Take one look at Griffin Knipp as he crosses the finish line, and it’s easy to mistake the 17-year-old as a natural-born runner.
He runs long. He runs fast. He wins races. Most recently he conquered his first ultramarathon, finishing just outside the Top 100 — and as second male in the 19U age group — at the renowned JFK 50 Mile with a time of 8:44:47.
Knipp makes running look simple, but he sweats, bleeds, and cries just like the rest of us. Truth be told, he probably endures more to reach that finish line more than most could handle, or even imagine. Knipp calls himself a runner, but his journey has largely been a gauntlet of hurdles.
“This means so much more to me, knowing how hard I’ve had to work and how hard I’ve had to push myself to get here,” said Knipp, who was the No. 1 runner for the Williamsport (Md.) cross country squad this fall. “I can’t say I was biologically built like a runner. If you told 13-year-old me that I’d run the JFK 50, I would not believe an ounce of that.
“I didn’t like running, didn’t think it was fun, and didn’t think it was an exciting sport. I was very overweight and in no shape to run any distance.”
It was an eighth-grade checkup at the doctor’s office, and a desire to “start fresh” after a family move from Ohio to Maryland, that served as the turning point for Knipp four years ago. Obese, prediabetic, and sedentary, Knipp was told to lose 20 pounds that summer.
Scared straight by the stark reality of his situation, Knipp embraced running, even if he was only able to run a half-mile at a time.
“I was very terrified at the fact that diabetes could change my life,” Knipp said. “I guess you could say I was a stubborn teenager and refused to let that happen, so I got to work and started my running career.”
Knipp adjusted his diet to salads and healthy wraps, making sure to include protein on his plate, and worked out like a madman. Those half-mile runs soon became two-mile runs, which soon became 5Ks, which soon became long-distance runs.
“At first it was 10 pounds, then it was 20 pounds, then 30,” Knipp said. “I think that the reason I’m so driven now is because I’ve proven to myself that I can face adversity.”
Knipp’s weight loss total reached 60 pounds by the fall. He was in love with running by this point and took his relationship with the sport to the next level by signing up for the high school cross country team.
Knipp continued to grow as a beginning runner, but it wasn’t long before he faced his next hurdle: Gastroparesis.
“I had a hard time properly digesting food and just dealing with a lot of discomfort and pain,” Knipp said. “As a runner you have to have a lot of fuel, and to not eat food I would normally eat, it’s really hard to make progress in running if you’re not gaining enough calories.”
It was a struggle, but Knipp made the adjustments and once again overcame the challenge in front of him, and continued his climb up the Williamsport depth chart. In 2019, Knipp was the team’s No. 6 runner and assisted his squad to the Maryland 1A state title.
Knipp — who loves the mantra that hard work beats talent — soon found himself looking up at another medical mountain to traverse, this time in the form of vocal chord dysfunction.
“It was right before states that I went to the doctor because I was getting dizzy, my arms were going numb, and it took me an hour to get my breath back,” Knipp said. “It was vocal chord dysfunction, an uneven pattern of vocal chords contracting and decontracting. It was hard to get a full breath.”
Again, Knipp had to make adjustments. His pre-race ritual now includes humming, massaging the muscle underneath his chin, and occasionally taking a cough drop. During races, he has to put extreme caution into his breathing pattern.
Knipp’s stock continued to rise. He became Williamsport’s No. 1 runner and even won two races this fall, but was once again dealt a blow as coronavirus forced the cancelation of the cross country postseason. It was disappointing for Knipp to have his opportunity taken from him, but he responded with a power move.
With just six days notice, Knipp registered for the JFK 50, known for being America’s oldest ultramarathon. His longest run, to this point, was 18 miles. In some ways, Knipp was underprepared, but in many other ways, he was more ready than ever.
“I was a little unsure at first, but when I saw that start line, it just got my heart going,” Knipp said. “I was excited to do this. In my gut, I felt that I was going to finish this race no matter what.”
Running alongside fellow teen Luke Manning from Waynesboro, Knipp took the full beating that comes with running an ultra. His darkest moment in the race came at the 27-mile mark, when a change to a lighter shoe led to severe discomfort in his feet, to the point where every every piece of gravel he stepped on was accompanied by an excruciating grimace. He got re-fitted with 12 miles to go and worked with Manning to power to the finish line.
The gravity of it all hit Knipp as he crossed the finish line. He was smiling and crying. After four years of overcoming, Knipp had finally proven to himself that there’s no challenge he can’t conquer.
“I had to keep it on the down-low when I registered because I didn’t want people to tell me that I can’t run this race or that I shouldn’t,” Knipp said. “It means a lot to me knowing that this body, with the medical conditions that make running more difficult, can hold on for so long and push for 50 miles. This means everything for my confidence.”
Knipp blends in so well with the running crowd these days, but says he relates just as much to the people who are struggling through life with weight problems and health issues. He knows all too well the pain of being bullied from his pre-high school years, and the crushing impact of a diagnosis in the years to follow.
Knipp’s advice to those folks: Push forward.
“My best advice is that everything is going to take time, but will be 100 percent worth it,” Knipp said. “Everything I’ve accomplished in my life has taken time and dedication to get done.
“The best things in life are those worth waiting for.”
Several Turkey Trots pushed forward
While many Thanksgiving Day races across the region flipped the switch from live to virtual, race directors in Franklin and Washington counties pushed forward with three Turkey Trots that pulled in 540 runners.
The Greencastle Turkey Trot 5K featured the largest race field at 209 runners, none faster than Smithsburg’s Jonah Smith, who broke the tape in 16:41 to defeat Fort Loudon’s Adam Cromwell (16:55) and Chambersburg’s Ben Colli (17:52). The top female was Alecia Rotz, from Chambersburg, who clocked a 20:41.
Other standout runners from the race were Greencastle’s Danny Miller (18:09), Jarrett Gelsinger (18:58), Aidan Blankenship (21:10), and Joe Trace (21:11), Chambersburg’s Billy Prentice (18:37), Jonathan Rotz (19:47), Rachel Lilley (20:51), Tim Wertner (21:01), and David Dymond (21:27), Hagerstown’s Ethan Downie (19:15), Will Marquiss (19:37), and Landon Downie (20:45), Mercersburg’s Cole Smith (19:55), Waynesboro’s Noah Bockstie (20:24), Hayden Oldham (20:49), and Jayden Rooney (21:08), and Lurgan’s Alexis Boyd (21:52).
In Hagerstown, the HCC Turkey Trot 5K featured the fastest time in the area, with Walter Sellers of Kernersville, N.C. dashing to victory in 16:26 over Hagerstown’s Iggy Chalker (16:44). There was no shortage of speedy times as evidenced by strong efforts from Boonsboro’s Henry Schmidt (17:18), Hagerstown’s Dharma Bhatt (18:41), Charlie Koeneke (19:11), Ian Pullens (19:26), Jana Fridrichova (19:55), Walker Mason (20:34), Cheryl Scholl (20:42), Renby Fernald (21:22), and Ryan Flint (22:06), Williamsport’s Van Knipp (18:53), Griffin Knipp (20:00), and Julianna Brawner (21:48), and Smithsburg’s Cameron Rejonis (21:36).
The Shippensburg Turkey Trot featured the area’s youngest winner, as Chambersburg 14-year-old Ari Snyder posted a 17:28 to claim victory over Carlisle’s Isaac Kole (17:49) and Ship’s Kyle Buchheister (17:57). Chambersburg’s Madeline Kinton (20:17) and Ship’s Christina Herman (20:59) finished as the second and third females. Other top times from the race were produced by Ship’s Todd Melisauskas (18:43), Jonathan Marshall (18:44), John Weber (19:36), Harrison Hipple (20:16), and Bryson Meczywor (21:01), Chambersburg’s James Kinton (20:33) and Hank Stouffer (21:32), McConnellsburg’s Eldon Martin (21:28), and Fayetteville’s Olivia Rieck (21:32).
Another popular race put on by the Chambersburg Road Runners Club, the Christmas Cash Dash 5K/10K, had some blazing times to complement its random cash giveaways. The 10K saw Waynesboro’s Kyle Phillips blast off to victory in 33:41 over Chambersburg’s Nikki Martin (36:44) and Bill Dann (39:00). Other top runners from the race included Chambersburg’s Jen Timmons (43:12), James Kinton (43:57), Madeline Kinton (44:34), Jordan Statler (47:56), Jeremy Hawk (48:52), Stan Vaughn (48:53), and Steve Vanscyoc (49:56), Fort Loudon’s Dennis Reamer (48:31), Waynesboro’s Jeffrey Hein (49:58), and Mont Alto’s Angie Fuss (51:32).
The top local at the Cash Dash 5K was Chambersburg’s Nick Monheim, who burned to a fourth-place finish in 17:17. Sarah Mann, of Hancock (Md.), finished as top female in 19:15, while other standouts included Hagerstown’s Will Marquiss (19:29), Walker Mason (20:48), and Dani Mason (22:13), Chambersburg’s Chris Monheim (19:39) and David Dymond (21:40), and Waynesboro’s Noah Bockstie (20:43) and Cora Helman (24:26).
The Virtual WCPS Employee 5K included sharp efforts from Smithsburg’s Rob Hovermale (19:31), Sharpsburg’s Christopher Young (19:57), Chambersburg’s Jon Scovell (19:59), and Hagerstown’s Todd Geiman (21:01) and George Gildersleeve (21:05).
A number of other area runners competed in races across the region, including Chambersburg’s Jim Boyer (18:28 at virtual Millersville Turkey Trot 5K) and Christine Metcalfe (32 miles in 9:07:17 at Labor Pain 10 Hour Endurance Trail Run), Hagerstown’s Doris Boyer (45:46 at Thanksgiving Day 5K Sherando) and John Coker (53:35 at Thanksgiving Day 5K Sherando), Fayetteville’s Christine Trent (58:30 at East Berlin Turkey Trot 5K) and Joey Trent (58:33 at East Berlin Turkey Trot 5K), and Shippensburg’s Stephanie McKee (1:00:15 at Carlisle YMCA Virtual 5K).
Upcoming races in the area
C4K Jingle Bell 5K: Friday-Monday, in Waynesboro, Virtual. This race, which benefits a seventh-grade student at WAMS battling cancer, recently made the flip to virtual. Registration for the race can be found on wasd.k12.pa.us.
Pottstown Half Marathon: Sunday, in Pottstown, Virtual. Log the miles for this race on your favorite home route. A portion of proceeds benefit Schuylkill Valley Greenways. Find the race on runningintheusa.com.
Santa Run 5K/10K: Friday-Monday, in Frederick (Md.), Virtual. Run this virtual race to not only earn a race t-shirt and medal, but also to benefit individuals with Parkinson’s Disease through YMCA programs. Find more info at runningintheusa.com.
Andy Sandrik writes about running for the USA Today Network Pennsylvania. Reach him at [email protected]