Roland Lavallee has never veered away from his dream of qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in January.
But for the last nine months, the former Mount St. Charles standout has certainly been tested with a series of personal and physical setbacks.
The latest of those setbacks has been a compound knee injury that has essentially kept the 32-year-old Lavallee off the roads for the last month with at least three more weeks of recovery. Back in late November and up until the beginning of the year, some personal issues along with a miserable winter to train forced the determined North Smithfield runner to cancel a planned assault on the qualifying standard of 1:05:00 at the Houston Half Marathon in late January.
“I have been to hell and back,” said Lavallee on Thursday night.
In his more than 15 years of running with at least half of those years at an elite level, Lavallee has experienced very little injury despite the high-intensity training that he puts on his 120-pound frame.
His current injury, a stress fracture and a low-grade partial tear of the patellar tendon in his right knee, is a bit of a rarity. And it also came as a bit of a shocker.
Lavallee, a biology teacher and boys’ cross-country coach at his alma-mater, was feeling some slight discomfort in his knee back in April. But he just assumed it was a common pain associated with running. In fact, just a little over a week into the month, Lavallee cruised to a wire-to-wire victory at the Race Against Racism 5K in Woonsocket, winning the race by nearly two minutes with a fast 15:05 clocking.
“I thought this was going to be the start of my outdoor season,” he said. “I ran pretty quickly off of no workouts or anything like that; just some easy light mileage. I was looking to go from there. Later in the month, I did another 5K in Hopedale, Mass., just to do as a small workout. Right then, I just noticed that there was a discomfort in my knee. I didn’t think it was anything serious, just a discomfort.”
That discomfort became more of an issue on May 5 when Lavallee was out celebrating Cinco de Mayo with a friend.
“That night I found myself strapping ice packs on my knee,” he said. “I’m like OK; I need to start doing something. It started getting progressively more serious during the month of May. I was finding difficulty on runs, but I didn’t have to change my form and I wasn’t really limping. I thought to myself I only have a few more weeks and school’s out and I am on summer vacation. I figured this would be the Summer of Roland. I wasn’t working. I was just going to focus on running and racing.”
It never happened.
The pain continued to get worse to the point where running just a few laps around a football field was too much. It all came to a head in mid-June when Lavallee went to the Mount St. Charles-Cumberland state championship softball game at Rhode Island College, a game won by the Clippers, 3-2.
He iced his knee hours before the game, but it didn’t seem to work.
“My knee was just bothering me sitting in the stands,” he said. “When the game was over and, unfortunately the girls, a lot of which I had in my class and homeroom, were disappointed and heartbroken, I found myself after congratulating them on their season, I was limping back to my car and I was like ‘Oh, my God! There is definitely something wrong.’ That was an eye-opener. I went home, iced my leg again and the middle of the night I woke up with a throbbing pain. The next day, I could barely walk. I didn’t know what to do. I freaked out.”
Lavallee went to his primary physician, Rex Appenfeller, the father of one of his former star runners, Dan Appenfeller. It was determined through an MRI that he had the tear in his tendon. To make matters worse, he found out a short time later that he also had a stress fracture just below his kneecap.
Lavallee’s injury came just a half a year after a difficult period in his life where some personal issues and his lack of winter training prevented him from competing in Houston.
Let’s just say, prior to the Thanksgiving holiday when things started to go astray, everything was right on pace to run a fast time down in Texas. On Oct. 17, the New Balance-Boston runner blitzed the field at the United Healthcare Half Marathon in Newport with a sizzling time of 1:06:40, a convincing 8:42 ahead of the runner-up. Just a week later, he finished eighth at the Mayor’s Cup cross-country race in Boston, covering the challenging eight-kilometer course at Franklin Park in 24:13.
“I blew the field away and had a tremendous race,” he said about his debut to the half-marathon distance. “Then a week later, I shattered my PR at Franklin Park and had my highest placement in the Mayor’s Cup. It was a super PR and I had less than seven days to recover from the half marathon. I was only doing it as a favor to may coach and my New Balance team. I was expecting to be the third scorer on the team and I went in there with no real expectations but helping the team to score some points. Instead, I had one of the best races of my life.”
After short time after those two races came the issues at the end of the year and the injuries the last few months that have forced Lavallee to take an “unplanned break” from his training for the Trials.
“It went from everything going as smooth and as right as it could go to around every corner it seemed like it was a pitfall,” Lavallee said. “That continued through the spring when I did that Race for Racism and I thought everything was going on track. I made it through hell and ready to move forward and then boom, boom, knee and stress fracture.”
A couple of races that Lavallee had circled on his calendar this summer was tonight’s Blessing of the Fleet 10-miler in Narragansett, a race he won with a course record of 49:44 in 2005. He was also hoping to try and qualify for the Trials at next week’s Rock n’ Roll Providence Half Marathon.
“My unofficial plan for the summer was to do a couple of track races in June, a Fourth of July race somewhere, do the Blessing of the Fleet and try to put up a pretty serious time there, basically as a time trial to get ready for the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon in Providence,” he said. “I was hoping that after three months of serious training in the summer I would go into Providence ready to roll and try and run a 1:05 or a 1:04.”
To maintain his current fitness level during his injury, Lavallee has incorporated cross-training. He bikes at least two hours a day, about five days a week. He also lifts weight at least three times per week and swims occasionally.
The good news is the injury has been healing just fine and he should be able to resume training again by early August. Unfortunately now he may just have one race to try and qualify for the Trials.
He’s not worried, though. Although it’s been difficult, Lavallee looks at his latest recovery period as just a short break from his training. He’s looking at possibly running the Philadelphia Half Marathon in October or maybe a race in November to qualify for the Trials, which will be held on Jan. 14, 2012 in Houston.
“Right now, there is no margin of error,” he said. “It doesn’t look like I am going to get a practice [race] in before. For all intents and purposes, the Trials, should I make it, will be my debut marathon. I apologize for nothing and I am afraid of nothing. I definitely have the talent and know that’s where I should be, that’s what my goal should be and there is no reason to back down. It is what it is.”