Nell Rojas’ pre-race strategy for Monday’s 125th running of the Boston Marathon was to race as she always does — from behind.
That strategy, however, went out the window when she found herself leading one of running’s iconic races in front of two-time World Champion and Longmont resident Edna Kiplagat and some of the other top marathoners in the world.
What was Rojas, a Boulder native who has made steady progress since running cross country and playing basketball for Boulder High School, thinking?
“It was a really weird feeling. I would have predicted I’d have won the Boston marathon before predicting I would be leading the Boston marathon,” she said in a phone interview from New York City, where she was relaxing after finishing sixth at Boston in 2:27:12. She was the top American, 2:37 behind winner Diana Kipyokei, with 2017 Boston champ Kiplagat, 42, second in 2:25:09.
“I was like, ‘Wow, what am I doing here?’” Rojas said. “Is this really happening?”
That’s because Boston is not just another big-city marathon. It is perhaps the most prestigious marathon in the world, having started in 1897, the year after the inaugural Olympic marathon. Many of the greats have run and won there.
Rojas, 33, grew up knowing the Boston lore. She is “a favorite daughter,” among Boulder runners, well-integrated into the local community, and is comfortable around runners of all abilities, a skill honed by her years coaching with RISE and Rojas Athletics.
Boulder “has been crucial in all my races,” Rojas said, “just to feel very supported here. I have basically the whole town behind me, and all the messages I received, wishing me good luck.
“People truly believe in me, and that is important.”
One of Rojas’ big believers is Ric Rojas, her father and coach and former elite runner. He was not surprised to see his daughter up front because, he explained, “based on her training and recent races, I knew she could run well.”
Boston was Rojas’ fourth marathon, and since her first, a 2:31 effort at Cal International in 2018, she has had the sense she is an elite runner. But it was not until this year’s buildup for Boston — originally run each April but moved to the fall because of COVID restrictions — that she inculcated the sense that she belonged among the best.
“It started with the (Sept. 12) Cherry Blossom (Ten Mile), winning the national championship and beating the best girls,” said Rojas. “The workouts were faster, and I could see the improvement. I thought, ‘I can run with these girls.’”
Underlying the training is her father’s coaching philosophy, Rojas said. “Dad is chill, very, very relaxed. Workouts are all about effort. He is very long-term, rather than (focusing) on a specific workout. He looks at longevity and consistency.”
Others could see the improvement as well, including two-time Olympian and NBC commentator Kara Goucher.
“I’ve been watching her build, and I knew she just needed to be in a bigger race for her abilities to stand out,” Goucher said in an email. “In fact, I’m the one that told NBC we needed to chat with her before the race because I was so sure she’d do well.”
Many more races are ahead for Rojas. She has been invited to the world half marathon championships, but is unsure whether she will go. Looking ahead, one race intrigues her — the 2022 Boston Marathon. Rojas was surprised by the number of hills on the venerable course, and said, “We can modify my training a little bit; I know exactly what to do now.”
That’s the kind of knowledge that comes with the experience of running Boston, said Goucher, who added, “I’m super excited to see what (Nell) does next. Not only is she a great athlete, she’s a great personality. Just what our sport needs.”
Bates second at Chicago
Emma Bates, coached by former University of Colorado All American Joe Bosshard, placed second at the Oct. 10 Chicago Marathon, finishing in 2:24:20. Fellow local runners Carrie Verdon, a CU cross country and track alum, was seventh in her marathon debut (2:31:51) with Lindsay Flanagan 110th (2:33:20).
Follow Michael Sandrock on Instagram: @MikeSandrock.