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In her tune-up for the 2021 Boston Marathon, 2:28 marathoner Nell Rojas found herself in an unexpected and scary position: winning the USATF 10 Mile Championship. The race, which happened on Sunday in Washington, D.C. at the Cherry Blossom 10 Mile Run, came down to Rojas and 1500-meter star Jenny Simpson.
Outkicking Simpson, someone Rojas admires, was scary. She knew she could do it physically, but had to talk herself into going for it. “This is it,” she told herself before pulling away from the front group in the last 400 meters. She ended up winning in 52:13 to Simpson’s 52:16. Kenyan runner Antonina Kwambai came in third in 52:23.
Because of her win, Rojas, 33, will have the opportunity to compete in the 2022 World Half Marathon Championship in China next March. “I’m super excited for that,” she says.
After snagging her first national title, Rojas is hopeful that she can make the Olympic Team in 2024. At the 2020 Marathon Team Trials, she broke the top 10 in 2:30.26. She plans to continue to train for marathons leading up to the 2024 Trials and, eventually, wants to run the New York City Marathon.
Women’s Running: First off, how did that win feel?
Nell Rojas: It felt good. I’m still wrapping my head around it and kind of trying to figure out what the next step is, I guess?
WR: What was going through your head in the last half mile or so when you started to pull away from the pack?
NR: The last time I was in this sort of position at a bigger race, with really prestigious people around me was [the 2019 Falmouth Road Race]. And, you know, kind of what was going through my mind was like, ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ It’s kind of a really scary place to be. Because for some reason winning is scary. And losing is scary. But in some situations winning is almost scarier, you know, because it’s uncomfortable. Like, you’ve never been there, you’re not sure if you belong there.
So I kept on having to tell myself, ‘You can absolutely do this.’ And then, you know, my subconscious would be like, ‘No, no.’ And then I have to be like, ‘Go for it. This is what you practice. You know, a couple days a week during workouts, like this is it.’ And I knew I had it in me. I knew I physically had it in me. I knew I felt good. I knew I had a kick. I knew I just had to relax and focus on the finish line instead of freaking out and tightening up.
WR: Would you say it was more of a mental push at the end?
NR: Absolutely. It was just like a decision I had to make—whether I was going to go for it or not.
WR: And obviously it paid off.
NR: Yeah, it did.
WR: What was training like leading up to the race and in general during the pandemic?
NR: You know, I ran the 10K Trials in June. For me, that was very different. Faster. I hadn’t raced on the track since college, so it was very different. It gave me the opportunity to just focus on my speed, because I know I have the endurance and I didn’t have any endurance races. So I focused on my speed, got on the track a little bit, was able to kind of back off and figure some biomechanical things out.
WR: Next month you’re running the Boston Marathon. Are you excited to get back to that distance?
NR: I’m super excited. I actually did a half marathon a couple weeks ago, a low-key one, but this past race was like the first big road race I’d done since the pandemic, and it just felt so much more like home and so much better. So, yeah, I’m super excited to get back to marathons.
WR: What will be your focus in training for the next month?
NR: The next month is basically tuning up. I have one more hard long run, which will be next weekend. Then three weeks to go—I’m trying to find a 10K race the weekend after that. But basically, you know, marathon specific stuff: Some speed work and just making sure I get there healthy and ready to go.
WR: Was the 10 miler meant to be a tune-up race for you?
NR: Yeah, just a tune-up really. We always do, or we try to do, a half marathon four to six weeks out before each marathon for a really good hard effort. Like a workout. And then like a confidence booster. It’s also just to kind of see where you are. So that was the point of this last race. And this past race my goal was to practice covering moves when they were made and going with the pack no matter what happened, and all of those things were executed.
WR: No kidding. Especially when you had Jenny Simpson right there on your heels.
NR: Yeah, it was pretty scary.
WR: Why was that as scary as it was?
NR: I was super excited to race Jenny when I heard she was running the 10 mile. I was like, ‘Oh man, I’ve never gotten to race her before. This will be awesome.’ You know, I’ve looked up to her for a long time. She’s been in Boulder for a long time and I’m from Boulder. So she’s always been on my radar. But, you know, everyone going into it was like, ‘Don’t let it come to a kick between you and Jenny.’ And you can’t really help what happens in a race.
But with about a mile to go, it was me and Jenny, basically. And then at 1200 meters, you know, her coach Heather [Burroughs] was yelling at her, ‘You’re the best 1200 meter runner out here.’ And I’m like, yeah, she is. But in my mind, I was like, ‘But not before running nine miles before that.’ I knew she was working a little bit harder than me. So I was just hoping that her legs were super fatigued and she had nothing left. And with 1200 to go, we kind of broke off. And then 800 to go, I was like, ‘OK, it’s now or never.’ She really just didn’t go with me. And I just kept on looking back. And she just didn’t go. I was running scared for sure.
WR: Do you have a goal in mind for the Boston Marathon?
NR: My goal would be to be first American. There’s tons of really, really fast Africans running. I’d like to be in the top five. But, you know, if nothing else, I’d like to be first American.