!