I left my heart (and feet) in Richmond

Laura Welch was all set to run the New York City Marathon. Then Sandy struck. Now she, like a many others, have traveled south to RVA to take part in this weekend’s Richmond Marathon.

How do you fall in love with running over 26 miles? Marathoner Laura Welch’s answer: move to Richmond. Now, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction upon New York City, Welch has arrived in time to run the Richmond Marathon, returning to the place where her love of running began.

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Her chest heaving and her insides burning up, 18-year-old Laura Welch slowed to a walk in the middle of the 2003 Monument Avenue 10K. Eventually, Welch would run her first marathon in Richmond in 2009. In 2011, she ran the Boston Marathon. And in 2012, Welch used one of her best half-marathon times to qualify for the New York City Marathon. After Sandy wreaked its havoc on New York City last week, however, Welch was forced to change her plans.

Welch, a 27-year-old physical therapist, has lived in Richmond since she set foot on the VCU campus as an undergrad. She grew up with little interest in running for either sport or recreation. “I wasn’t very good at running. I wasn’t that fast. The thought of running cross country sounded awful,” Welch said.

After hearing the clamor of cheers as herds of 10K runners ran by her freshman dorm, Welch jumped into the 10K without an entry number, “a total no-no,” she said. That first race crushed her physically, but as she jogged past the beautiful mix of old houses in the Fan and around the scattering of city parks, Welch could feel a love affair with running coming over her. She would discover that such a love grows fast when running in Richmond.

Her first runs were mostly driven by a desire to get to know the area. She’s a former military brat with a penchant for a good challenge and exploring new surroundings. “Whenever I got to a new place, I wanted to learn about it,” she said. “Moving around a lot I think, you kind of gain a thirst for exploration.”

With every run, she discovered more of the city. She made note of her favorite running courses and scenic spots in the summer heat and in the light chill of fall. She found a strong community of runners in one of several training clubs throughout the city–athletes who, like Welch, are up at 6:00 AM running along the James River before work. She met fellow runners at the Road Runner Running Store in Carytown, where she worked for several years.

As an employee, she learned the basics: cotton is a poor choice for running apparel and picking the right shoe is a careful art. “And I learned about people.” Welch said. “Why people here do it, for fun, or to push themselves, or for whatever it may be.”

Before Hurricane Sandy, Welch felt ready for New York. She had just beaten her personal best with a time of 3:27 in the 2011 Boston Marathon (besting over 20,000 other participants in the process). As with her first race in Richmond, she decided to run in New York City mostly for kicks and for a new adventure. “I figured, well, if I can qualify for New York, then hell, I’ll run it.”

Welch had visited the city before, and was excited to run through all five of its boroughs before Sandy was more than a blip on anyone’s radar. After images of flooding and wreckage in the hurricane’s aftermath piled up on every news channel, Welch became less sure that now was the time to run the New York Marathon. Still, she had already tapered down her running in the days leading up to November 4th, packed her only ritual-ready meal of oatmeal, and upon hearing that the marathon would continue as planned, followed Sandy’s trail up to New York last Friday.

Like many of the thousands of marathoners who set out to the city with NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s go-ahead, she arrived to find most of the city still in the dark. Restaurants she hoped to try were closed, and many of the streets of New York remained quiet. News of the cancellation had yet to hit the expo, where runners from all over the world arrived to register and buy their 2012 Marathon t-shirts. Welch only discovered that the marathon was cancelled from a series of apologetic texts that had accumulated in her phone’s inbox, all along the lines of: “I heard they cancelled the marathon, I’m so sorry!”

“I couldn’t believe it,” Welch said. Slightly jarred by the idea of running through the city while families in hard-hit areas still struggled to put their lives back together, Welch felt a mix of bittersweet emotions: glad for what she found to be a respectful decision on the part of city administration, but still itching to run. “How can you not feel bad, when you’re standing around these destroyed houses?” Welch said. “I agree, we shouldn’t have run the marathon, but it would have been nice to know earlier.” 1

To fill the void that Sandy left behind, Welch signed up last minute for this year’s Richmond Marathon. Welch isn’t alone in this move: Runner’s World reports that the Richmond Marathon’s numbers spiked over last weekend, with 700 new runners registering after word broke of the New York Marathon’s cancellation, making this year’s race one of its largest in Richmond’s history.

Though Welch may be a week off in terms of physical preparation, she knows the marathon well. Starting on Broad Street, it goes along the Southside and the north, and through the Fan and along the James River. She knows Richmond’s hills and flat spots, and how the air will feel when she passes through it. Laura Welch’s heart (and feet) belong to this city.

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  1. New York City Marathon officials have yet to decide if its 2012 participants will be able to retain a spot in next year’s marathon without having to repay its $400 registration fee. 

photo by katielann12

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Suzanne Hodges

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