The greatest road race in the world, the New York City Marathon is on Sunday, and the women’s field is absolutely stellar. For a full preview of all the action, stay tuned and subscribe to the CITIUS MAG newsletter. But one of the athletes I am most interested in following is Nell Rojas, whose career story and trajectory are nothing short of inspiring. After finishing sixth at the 2021 Boston Marathon, Rojas followed it up with a new personal best of 2:25:57 at the 2022 edition. I caught up with her ahead of this weekend’s race.
THE LAP COUNT: How are things? Does your body know it has to run a marathon on Sunday?
NELL ROJAS: Probably about the same as things are for you! My body is just sandbagging right now. Every marathon you feel so different.
THE LAP COUNT: I feel amazing some days and then today I was just like, “What’s going on?” I hope I don’t feel that way Sunday! My mileage has been low so I’m not even tapering that hard.
NELL ROJAS: Honestly, that was my approach for my first marathon and it went really well.
THE LAP COUNT: How does that compare to your approach now? I hope the preparation has gone as planned.
NELL ROJAS: This will be my sixth marathon and every time I add a bit of mileage. I used to be more like you. In my first one, I didn’t hit the Olympic standard, but I probably averaged 65 miles a week and trained more like a 10k runner. And now I’m doing 22- to 24-mile long runs and workouts are longer — it’s more of a classic marathon approach. My coach trusts that I can handle it. In this build, I was running 115 every other week, but I basically raced every other week and those were about 90. So it was 115-90-115-90-115-90 the whole time.
I was talking with my boyfriend last night because my legs are not ready yet, they still need this week. And he was saying how hard it is to just show up at 100% with the amount of stress we are putting on our bodies. But last year I was destroyed beforehand. And the one before I was very sick. And the one before that my pelvis had me barely running. But right now, I’m very healthy! It was a good build.
THE LAP COUNT: That’s the perk of having done a number of marathons by now.
NELL ROJAS: But you still never know. When I look back at my training log, I’m doing some things better, but not everything, you know? I can’t even say better or worse, it’s just always different.
THE LAP COUNT: You’ve had success in Boston, but this is your first time running New York. What is some of the advice that you’ve received? I’m asking everyone!
NELL ROJAS: I remember when I was in your position and I hadn’t run a marathon and I was literally talking to people off the street. The best advice I can give anyone or have received is to run your own race otherwise you are running someone else’s.
Run within yourself and stay conservative in the first half and finish strong. And that’s it. That’s what you see time and time again if you look at the winner’s splits. They’re going to negative split by two or three minutes.
THE LAP COUNT: That’s what I’ve been saying! Everyone has this idea in their head that it’s impossible to close hard, but I keep thinking the best people do it. So why not just run like the winners rather than holding on for dear life?
NELL ROJAS: The best people do it. And as a coach of many athletes, you will run your best race if you close hard. Put yourself in a position to have a great second half.
THE LAP COUNT: This field is very good! Lots of sub-2:20 women and others who are capable of it. Do you go into the race with the plan to feel it out and see how things unfold? Or do you have a pace in mind and just ignore what others are doing?
NELL ROJAS: It’s a combination of everything. You have to make these intuitive decisions while you’re out there. I don’t have an exact pace but looking at the results from the past five years I see the race often goes out conservatively in 1:12 — which would be perfect for even splits.
If they do that I’ll stick with that pack. If they’re running too fast for me, maybe I decide to go with them instead of running by myself because I think it’s worth it. Or I try to find a second pack and stay confident enough that I can catch some of them in the last 10k. That’s how I race. Some people are like, “No, I will be with that front pack no matter what, you know. But that’s not my style or plan.
THE LAP COUNT: I’m taking notes! So how well do you know the course? I’ve run or driven the whole thing before, but I still find myself watching old race videos to study. Do you have a similar prep?
NELL ROJAS: I’m not familiar. I have had the elevation profile as my computer background for the past three months. And I look at it and I’m like, “Okay, 150 feet, first bridge, okay, 100 feet last bridge.” I’ve watched the course tour video, but I did that for Boston and it felt so far off once I was actually there.
THE LAP COUNT: It’s tough to know what running up 150 feet feels like in theory.
NELL ROJAS: I’ve seen the bridges and those bridges look like others I’ve run up, just for fun before, but who knows!
THE LAP COUNT: Because this is The Lap Count, you know I have to ask. Your decision to end your Adidas contract was non-traditional. What was the reaction to that decision and the thought process behind it? And now you’re lining up in a Nike uniform!
NELL ROJAS: Oh, man. It was obviously a hard decision. I feel more confident in Nike. I work better with Nike. I’ve always loved Nike. I really had a solid relationship with Adidas because it was such a new contract, but just decided that their shoes were not going to make me the best and most competitive runner I could be. And that was really the only thing that I needed to go off of. When I was asking myself the question of how am I going to be the fastest, it was running in the Alphafly. And so that’s all I needed. And that was my decision right there.
THE LAP COUNT: How did your agent take that?
NELL ROJAS: I had to have multiple conversations with him in multiple forms that same day to help him understand why. And then once he understood after a well-thought-out email with like ten different bullet points, he was like, “Okay, I understand and will talk to Adidas.”
But it was very traumatic because I still I get a lot of flak for it. And I still have PTSD when I open social media that someone’s going to be talking shit about me because I’m so scarred from it. I’m just so grateful and stoked to be competing for Nike. And that’s really it.
THE LAP COUNT: I look at it as you betting on yourself, knowing what you needed, and valuing your performance more than anything. As far as being a spokesperson for a brand, that’s about as good as it gets.
NELL ROJAS: And honestly, I’ve worked with Nike for two weeks now and they’ve treated me like a professional athlete. They have gotten to know me. They take the time to ask for my opinion on the shoes. We’ve talked about the future and different ways we can work together. It’s been a great experience and the intangibles are incredible.
THE LAP COUNT: Unfortunately, I am starting a bit behind you, but I need your official prediction…for me.
NELL ROJAS: This is New York, you know? So you know that it’s totally different than if we were on a flat course.
THE LAP COUNT: You can be tough with me. I can handle it!
NELL ROJAS: First marathon and you’re feeling pretty confident.
THE LAP COUNT: I mean I feel healthy and regret not running 40 miles a week more. But like on a flat bike path, I’ve made 5:15 to 5:20 pace feel pretty comfortable.
NELL ROJAS: You’re going to have a good day — I am saying 2:16!
THE LAP COUNT: Okay, thank you. But I’m definitely way too scared to go out fast enough to make that a possibility.
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