For the second time in her life, Susie Gray Duke found herself at the top of the podium for winning the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon on Sunday, Oct. 20. The 39-year-old from rural Grinnell had previously won the race in 2014 and was hoping for a top-three finish this year. Her time of 1:19:54 not only accomplished that goal, it landed her on the podium as the only female finisher to break under 1:20:00.
Those who have followed the Duke’s story know the 1999 Lynnville-Sully grad has made quite the journey in the past few years. Back in March 2015, a few months after qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Duke experienced a herniated L5-S1 disc. During the several months it took to diagnose the injury, Duke experienced numb toes and excruciating back pain. The pain was so bad, it made walking and standing – let alone marathon training – nearly impossible.
Duke took a couple months off from running and then slowly started training again. In February 2016, she ran in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Team Trials in Los Angeles, CA. Also in 2016, she underwent surgery on her back, which she says is the “best thing” she could have done.
“It removed a lot of pain, and it helped my calf muscle to recover in that leg. It had atrophied because of the nerve damage when my disc herniated,” Duke said. “People usually try to avoid surgery at all cost, but for me, it was the right thing.”
Fast forward to today, and Duke said her back is “good for the most part,” though she does have permanent low-grade numbness in her right foot.
“That sounds bad, but I have just learned to deal with it, and it really doesn’t bother me like it used to,” she said.
Because her back is sensitive, Duke has had to train differently. At the recommendation of her husband, Jon, a physical therapist, Duke started cycling, which boosted her fitness big time this year. She’s made other changes to help her body, too. Although she doesn’t recommend this for others, Duke said she barely does any strength training.
“I have found that if I lift weights or even do body-weight exercises, I will injure myself every time,” she said. “Outside of running, I’m very active on our acreage, taking care of our animals doing chores. I get a lot of functional training in every day. One last thing that I’ve been careful about is to sleep more. I don’t take naps, but I go to bed early. Sleeping 9 or 10 hours regularly helps me recover more than anything.”
Since this time last year, Duke has been planning to run in the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon in November. She spent the spring and early summer building mileage. Starting in August, she ran 60 to 80 miles every week with 10 long runs of 20 miles or more.
“The first time I hit 70 miles, my back was sore,” Duke said. “I thought I’d found my threshold, and I didn’t think I’d make it to 80 miles, which was my max mileage goal. Then after a few days, I felt like I had recovered. Eventually I was able to add miles and ended up doing five weeks of 80 miles.”
Duke purposefully did not taper her training for the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon on Oct. 20. She ran 60 miles in the week leading up to it and did a 20-mile long run the weekend prior.
Duke described the morning of the half marathon as “hectic.” On the drive to Des Moines, they ended up taking a slower route to avoid stopped traffic on Interstate 80 between Newton and Colfax. That meant they arrived at the race 20 minutes later than planned and had less time to warm up. Duke said she has run at the IMT Des Moines races enough that it ended up being fine even with a frantic drive.
“Remarkably, the race went as I had planned it in my head,” Duke said.
She started the 13.1-mile race with a couple of other half-marathon women and could tell a tight pack of full-marathon women was right behind them. It felt too tight to Duke, and right at the first mile, one of the women went down hard after clipping someone’s heel. Thankfully, the rest of the race was uneventful compared to that.
“I ran most of it with a fellow Runablaze Iowa teammate,” Duke said. “We both surged several times but each time covered the other one’s move and stayed together.”
At mile 10, Duke could feel they were starting to slow, so she began making a gap between her and her teammate. Around that same time is when Duke’s legs started to feel “very tired and lifeless.”
“It definitely took quite a pep talk to keep me picking up my feet, but I was pleased with how I pushed through that discomfort,” she added.
After winning the race, Duke was able to celebrate with Jon and her parents, Robin and Nancy Gray of rural Searsboro. Robin didn’t just attend the race; he ran it, too, and was the fourth fastest in his category of males ages 70-74 with a half-marathon time of 2:00:10.
With the Des Moines half marathon win under her belt, Duke is now making goals and plans for her next race, the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. The race is set for Saturday, Nov. 9, and Duke’s goal is to finish it in under 2 hours and 45 minutes.
“That time would qualify me for the Olympic Trials Marathon in Atlanta at the end of next February,” she said. “Anything can happen, but my training and fitness points to that as a realistic goal.”