Olympic Trials Spotlight: Roberta Groner

Roberta Groner’s story is both fascinating and inspiring. She ran her PR marathon of 2:29:06 last April in Rotterdam, good for fifth place. That gives her the 15th fastest time of any woman at the trials, but Roberta is 42 years old. Only two other American women over the age of 40 have run faster than 2:30: Deena Kastor and Colleen De Reuck. Roberta also works full time and is a single mother to three teenage boys. She fits in her 100 miles per week by getting up early and often running over her lunch hour.

Groner grew up in Pittsburgh and ran in college, but by her senior year, she was losing interest in the sport. She took about a decade entirely off of running, and when she started again, she tried out longer distances. She finished her first marathon in 2011; two years later, she broke the three hour mark at Boston. At that point, she started working towards an Olympic Trials qualifying time. She just missed the mark in 2015, when she ran 2:45:30 in New York, but then blew it out of the water by 2017 with a 2:30:38 at CIM. In late 2019, Groner began working with Steve Magness as her coach. Rotterdam was their first marathon together, but she also ran in the World Championship marathon in Doha last September and then came back and ran the NYC marathon in November. I caught up with Roberta by phone to chat about her path to the Trials.

You ran in college but then took about a decade off from the sport. Why did you decide to stop?

I started running just because my 7th grade teacher asked me if I wanted to. She put me in for the mile. Then I just ran in high school and went off and did track and cross country. But I didn’t really have a passion for it. I was good at it and I had a scholarship but no drive, no passion, no hunger. Then my senior year we had a death in the family and I left college and left the sport. I wasn’t running with a team anymore and I didn’t know how to run without a team. I left for 10 years and didn’t run at all. I got married, I got a job, and I had three kids.

What about when you started running again, 10 years later? What was the moment where you decided to go buy new running shoes, for example?

I had my children when I was a little bit younger. I was 26, 28, and 29 when they were born. I needed to do something for myself to reclaim my individuality. I didn’t know what else to do – I’m not crafty. I had put on a few pounds after having kids. I wanted to get healthy again. I started by using the elliptical. Then I signed up for a 5K on Mother’s Day. I trained entirely on the elliptical. It was the most painful 5K I’ve ever done! But that painful race motivated me to get back into it. Since I was a nurse, I had colleagues who were runners. One of them asked me to do the Pittsburgh half with her – that was in 2010. We didn’t train together but it was someone to talk to about it.

What if you had kept running and not had that 10 year hiatus? Do you ever wonder how your running career might have been different?

It wouldn’t have been the same path. I had no drive, no passion no love for it. That’s where I was at 21; there was nothing in the sport for me. I had to walk away for it to evolve into what it is now. And I had to find marathoning. I never ran anything over 5000n on track or in cross country. I said, no way I would run the 10K, because of the distance. I had to find this path as adult later in life.

What does a typical day look like for you – between being a single mom, working full time, and running lots of miles – how do you fit it all in?

I’m divorced with 50/50 custody and it’s been about 5 years since the divorce. On weeks when I have the kids, I get up at 5:45 a.m. I live one town over from their school so I have about an hour after I drop them off and before work. I use that time to run 8 miles. Then I go to work, 8:30 a.m. -5 p.m., in an office setting. Sometimes I run 30-45 minutes at lunch, which works out to 5 or 6 miles. At 5 p.m., I pick up the kids, we have dinner, do homework, etc. During weeks when I don’t have the kids, I can do more workouts mid-week or run longer on the weekend because they are older now. I go to bed as soon as they do, by 9:30 p.m. I am trying to get close to 8 hours of sleep. I used to stay up to clean and do housework but now I go to bed.

What’s the best thing running has brought into your life?

It’s my meditation; it’s my time with my thoughts. Running also provides a lesson to myself and my children, that hard work can pay off. That wouldn’t have to be running. It can be whatever area you want. It could be playing piano for someone else. I like to have a goal, to be challenged.

What’s your favorite non-marathon distance and why?

Probably the 10K. It’s less speedy than the 5K, but you still work on speed. It’s a fun distance to train for. I am not a track person. Maybe the speed from the 10K can carry over to the marathon.

Your performances at the World Championships in Doha at the New York City Marathon were incredibly impressive -– in Doha in particular, I’ve read how you were sure to be extra vigilant about hydration and taking on enough electrolytes. How did you manage the mental side of racing far from home in such an unusual situation (late at night, incredibly hot)?

I don’t know how I got there – but I don’t really get nervous. I just prepare the best I can. I wasn’t super stressed. I have gone into most races relaxed. I always say, success is the peace of mind that comes from knowing you’ve done your best. You don’t know what is going to happen on race day. There could be a freak accident; you could get the stomach flu – anything can happen. I was grateful for the opportunity to represent our country. Being in the moment absorbed my fear of weather. I didn’t go outside while I was in Doha at all. I stayed on East coast time so it felt like 5 p.m. when it was midnight. I slept on the flight and stayed on that pattern.

Do you have any mantras and do you change them from race to race?

Yes, for Worlds I did. I like “Remember Your Whys” – from Des Linden. For Doha I used “Be anxious of nothing and grateful for all things.” And also “KFG” – which, to keep it clean, was for “Keep ‘freaking’ going.” But could also be “Kick to finish line with glory.” I try to think of these all the time I’m running.

Do you do anything differently as a masters runner?

Not per se. I’ve increased mileage over the last year. I’ve gone over 100 miles per week with Steve Magness as my coach. I’m trying to do more physical therapy and more maintenance massages. I don’t have a secret like special stretching or anything like that – I just don’t have time. I am literally doing core exercises while the kids are brushing their teeth for two minutes. My focus is on sleep.

Have you done anything different in your training during this buildup?

We increased mileage over last summer to hit some 100 to 105 mile weeks. Steve’s workouts are designed so they don’t look too hard but then they are hard. Like start at marathon pace and work down to faster. I am learning to have an extra gear when I need to.

How did recovery go after two marathons last fall?

I took four weeks off. It was two weeks of no running and then two weeks of no workouts. The turnaround was challenging. December was super hard. My body was very tired, and training was mentally and physically challenging. I didn’t have a lot of people to run with. The switch flipped since end of January and the course tour.

I’d heard you had the chance to preview the course – what are your thoughts?

It’s challenging. I ran and biked 52  – I ran and biked 52 miles on the course over that weekend. We also go-pro’d it. It’s the most challenging course I’ve ever done. It’s just always rolling, there are no stretches of flat.

What do you do to be sure you feel confident when you’re standing on the starting line?

I’ve been preparing by doing lots of hills. Since going to Atlanta, I’ve focused on getting into Central Park and doing lots of workouts on rolling hills. Also, if you know you’ve done your best, then at least you know that. I think it’s going to be a tactical race. Someone might push it. I put in the training and I’ve run the elevation. It’s going to be grueling but I’ve done the work.

Do you mind sharing your goals for your Trials race?

I’m going to take my long shot for being in the top three. I would like to be able to go to the Trials in 2024, but I’ll be 46 years old and I probably won’t be at this level. That’s what the science says, at least. So why not go for it? When I started, I just wanted to qualify, but I’ve been able to bring my time down. Hey, why not go for it all?

Who is going to the Trials with you?

My children – the four of us will fly down together. Two of my five siblings are coming with their families, my boyfriend, a few friends. I have 17 family members coming!

My boyfriend will run around as much as he can. The nieces and nephews are younger than my children and they will stay in one spot. I get three family and friend passes for the finish line area. My three sons will get those. The boys can also be super shy. No one can go in with them – hopefully they will be comfortable with that. Logistically it can be hard to bring the boys because I’m a single mom. But in Atlanta, my parents can watch them. I’m going with a lot of support.

Do you have any advice for runners chasing a big goal?

I keep stealing Des’s stuff: Keep showing up. When I struggled last December, I still went out the door. If I didn’t hit the prescribed times exactly, I still went out the door. This hasn’t been a “one season and I’m there” kind of thing. It’s been 10 seasons in the making. Set a goal and be patient. You’ll get there.

How do you plan to celebrate after the race?

Hanging out with family and friends. I run for the New York Athletic Club so they might do something. I might go to the Tracksmith gathering. I’ll see where day takes me. There is definitely going to be champagne and beer. And French fries!

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