3 Pro Runners and the Fast Women Who Raised Them
For these mother-daughter duos, running fast is a family trait.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
The mother-daughter bond is unique because it varies in strength at different points in our lives. Add years of competition, and the dynamic can get intense. But for these three mother-daughter running teams, their relationships have not only endured the pressure, but grown stronger.
Daring to Show Up: Nell Rojas and Mary Dahlstrom
Before Nell Rojas considered herself a runner, she was riding her bike alongside her mom, Mary Dahlstrom, as she trained for her own races. And it was her mom who ran alongside Nell for her first Bolder Boulder 10K—a hometown race Nell is racing as a professional in a few weeks. “I’d throw tantrums and complain while my mom continued to encourage me,” recalls the 34-year-old.
Dahlstrom used a Runner’s World magazine training program to train for her first marathon in Honolulu in 1978. She’d started running to kick her habit of smoking. “I didn’t know anyone else training for a marathon, so I trained by myself,” says Dahlstrom, who eventually clocked a 1:32 half marathon at altitude.
It wasn’t long after she started routinely racing that she met Ric Rojas, Nell’s dad and coach and Dahlstrom’s former husband. During their first encounter at the neighborhood mailboxes, Dahlstrom recalls Ric telling her, “By the time you are 30, you’ll probably be able to run a good marathon.” She responded, “Well, I’m over 30 and I’ve already run a marathon.” Like her daughter, Dahlstrom has dared to put herself in positions where she hasn’t fully believed she belongs.
“I am the same,” says Nell, who became a professional runner after first racing professionally in triathlons and obstacle courses. “I show up at races against the best in the country not knowing if I belong there. But I do it anyways.” The past couple years, Nell has proved she, too, is one of the best distance runners in the country. In April, she finished first American female at the Boston Marathon for the second year in a row with PR of 2:25:57.
RELATED: American Original: Why Nell Rojas Broke Her Adidas Contract Right Before Placing 10th at Boston
Nell may not have made it to so many starting lines if her mother hadn’t stepped up to help her overcome bulimia in middle school. Dahlstrom worked tirelessly to create a support team for her daughter that included a nutritionist, psychologist, and doctor.
While her mother has been at nearly every event Nell has competed in, locally and nationally, she finds ways to help her daughter when she’s not there. She’ll run on her own at the same time Nell races and “channel Nell” or text Nell during her event, “Go, Go, Go!”
Nell now coaches her mom in triathlons, and one of her favorite memories was at an event where she ran backward alongside Dahlstrom for the final stretch, encouraging her to outsprint her “arch nemesis”—one of the only other women in the over-70 age group. “It brought me so much joy to see my mom so proud of herself,” says Nell.
The Drive: Liz and Eilish McColgan
In 1989, Scottish runner Liz McColgan-Nuttal won the Olympic silver medal in the 10,000 meters. The next year, when she became pregnant with her daughter, Eilish, Nike cut her contract. In 1991, only a year after Eilish was born, Liz won gold in the 10,000 meters at the World Championship. She went on to win the New York, Tokyo, and London marathons over the next five years.
“My mom is incredibly driven. I can see that quality throughout everything she does. She still runs every single day. She has a kids running group she started from scratch in Doha, Qatar, which now has over 100 kids from all over the world. She won’t ever leave a stone unturned. I saw that as a very young age,” says Eilish, now an Olympian herself. Her mother has coached her since the beginning of her career.
Despite her prolific success, Liz never showed any of her videotaped wins to her daughter to pressure her into performing. Instead of pushing her one direction, she encouraged Eilish to try different events including javelin, high jump, and sprint hurdles. “She wanted me to make my own choices. That’s why I love the sport and have continued in it for so long,” says Eilish. None of her four younger siblings run.
“I used to want to train more when I saw what other girls were doing, but my mom would say, ‘Tough. This is what you’re doing,’” says Eilish, who attributes this “sensibility” to her longevity in the sport. The two-time Olympian is also the Scottish record holder in the steeplechase, 5,000 meters, and 10-mile road race and a European outdoor silver and indoor bronze medalist. “I joined the running club when I was 12. I’m 31 now, and I love the sport more than ever. I wouldn’t have had that without my mom.”
RELATED: How Sport Sampling Can Unlock Your Running Potential
Like her mom, Eilish has endured surgeries that have compromised her running career. She currently has seven screws and a metal plate in her left foot. “As an adult I realize now that not everyone has that strong female role model to look up to. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a sounding board who’s been there and done it cleanly to give me advice,” says Eilish.
Taking Risks: The Scotts
It’s natural for mothers to fear their daughters taking big risks—especially ones that take them away from home. But two-time South African Olympian Dominique (Dom) Scott credits her mom, Renee, with her move as an 18-year-old to the U.S. to train. “I remember a day or two before leaving South Africa to fly to the States to start my journey at the University of Arkansas. I was terrified! I told my mom that I did not want to go,” says Dom, who started running for fun as a 7-year-old on the cross-country team her mother coached. “She told me that I owed it to myself to go. That I had worked too hard to earn this scholarship to not give myself the opportunity. She was right! I got on that plane, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.”
While Renee raced as a semi-professional runner (clocking 35:00 for the 10K), her greatest successes came in duathlon and triathlon. When she was pregnant with Dom, she placed 9th in the world duathlon championships and won the world age-group triathlon title when Dom was just a year old.
Four years before moving to America, Dom’s mom encouraged her to take her first geographic leap for the sake of her training. When Dom was 14, she entered her first track race—a 1500-meter event she raced in just under five minutes. “The joy on her young face during and after the race was priceless, something I will always remember,” says Renee. Upon discovering how much her daughter loved track, Renee sought out a coach.
“Twice a week after school and my other sports practices my mom would drive me to Stellenbosch, almost and hour a half each way, to train with Johan Fourie and his athletes. Spending [that long] in the car on top of very full days seemed like a huge commitment to my running journey at the time,” says the 29-year-old from Cape Town. Eventually Dom moved to Stellenbosch, and she credits training with Fourie as the first big step to making her dreams a reality.
Dom attributes her “no shortcuts” approach to training to watching her mom balance motherhood, teaching, coaching, and training. Renee Scott would wake up at 4 a.m. to get her training in before a full day of work.
“As a family, we never did put much emphasis on results, rather on the process of knowing that consistent effort will bring you the results you dream of. Results don’t define us. We are family first,” says Renee.
RELATED: Women Run the World: Dominique Scott and Going Beyond Her Comfort Zone