Roberta Groner named her self-created marathon on Saturday the Rust Buster and that’s exactly what it turned out to be for the 43-year-old full-time nurse and mom of three teenage boys.
Like many runners, Groner spent 2020 a little aimless as far as training and racing were concerned. So she collaborated with two friends—one who certifies courses for U.S.A. Track & Field and another who owns a race timing company—to plan and execute a marathon in Saddle River Park, New Jersey, near her home. They lined up a few pacers and fellow racers, a total of 16 people in all, to compete.
Groner wanted to see how close she could get to the American record for the 40–45 age group, currently 2:27:47, held by Deena Kastor, the 2004 Olympic bronze medalist and overall American record holder for the distance (2:19:36). Groner ran into some fueling problems along the way, however, unable to tolerate her gels and finished in 2:34:35.
The point of the race wasn’t necessarily the result, but to get herself back into the groove of marathon training, see if some tweaks to her program are paying off, and find out what more she needs to do in order to go for that record at a fall marathon (though she can’t say for sure, she hints that it might be on October 10 in Chicago).
“After COVID hit and the Pittsburgh Marathon was canceled, I thought it was time to hit reset, because I was going, going, going. I was probably at the brink of injury,” Groner says. “Then I went away at Christmas time with my boyfriend and we had a really long talk about running and where I wanted to be this year. It motivated me to start training—and I had to have a goal.”
She also admits that it was time to contend with some demons that remained since the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, where Groner went for broke by sticking to the lead pack for the first half, but ended up dropping out after 15 miles. Given her age, she believed it was probably her last chance to really contend for an Olympic team.
“It was do-or-die almost. Just go for it. I thought I might flame out, which I did, but I wasn’t there to try to place in the top 20. I was there to go for it and it didn’t work out for me,” Groner says. “Then like a week later, COVID hit. I had to sit with something that wasn’t a success, which is something I’m not so used to, because every race had been a success for me before that.”
Her progression in the four years leading up to the Trials has been inspirational to many women entering masters years who fear that the days of seeing improvement might be over. Groner started out with the modest goal of merely qualifying for the Trials with a “B” standard of 2:45. But the more she competed, the faster she got, eventually finishing the 2019 Amsterdam Marathon in 2:29:06. She was also selected to compete for Team USA at the 2019 world championships in Doha, where she placed sixth, the first American.
Under the guidance of Steve Magness, who coaches at the University of Houston as well as a handful of other professional athletes, Groner decided that 2021 was a year to experiment with diet, commit more to strength training, and see if such changes, on top of her 100-mile weeks, could lead her to the age-group record. The Rust Buster was a way to gauge how it was paying off before lining up in the fall with the pressure of a specific time goal (had she finished in record-setting time on Saturday it would not have counted because drug testers were not present).
In January, Groner began eating a plant-based diet, cut down on processed foods (even baking her own bread), and reduced the amount of alcohol she consumes to almost nothing (though she notes that she wasn’t drinking that much to begin with).
“I’m trying mainly to eat more natural foods. I feel like diet has really helped,” she says. “I feel strong and healthy—I wanted to see how it went while I was training seriously.”
And, of course, Groner has a full life outside of training and competing as a national-class distance runner. She parents her sons, ages 14, 15, and 17, and is a full-time nurse office supervisor at a primary care practice during a pandemic. The workouts and 100 miles each week fit in between those priorities.
“I wasn’t in the hospital setting during the past year, but work did change drastically in March 2020, especially because New Jersey was getting hit hard,” Groner says. “We’re getting all the phone calls from patients because they trust us, asking where to go, what to do. It was very stressful. Now the questions are more about vaccines. I have good friends that were working in hospitals, though, and seeing COVID every day. God bless them for doing that.”
As her oldest son gets ready to graduate from high school, Groner also realizes how important it is to spend time as a family. She planned a spring break trip touring the national parks of the southwest, including Bryce, Zion, and the Grand Canyon. Somehow she still got her training done three weeks out from the Rust Buster while going on some strenuous hikes with her teens. She admits that she cut out any speed sessions while on the vacation, though.
“It was amazing. We got to hike and bike. It was crazy—I was completely exhausted after walking and hiking 60 extra miles that week,” she says. “Things change once your kids graduate, so I wanted to take the opportunity to do it when I could with them.”
Does Groner still have her fastest marathon left in her legs? She’s planning to find out in the fall and it’s likely that many 40something women are pulling for her. She’ll have to average faster than 5:38 per mile to do it.
“My body still bounces back from runs relatively easily, but the one thing that has changed is that I used to be able to jump out of bed and in 15 minutes be ready to go do a workout,” she says, laughing. “Now I need an hour and a coffee—I’ve turned into my mother. I just pay attention more, but my body isn’t breaking down and I don’t need more recovery time yet.”