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Nell Rojas has always bet on herself and taken her own path. And the more she keeps doing it, the more it keeps paying off: She bet on herself at the 126th running of the Boston Marathon on April 18, where Rojas was once again the top American woman to reach the finish line. The 34-year-old from Boulder, Colorado, placed 10th in a new PR of 2:25:57. That cut 75 seconds off of the 2:27:12 PR she set when she took sixth in last fall’s 2021 Boston Marathon.
“I had such a turbulent build-up, I was honestly just happy that I finished and everything went so well,” Rojas told Women’s Running. “I was prepared to run a 2:45 marathon. That’s basically how I felt about my build-up. And then during the race, there was a point I thought, ‘I went out too fast and I’m going to have to drop.’ So I was just happy that everything went well in the end. As runners, we always want more, but I’m more of a mindset about taking steps in the right direction and keep on getting faster, keep on getting stronger.”
Just as she did last fall in Boston (and throughout the majority of her career) Rojas ran unattached, meaning she wasn’t tied to a sponsoring shoe brand. She had signed a professional contract with Adidas in early January, her first sponsorship deal, after more than three strong years of consistently being one of the top 10 distance runners in the U.S.
But then early last week, Rojas quietly decided to break that contract—an agreement that included getting dozens of pairs of shoes, a lot of running apparel, and an annual stipend believed to be in the $20,000–$40,000 range—because she strongly felt that the Adidas Adizero Adios Pro 2 carbon-plated racing shoes didn’t line up with her gait pattern as well as Nike’s Air Zoom Alphafly Next% and Vaporfly Next% 2 shoes.
Rojas ramped up her mileage last winter and wound up running more volume than ever before, including a max week of 124 miles in late February, but she said she never felt right in the top-tier Adidas shoes.
“I know that shoe is an amazing shoe, and I know world records have been set in it and marathon winners run in it, but for whatever reason it didn’t work for me and my stride,” she said. “I raced in it and didn’t have good results. I was having a hard time recovering and dug myself into a huge hole, and I think a lot of it was because of the shoe change earlier this year.”
Instead of wearing an Adidas racing kit, she wore an all-black racing kit (tank top, compression shorts, socks) and a pair of bright pink Nike Air Zoom Alphafly Next%. But she ran with the same determination that she’s exhibited in recent years, turning in another sterling race result and netting $5,500 in prize money for placing 10th.
Ironically, it’s the opposite of what some athletes were doing in 2018 and 2019, when Nike was the only brand that had shoes with carbon-fiber plate technology. Back then, a lot of athletes wore Nike shoes and covered up the logo to keep their sponsors happy, said Toni Reavis, a long-time running race announcer who commentated on the race with Deena Kastor for Boston’s WBZ-TV CBS affiliate.
“She wasn’t doing it as a vindictive point of view or a fit of pique,” Reavis said. “She had just said the shoes didn’t work for her and didn’t think she [could] be competitive wearing the other shoes. It worked out for her in one sense, because she ran very well. She was willing to take the hit. Now we’ll have to wait and see what’s next for her.”
Rojas was a good high school runner in Boulder who also played basketball, but then began to emerge as a high-level running talent at Northern Arizona University. In college, she was a three-time conference champion in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and also helped the Lumberjacks earn a pair of top-10 finishes in the NCAA Cross Country Championships.
But right out of college, Rojas shifted her focus to triathlon and later to obstacle course racing. She also opened her own gym and began training other young athletes for a variety of endurance sports through Rise Athletics. (In addition to running the Boston Marathon on Monday, 12 of the age-group runners she coaches also ran in the race.)
In that regard, she’s followed in the career footsteps of her coach and father, Ric Rojas, who has been a successful coach since he retired as an elite runner in the late 1980s. Her dad was among the first pro runners sponsored by Nike, won the very first Bolder Boulder 10K, and held the world record for the 15K in the early 1980s.
As much as she’s always loved to run, it wasn’t her only focus through her 20s. In fact, she didn’t run her first marathon until December 2018 when she was 31, but, even then, she had mostly entered the California International Marathon to get experience for a future Ironman triathlon. But after finishing seventh in that event (which was a U.S. championship race) and running a 2:31:23 to qualify for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, she shifted her focus entirely to running.
Rojas kept improving the next year with a victory and 2:28:06 PR at Grandma’s Marathon and then in early 2020 she turned in a solid race at the Houston Half Marathon (1:10:45). But there were still no sponsorship offers as she headed to the U.S. Olympic Trials in Atlanta the following month to compete against the top pros in the country. She placed ninth in 2:30:26, but then the pandemic hit and few brands were signing new runners at that point.
Fast-forward to last September, Rojas won the U.S. 10-mile championships (52:13) at the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run by out-kicking three-time track Olympian Jenny Simpson. That was part of her build-up for last fall’s Boston Marathon, where she ran another great race and lowered her PR to 2:27:12.
On Monday, running in what was arguably the deepest women’s Boston Marathon field ever assembled, in an event that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the race’s first official women’s division, Rojas wanted to once again finish as the top American while also chasing a new PR.
She was just a few seconds off the pace of the large lead pack through the 10K split (34:27) and kept running strong as the pace picked up and the front pack began to splinter. She stayed within herself as she ran through the halfway point (1:12:05) in 12th place, even though she was 2:24 behind leaders Peres Jepchirchir, Joyciline Jepkosgei, and Ababel Yeshaneh.
As always, the hilly Boston course took its toll on many runners later in the race, but not Rojas. She caught fellow American Molly Seidel near the 15-mile mark and then stayed within herself on the Newton Hills (miles 16–21).
“Right when they went around 5K, I was, like, I need to go with them, but then I realized really quickly that it was too fast for me so I backed off and then I was on my own for the rest of it,” Rojas said. “I was alone the whole time for the rest of the race. I was super, super, super nervous. I was worried I went out too fast. I was worried I was going to be caught by a group behind me, but it turns out there wasn’t a group. When I caught Molly, she cheered me on and then my whole mindset changed. I was like, ‘All right, let’s go!’ And then I felt good and I was really confident after that.”
At the top of the hills, Rojas dropped a 5:23 mile on the way down to the 22-mile mark and then did her best to maintain her rhythm to the finish, even though it was difficult. She closed the race with a 5:47 final mile down Boylston Street sporting a big smile on her face and fist-pumping her way to the finish line.
“I kept telling myself to be smooth, not to run too hard. I knew if I just ran it in, I would finish well,” she said. “I didn’t want to go too hard or [make] any stupid mistakes. I just wanted to be smooth and finish it. I was trying to use the downhills and keep up the pace.”
Rojas said she was grateful for the support from Adidas, both because it allowed her to work less and focus more on running, and also because it helped amplify her own platform. Her first request of Adidas was to help replace a friend’s running gear that was lost along with their home in Boulder County’s Marshall Fire. As part of her Boston run, Rojas is raising money for Black Girls Code, an organization that supports equal representation of young women of color in the tech sector.
Although her Adidas deal ended, her running career continues with more potential than ever before.
“You have to put the effort in and be consistent in training, and I was,” she said. “I looked back on my training logs and I knew I put the effort in, the miles in, the workouts in. And even though it hadn’t translated in my races (prior to Boston), the effort was there. That’s what’s important.”