How Putting Trust in Her Body Has Kept Nell Rojas in the Game
At 34 years old, Nell Rojas is faster than ever—and she's only getting started. After top-ten finishes in two consecutive Boston Marathons, Rojas reflects on how she got here and what's next.
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“Less is more,” the old adage goes, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an elite distance runner who easily subscribes to that school of thought.
But after finishing as the top American at both the fall 2021 and spring 2022 Boston Marathons and overcoming a recent bout with the coronavirus, Nell Rojas is at least trying to become a believer.
After a sixth-place, 2:27:12 performance at last fall’s Boston Marathon catapulted her atop the U.S. rankings, the 34-year-old Boulder, Colorado native was eager to take her training to the next level. She hit a point of diminishing returns in logging 120-mile weeks, but she was able to dial it back and finish as top American yet again at the spring Boston, clocking a personal best of 2:25:57 for tenth place overall.
“I didn’t have a good workout for four weeks before Boston and it was terrifying,” she says. “My legs were just trashed. I was going too hard.”
Here’s how Rojas has made her way to the lead pack of the nation’s top women marathoners over the past few years, and how she rebounded after feeling burnt out in the weeks before the 2022 Boston Marathon—a lesson she had to relearn again while recovering from COVID-19 this summer.
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From Conservative Start to ‘All in on the Marathon’
The Northern Arizona University alum has steadily increased mileage and cut back on weight lifting as she’s gotten more serious about training for each of her five marathons, but it was a challenge to find the perfect balance for her last marathon.
In her debut at the 2018 California International Marathon, Rojas wasn’t yet training very seriously for the distance. She averaged about 65 miles per week while lifting “very, very heavy” in the gym five days per week, with the ultimate goal of competing in Ironman triathlons. But when she placed seventh overall at CIM in 2:31:23, she realized she had a lot of potential in the marathon distance and placed her professional triathlete dreams on permanent hold. Her father, Ric Rojas, a former professional runner himself, kept her on a conservative training plan to avoid burnout.
Despite the minimal load, her seventh place run in 2:31 was well past the Olympic A qualifying time. She realized she had a lot of untapped potential in the 26.2-mile distance.
“I loved it and I knew I can absolutely go faster, so from there I was all in on the marathon,” she says.
Gradually Increase Mileage, But Prioritize Feeling Good
Rojas upped her volume to 75 miles per week for the 2019 Grandma’s Marathon, which she won in 2:28:06. For her third marathon, the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, Rojas says she cut her strength routine in half and averaged 85 miles per week to place ninth in 2:30:36. For her Boston Marathon races, she increased her average mileage to 100 and then 115 to 120 miles per week.
“You can up your mileage every year, but you have to still be able to recover to feel good and get a quality workout in,” she says. “If you’re A: not recovering or having good workouts, or B: you’re getting injured or niggles, usually what happens is you’ll have to or be forced to skip a run or a workout because you’re too tired or you can’t complete a workout.”
Rojas ideally likes to sync up her heavy weight training days with her workout days. But in this past buildup, she was often too fatigued from marathon-specific workouts to get to the gym on the same day.
“This Boston, I was super fatigued,” she says. “I was running more mileage, so I was only in the gym two days a week.”
Rojas realized her legs were starting to feel too fatigued. Trusting her body, she started tapering four weeks before the race—logging 62 and 74 miles the last two weeks before Boston, a significant drop-off from her peak of 124 miles.
One of her go-to indicator workouts a few weeks out from the marathon is a 22-mile long run with 20 miles of work: five miles easy, five at goal marathon pace, five easy, five harder than marathon pace to close. Before the fall Boston Marathon, she averaged 5:15 for the final segment—at altitude.
She knew she wasn’t in that shape when she returned to the workout ahead of the spring marathon. Instead of forcing the pace, she started out more conservatively around 5:40, which allowed her to still close in a 5:15.
“I knew where I was,” she says of adjusting her pace.
Looking back now, Rojas says she will probably still try to top out at 120 miles a week in her next marathon build, but with a “down week” of lower volume every three weeks to give her legs a better chance to recover.
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Use Positive Self Talk
Although the buildup wasn’t as confidence-boosting as she had hoped, Rojas told herself that there was still a chance that she could pull off a great race if she was able to recover properly before the Boston Marathon. Afterall, she had put in the miles and effort.
“I was so unsure of how the race was gonna feel and how it was gonna go, I just wanted to cross the finish line and have a decent day,” she says.
But race day didn’t bring much relief, despite the extended taper. Rojas reminded herself that she had been there before, finished as the top American, and had put the necessary work in to have a successful race.
“I did not feel much better [on race day],” she says. “My legs immediately were burning pretty good. I was honestly very surprised how I was able to withstand that [and place tenth].
It certainly helped that she had raced the tough Boston course just six months prior. In the interim, she had incorporated hillier courses and, specifically, more downhill running into her tempo and interval runs.
“I definitely felt better prepared,” she says. “Part of that was just doing it six months earlier. My body was like, ‘OK, we know this, we’ve done this.’”
‘Less is Way More’
Reflecting back now on her tenth-place finish at the spring Boston, Rojas feels lucky that she had the foresight to take some downtime in the weeks before the race.
“I think I pulled it off OK, but I think it could have been a disaster,” she says.
Rojas struggled to get into a consistent training routine again after the April race. It didn’t help when she contracted the coronavirus early in the summer and tried to train through it. Instead of just taking a few days completely off, she ran easy then tried to jump right back into workouts and long runs, which left her at a deficit.
“There’s really only one way to handle that, you don’t really have a choice,” she says of taking time off from running while having Covid.
Now that she’s conquered the virus, she has a few more road races lined up for the end of summer before starting a big build for a fall marathon, including Beach to Beacon 10K on August 6 in Cape Elizabeth, Maine and the USATF 20K Championships on Sept. 5 in New Haven, Connecticut.
“I’m just trying to come back slow and keep my fall marathon in mind and be patient with it,” she says. “I think the most important part is not overdoing it. Less is way more.”