Roberta Groner’s path to the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials on February 29 is far less linear than that of many women with whom she will toe the starting line in Atlanta. Groner, 42, works full-time as a nurse while raising three sons.
She quit running for 10 years after college, where she was a miler, having lost her passion for the sport. She picked it back up for fun when a coworker asked her to run a half-marathon. She then joined members of her running team at the 2011 Chicago Marathon -- “why not?” she recalls thinking.
Now she will be one of the 12 women competing at the trials with a qualifying time under 2 hours 30 minutes.
It was a grind and I’ll take it for preparation for Atlanta. No fast time but I did battle up Harlem Hill three times. Next weekend I’ll be heading to Atlanta for a preview of the course! Excited to visit and another building block to the trials. Less than 6 weeks to go! #fredlebowhalf #nyrr #nyactrackandfield #harlemhillsarenojoke #centralparkgrind #nextstopatlanta #coursepreviewrun #2020olympictrials #6weekstogo
Groner won the Fred Lebow NYRR Runner of the Year award last year. She regularly competes in – and often wins -- NYRR races. She won the NYRR Fred Lebow Half-Marathon last month (as seen above, via her Instagram), the 2019 NYRR Queens 10K and the 2018 NYRR Ted Corbitt 15K. She particularly likes the “challenging” New Balance Bronx 10 Mile, which she won in 2017, and says “the marathon is special to me.”
“If you don’t love something, you’re not going to stick with it,” Groner said, explaining why she walked away from running in her early 20s after a successful career at St. Francis University in Pennsylvania. "I didn’t have the love or the passion for the sport." She never ran anything more than the 5000m as a student, but a college coach once told Groner that she had a future as a marathoner because she ran with a “marathon shuffle,” never kicking her feet.
She began her nursing career and became established as a cardiac nurse in her hometown, Pittsburgh. She gave birth three times in four years (her boys are now 16, 13, and 12). “I really didn’t run at all,” she said of that first decade out of school. She moved from Pittsburgh to New Jersey and took a job in a medical office, with more regular hours.
Then her coworker asked her to do that half-marathon. That led to meetups with a local running group, where she was persuaded to join a group of about 10 people to run the 2011 Chicago Marathon.
She qualified for Boston.
“Once you do one, it’s almost a challenge,” she said about marathoning.
At the 2015 TCS New York City Marathon, she missed the 2016 Olympic Trials qualifying standard by 30 seconds, clocking in at 2:45:30. She set her sights on 2020. Less than a year later, at the 2016 Mohawk Hudson Marathon, she ran 2:37:54 and realized she could aim for the Olympic Trials “A” standard. In 2017, she crossed the finish line in second place at the California International Marathon in 2:30:38; the race also served as the U.S. Marathon Championships that year. “That race changed my running career,” she said. “It put me on the map.” She changed coaches and got serious about training to go under 2:30.
At the 2019 Rotterdam Marathon, she cut 90 seconds off her CIM time to finish in in 2:29:06. Only two American female masters runners have run faster marathons.
In August last year, Groner represented the United States at the World Championships in Doha, where intense heat forced marathoners to compete at midnight. She finished sixth in those grueling conditions, returned home and ran the TCS New York City Marathon two months later, placing 13th (she is pictured at top in the final meters of that race and below in Central Park).
Her nursing career, she said, “keeps the running balanced. It takes a little pressure off the running. I love that my mind is not always on running and racing.”
That balance can get thrown off with the high mileage required for Trials training, though. Groner runs on her lunch breaks and often runs two-a-days to fit in all her workouts. She typically trains alone, and said she misses the social aspect of running groups at times. “It gets lonely, but everything has a purpose,” she said. She acknowledges that professional runners have it easier, being able to choose when they work out.
The Atlanta course, full of rolling hills, will be a tactical race. “It’s challenging enough that it could level the playing field,” she said. Living in the New York region benefits her training, Groner said, because the terrain is similar to what she will experience in Atlanta. She is able to put in about 5,000 feet of climbing a week. “I’m blessed to have that terrain right out my door,” she said.
Her sons, none of whom run (they play baseball and basketball instead), will make the trip to Atlanta to cheer on their mom. Groner structures her training carefully so as not to sacrifice time with her boys, and she said she hopes her hard work makes an impact on them. “They’re my number one supporters,” she said.
If she does not make the Olympic team, Groner said, her focus will turn toward breaking Deena Kastor’s American women’s masters record.
But for now, Groner is training to run the race of her career. “I’d love to be able to say that at 46 I’ll be in the same shape,” she said, acknowledging that this may be her single shot at the Olympics. But, she said, “you don’t know what’s going to happen there that day.”