Nell Rojas never grew up in the shadow of her legendary father, Ric Rojas, the former world record holder at 15,000 meters.
That's because dad would never have allowed it. For him, she always came first, and he was there to support her in whatever she did, later becoming her coach.
The latest thing Nell Rojas is into is marathoning, and turns out, this latest venture appears to be a keeper, because she’s ridiculously good at it.
Rojas, of Boulder, Colo., blitzed the field on Saturday to win the 43rd annual Grandma’s Marathon women’s race, covering the 26.2 miles from Two Harbors to Canal Park in Duluth in 2 hours, 28 minutes, 6 seconds, fourth-fastest in race history. This one wasn’t even close as Rojas, under sunny skies and cool, 50-degree temperatures, pulled away from the field in the second half. Runner-up Margaret Njuguna, a 49-year-old masters runner from Nairobi, finished five minutes back in 2:33:12, but Rojas snuck a peek back with about a half mile to go just to make sure.
“The last 5K was very difficult, and with three miles to go I was like, ‘Whooo. This is going to be hard.’ But I just kept pushing,” said Rojas, 31. “I knew I couldn’t back off because a few weeks ago I thought I had a race in the bag but with 300 meters to go this girl just came flying by me. So I just kept thinking like she might be right there.
“Then the last mile you have the crowd, and they were just going crazy. That really helped. That was awesome. That was a lot of fun.”
The race Rojas was referring to three weeks ago was the famed Bolder Boulder 10K on May 28 in her hometown.
Despite getting passed late, Rojas rebounded to win in dramatic fashion, 40 years after her father, one of the first Nike-sponsored athletes, won the inaugural race, beating American and Olympic running great Frank Shorter by 24 seconds. Nell heard the legend and it inspired her.
“Growing up in Boulder, the Bolder Boulder is kind of like the Olympics of Boulder,” Nell Rojas said. “And because dad won the first Bolder Boulder, I wanted to win the Bolder Boulder. That was my biggest dream.”
If that win was big, “this win is bigger,” Ric Rojas said. While the Bolder Boulder is huge in that community, winning at Grandma’s carries national implications.
“That was huge. That will never go away,” Ric Rojas said. “She’ll always have that in her back pocket.”
Hard to believe, but this is only Nell Rojas’ second marathon after she burst onto the scene at the California International Marathon on Dec. 2 in Sacramento, finishing seventh in 2:31:23.
Rojas qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, but earlier this year the IAAF changed the standard to make the Olympic marathon field smaller; to make the Olympics you now must have a 2:29:30. Rojas came to Grandma’s with the goal of running sub-2:29:30, and this one they can’t take away.
“That one will stick,” a beaming Rojas said shortly after finishing.
Rocket Rojas' meteoric rise continues.
It’s hard to fathom that after high school she had to walk on at Northern Arizona, where she competed in steeplechase and eventually earned a scholarship. After college, she was a professional triathlete for a few years. Then she tried OCR, obstacle course racing, and proved once again to be a natural.
“She won her first race in Chicago, then she finished second at the world championships in Seattle in her second race ever,” Ric Rojas said. “Then she won her next race, and then she retired. That’s how good she is. She’s a way better athlete than I ever was. She’s amazing.”
Nell Rojas recently picked up marathoning simply because she wanted to do a grueling Ironman Triathlon, but once she started focusing on that distance, the results were startling. Everyone was taken aback.
“I think I was just always trying to find my niche, and I found it,” she said.
Rojas still looks like an OCR athlete, with plenty of muscle, and that’s something that could make her a “darkhorse” contender at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in March, according to Carolyn Mather, an elite marathoning liaison with Grandma’s. The Atlanta course is hilly, and wimps need not apply.
“She’s not a skinny minny,” Mather said.
Ric Rojas agreed.
“She’s pound-for-pound probably the strongest marathoner in the world,” Ric Rojas said. “I’m very proud of her. She’s very coachable, and she’s very smart.”
Ric Rojas is no slouch himself, having gone to Harvard to major in romance languages and literature.
On Saturday, his daughter couldn’t have written a better script, less than a week after Father’s Day, no less. This one’s for you, dad.
“This is where I get emotional,” Nell Rojas said. “I’ve always been very very proud of my dad, and he has never been anything but supportive, 100 percent, always believing in me. He just wants me to be happy, and we bounce things off of each other. I kind of tell him what I want, and he goes, ‘OK, we can do that.’ And then we go from there.”