It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic shook up the lives and plans of many athletes, and pro runner Nell Rojas was no exception. After finishing ninth in the Olympic Marathon Trials, the Boulder native set her sights on targeting the 5,000- or 10,000-meter events at the U.S.Track and Field Trials, originally slated for June of last year. But when she became plagued with a hip injury that took months to diagnose, she quickly realized that a break from racing because of cancellations couldn’t have come at a better time.
Rojas, 33, knows how to roll with the punches when it comes to the physical and mental challenges of dealing with injuries and preparing for competition. After recovering from her injury, she was able to make a comeback this spring, qualifying for the trials in the 10,000 meters at the Sound Running Track Meet in Irvine, California, in May. Her time, 32:11, was well under the qualifying standard of 32:25.
Rojas grew up in a running family—her dad and coach is former professional runner and 1979 Bolder Boulder champion Ric Rojas. She walked onto the track and cross-country teams at the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, and after graduating, she competed as a professional triathlete before eventually shifting her focus to long-distance running. Rojas went on to win the 2019 Grandma’s Marathon, where she set her personal best of 2:28:09 in her second time racing the distance.
In addition to focusing on her own competitive pursuits, Rojas, alongside her dad, also coaches runners of varying levels both in her hometown of Boulder and around the country. She talked to Runner’s World about how this unpredictable year impacted her personally and professionally and how she was ultimately able to come out stronger and ready to race at her second Olympic Track and Field Trials this month.
Runner’s World: Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been an unusual year. How has it gone for you?
Nell Rojas: I basically spent the full year after the Marathon Trials with an undiagnosed injury that was causing the muscles in my pelvis to not function correctly. It almost felt like there was a cog that was out of place and I could barely do a push-up because things were so off. It ended up being a labral tear, which took almost the whole year to figure out. Luckily, I didn’t end up needing surgery; my physical therapist had me focus on strengthening my hip muscles, which, along with a cortisone shot, helped a ton. But I was still pretty tired because I’d been training through pain for a whole year.
How did you otherwise keep busy?
Because of my injuries, I was relieved that most races were canceled. I was supposed to run the 2020 Boston Marathon and be in the elite wave at the Bolder Boulder 10K [Rojas was the winner of the citizens race in 2019], and there was no way I was going to be ready to run those. So for me, it was a good time to be injured because I was able to deal with my injuries pretty healthily. I think a lot of people can relate to that, with the pandemic helping them to slow down and not overwork themselves.
I was also able to focus on coaching, though that was also a challenge because many of my athletes quit their training once there were no races to train for. Like many people, I lost a lot of money and had to get creative and find new opportunities for myself. I ended up doing some studying and research to improve my coaching services, offering Zoom indoor and outdoor strength-training sessions, as well as selling PDFs of my strength training guides and a full at-home strength training program for runners.
What have been some of the biggest benefits of working with your dad as your coach?
Working with my dad has helped me be able to show up and train hard consistently by cycling mileage and intensity over a long period of time and only having to take a planned two-week break once or twice per year. I trust him and I know I can be honest with him. He also knows not only my physical profile very well, but also my mental profile, so he pushes me when I need to be pushed and pulls me back when I need to be pulled back. Sometimes some of the athletes we coach will join me for workouts, but I mostly train alone, so it also helps tremendously if my dad is there on the track, or on a bike or in the car next to me, timing me and supporting me.
Last year, you said the marathon trials race was the first time you felt like you really belonged in that front pack of women. Are you feeling excited and motivated to be lining up with such a stacked field again for the 10,000?
Mentally believing in myself through winning some races, being able to compete with girls I never thought I could, and having some great workouts have been the biggest game-changers for me over the last couple of years. I’m feeling like my races just fell into place and my running came together right at the last minute this year. I’m so happy and grateful to be a part of the Trials and to be healthy and running well again. I’d also love to hit the Olympic standard at the race, and I know if I believe I belong there, then I can run well and with that front pack.
What’s your reaction to the 10,000 meters being run in a two-section final, and how do you feel about the decision?
I don’t think many people are going to be too happy about it. There were 40 women in the 10,000-meter race I ran in Irvine and I don’t think it really affected the leaders because they were so far ahead. It wouldn’t be like people would be lapping others like crazy in a 10K, so I would think it would have been okay with 50 women. Right now I’m ranked 15th, which means I should be in the faster section, but qualifiers from the 10,000 at the Portland Track Festival [which took place May 28] could potentially push me out of it, which would leave me feeling pretty upset if I’m in the slower section. I think it would ultimately be okay, but we’d have to go out hard in both sections.
You’ve posted videos of yourself on Instagram telling your reflection in the mirror “you’re a beast” before your races. Do you have any other prerace rituals?
Yes, I always do that one, and as well as the “power pose” where you put your fist in the air. I do a lot of self-affirmation, telling myself that I can run with and compete with these girls. I also write a lot of this down and do a lot of visualizing of how I want my race to go. I do a lot of similar things with the athletes I coach, encouraging self-affirmation, going through their training logs and looking at all of the positive things they’ve done and the work they’re put into their training cycles.
A few months after the Marathon Trials, you said you still hope to be fully sponsored one day. In the past year, we’ve seen some interesting shifts in sponsorship models, with some athletes making some non-traditional moves to different companies. Has this affected your mindset about what you might want for yourself in a future sponsorship opportunity?
Yes, absolutely. I think companies aren't going to be able to get away with treating athletes poorly anymore. It's going to be all very public, and if something happens, people will hear about it now. It’s definitely more of a priority now to represent someone you really believe in, that is going to have your back and will want the best for you.
Looking forward, what are your goals beyond the Trials and this Olympic cycle? Do you have any fall races planned or any other goals you’d want to share?
I am planning to race a fall marathon, though I’m not allowed to announce which one yet. But I’m really excited about it, because I think all of the speedwork I’ve done this year will translate well to my marathon.The marathon is definitely where I have the most upside and where I can do the best. But I also think it’s important for marathoners to focus on those shorter, fast races, so I’d love to explore that more and get more competitive on the track as well.