WOONSOCKET — If you hadn’t heard of Roland Lavallee or seen him in action, you’d have a difficult time believing that the former Mount St. Charles standout was competing in his first race in nearly a year and a half, or was 13 months removed from microfracture surgery to his knee, during Sunday morning’s Novans Pride 5K.
That’s because Lavallee crushed the competition at the inaugural 3.1-mile race, which was sponsored by The Gym LLC of Woonsocket, and not only did he top a field of 182 participants with a time of 15:42, but more than 3½ minutes separated him from the runner-up finisher, Keith Jillette, a sophomore on the Woonsocket High boys’ cross country team.
The race began on Diamond Hill Road in front of the LLC Gym, and after a third-of-a-mile uphill climb, it toured the neighborhoods of Bound Road, Elder Ballou Meeting House Road, and Mendon Road before returning to Diamond Hill Road and finishing in the LLC Gym’s parking lot.
By the time Lavallee took a right onto Mendon Road 1.7 miles into the race, he was all by himself and well on his way to a convincing victory, a remarkable feat considering the knee injury he suffered in the spring of 2012.
“Back then, I actually was running track and things were going well,” Lavallee said during the post-race festivities. “I was hoping to make the Olympic Trials. I had a great winter, I ran 4:12 in the mile, and 49 minutes at the (Old Fashioned) 10-Miler in Foxboro. But in the spring, I had a little pain in my knee -- not really my knee, but at the top of my shin -- and I thought it was a stress fracture because I had one the summer before in that area.”
Things soon went from bad to worse for Lavallee at a barbeque he attended on the day of Mount St. Charles’ graduation.
“I was shooting hoops in khaki pants, and all of a sudden, I felt my knee twinge,” he added. “I didn’t go down to the ground, hobbling or anything, but I felt like something wasn’t right, so I figured I would monitor it for the next week. But it started to swell and I couldn’t really run on it anymore.”
Lavallee then sought the help of his orthopedist, Boston Celtics surgeon Brian McKeon, at New England Baptist (Hospital) in Boston, and after getting an MRI on his knee, he learned that he had a partially torn meniscus.
McKeon performed a small microfracture surgery on his knee near the end of August, and while the flexibility and mobility came back quickly, “it took me two months before I could really walk upstairs without a cane,” added Lavallee. “I was in physical therapy until February. It was a nightmare.”
But in the spring, Lavallee received gel shot injections to his knee to lubricate the joint better, and “it wasn’t until July that I started really coming around. I heard that usually when you get a knee surgery, it takes about a year to come back, and I’ve been running 70 miles a week for the last three or four weeks and steadily improving.”
Anxious to give his knee a test in an actual road race, Lavallee didn’t have to look hard for one.
“I thought, ‘I belong here at The LLC Gym, (owner) Judy (Sullivan) has got a great group here, I’m a local teacher at Mount St. Charles, and I’m from the area,” he said with a smile. “(The decision) was a little tough because some of my New Balance Boston teammates were running in Providence in the CVS Downtown 5K, but I hadn’t raced since March 2012. Small steps to long strides.”
“But today was definitely pretty positive. I was able to come out here, the mobility was all there, I had no pain, and my weight distribution was fine, so now I can hopefully start hitting it hard. I have the energy and I’m feeling great. Hopefully, good things are ahead.”
Jillette finished the race in a 19:16 time, and crossing the finish line in a distant third place was Woonsocket’s Chris Hoard, the winner of last October’s Race Against Racism 5K at World War II Park. His time of 20:51 edged the next finisher, Cumberland’s Jamey Lagor, by four seconds.
The top female finisher was Brianna Lake, a junior on the Woonsocket High girls’ cross country team, who placed 25th overall in 23:59. Sophomore Elizabeth Ditomasso (32nd overall, 25:21) also represented the Novans’ squad well.
The proceeds from the race, which saw 259 participants sign up, but more than a quarter of them opting to stay home because of the light rain that fell, went toward the Woonsocket High School Athletic Department.
And Novans Pride was clearly on full display, with several teams, coaches, faculty members, and alumni taking part and a fair share of students completing the race in under 29 minutes and placing in the top 60.
Prinyavong Phongavon, a senior on the boys’ cross country team, took sixth in a 21:19 time, 13 seconds behind the fifth-place finisher, Bellingham’s Marc Pitts. Derek Levasseur, a sophomore on the football team, was a second behind Phongavon.
Kyle Alexander, a senior co-captain on the boys’ soccer team, finished ninth in 21:43, and Evan Bartholomy, a sophomore on the boys’ cross country squad, rounded out the top 10 finishers in 21:44.
Lavallee, who is quite familiar with the region’s road racing scene, was truly impressed with the job and the hard work The Gym LLC put forth to create a quality event, and he shared those feelings at the end of his post-race remarks.
“First-time races usually don’t go as smooth as (this race) did this morning,” he said. “The course is challenging, but it’s honest, and the roads are so wide. And Judy and the gym really did a great job. There were course markings, volunteers at the corners telling you which way to turn, and a really good environment. I’d give them an A-plus for a first-time race. There are some little things we could tweak here or there, but this wasn’t bad at all.”
Follow Eric Benevides on Twitter @EricBen24