It was 13 years ago that Adriana Pirtea arrived at the University of Texas-El Paso speaking but two words of English. If she answered ‘yes’ to something and got an odd look, she would think, “Ah, it must be ‘no.’”
Recruited by UTEP after a promising finish at 10,000 meters in the 2001 European U-23 Championships, Pirtea left her native Romania’s trees, lakes, and mountains, arriving in the harsher environs of El Paso after dark. She awoke to a strange new world.
After two weeks of intensive English training, Pirtea passed the test that would allow her to enroll, but she was unable to make sense of classes. She couldn’t take notes. She studied the language by watching closed-caption TV, and relied on her roommates and professors to correct her when she misspoke.
Pirtea graduated in 2005, married Jeremy Nelson in 2008 and became an American citizen in 2011. Last week, Adriana Nelson, 33, was the first female American finisher in the ING New York City Marathon, placing 13th in 2:35:05.
“I’m so humbled to be first American,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “The fact that I was the first USA runner made my day.”
Nelson added, however, that she has been “so hoping” to finish in the top 10, and had trained for the top 3. Although Buzunesh Deba and Tigist Tufa had taken off from the start on a breakaway, Nelson was still with the main pack until about mile 14, when “the whole group just ran away from me.”
“On First Avenue, I was so down,” she recalled. “You have a negative mind when it’s hard. You’re like, ‘I want to stop; this is not going right.’ But then you hear how the crowd calls your name. It just lifts you up. Every step along my way, it was amazing how much positive energy.”
After graduating from UTEP, Nelson headed straight to Boulder, CO, with its community of Romanian distance runners. In 2007 she met her future husband in food-sampling line at a Whole Foods Market; they talked so long that the people behind them suggested they move along. In October of that year, she made her marathon debut a memorable one.
The 2007 Bank of America Chicago Marathon was eventually halted because of temperatures that reached the high 80s, but not before Nelson—still Pirtea at the time—came within mere meters of winning, waving in celebration to the crowd as Ethiopia’s Berhane Adere came from nowhere to nip her at the finish line for a shocking victory.
“No, it’s OK,” said Nelson, when asked if she gets tired of being asked about her near-miss. “It’s history. I have great memories. The race in Chicago definitely motivates me to get back to where I was then.”
Jeremy, she said, had been cheering her on along the course, and was sprinting toward the finish area when he heard the announcer say “Adriana’s coming!”
“That’s when he saw the tragic part,” she recalled. “He said later, “I have happy tears and sad tears at the same time.’ The fact that I finished top three there was like a dream.”
Coming off her first national title with a 1:11:19 win in the USA Half-Marathon Championships earlier this year—when they draped the U.S. flag around her and handed her flowers, she thought, “OK, this is how I want to feel”—Nelson was making her ING New York City Marathon debut. She had planned to run last year, and had just arrived at her hotel when she learned that the race was cancelled because of Superstorm Sandy.
Nelson said that she fully supported the decision. “I wouldn’t have felt comfortable running at all, because so many people were suffering,” she said. “You can’t just close your eyes.”
That setback was bookended in 2012 by two other disappointments: DNFs in the Olympic Marathon Trials in January after Nelson was felled by a bout of food poisoning, and in December in Yokohama, where she had hoped to put her NYC training to use but found that she couldn’t regroup.
Returning to NYC, she said, was amazing and emotional.
“It’s kind of like reborn,” she said of the race. “I could see the excitement on everyone’s face on the streets and at the finish line. Even when I crossed the finish line, I was so proud of myself in such hard conditions, [but] I was not only able to finish but to cross the line and see happy faces.”
Nelson said that she hopes to be invited to the 2014 Boston Marathon. “It would be such an honor to be part of Boston next year,” she said. “I will train with all my heart and soul to represent USA well if I get a chance to get there. I am so determined to be the way I used to be, more aggressive, more fearless.
“I think I can do something nice, hopefully in my next race. I just pray to have one more beautiful day in my career.”
Photo Credit: PhotoRun