US marathon heroine Roberta Groner believes a combination of fastidious hydration, ice, a sensible race plan plus some choice motivational words allowed her to prosper in the women’s marathon.
Groner, a full-time nurse and mother of three, defied the odds to finish sixth on the Corniche at the IAAF World Championships Doha 2019 on her international debut.
And ahead of Saturday’s (Oct 5) men’s marathon, the 41-year-old athlete offered some sage advice from her experiences of completing the 42.2km distance in Doha – in which temperatures reached more 30c and a humidity of 73%.
“Hydration and taking on a lot of electrolytes and water is definitely a big deal,” explains Groner. “Each athlete is allowed two bottles each on the two refreshment tables (on the race route). Normally for a marathon I would drink half a bottle each of my six drinks but here in Doha I drank twelve full 8oz hydration bottles, so around four times what I would typically drink. It was a pretty dramatic increase. I wasn’t sure if I my body would handle it, but it did. I had a bottle in my hand the whole race.”
Groner who completed the course in 2:38:44 – around nine-and-half minutes from her personal best of 2:29:09 (by comparison gold medallist Ruth Chepngetich’s winning time was almost 15 minutes slower than her PB) – clearly coped admirably with the challenging conditions and she and her fellow US athletes also operated another cooling technique.
Piecing together a plan to fit the conditions
“At each water station we put on a headband which contained ice, so as it melted it trickled down our neck,” she explains. “It definitely helped.”
Groner and her coach, Steve Magness, also decided to opt for a conservative and sensible race plan for the conditions she would face.
“We talked about staying smart and not getting too caught up in the moment,” she explains. “Steve wanted me to run at a pace of between 25 to 35 seconds slower per mile than I typically would. It was comforting to run at a 3:45 pace and then take a view on how I felt."
The plan worked to perfection. Groner – running alongside US colleague Carrie Dimoff – sat in 22nd at 5km before slowly and consistently making her way through the field. At 10km she was 17th and by 15km she crept up to 14th. Just after halfway she moved into the top ten and by 30km – and now running clear of Dimoff – she was up to eighth.
Admitting she had to “dig deep” on the final lap to make it to the finish, she not only had a robust physical plan in place to best cope with the challenge but also motivational words to help her stay positive and focused.
“Each lap, a coach held a board with a different mantra,” she explains. “I remember one phrase which read ‘be anxious of nothing and grateful of everything’. Another was “remember your whys” which meant remember your kids, family and friends and why you have put in all the hard work.”
The elixir clearly worked for Groner, who opted to stay on East Coast time during her time in Doha, going to bed at 6am and waking at 2pm every day in the hope that the midnight start time would feel more like 5pm.
Crossing the line sixth, her performance was ultimate reward for smart preparation and planning.
“I was so excited (when I finished), I was thinking about my children. When I first started out (in the sport), I never thought I would experience such a moment.”
Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Groner first started running in seventh grade and later competed for St Francis, a small NCAA Division I school in her home state.
Yet following the sudden death of her 21-year-old brother, Gary, she left senior college and no longer finding the same fulfillment in running she stopped.
A return to running, at 30
Groner earned her nursing qualifications, got married and had three boys - Bryan, now aged 15, Aiden, 13 and Dylan, 12. However, at the age of 30 and keen to ‘do something for myself’ she started running again.
A first competitive race since her lengthy break came when running a 1:31 half-marathon. On her marathon debut in Chicago in 2011 she posted a time of 3:12 to qualified for the iconic Boston Marathon. It was there she ran her first sub-three hour marathon but it was only after later re-locating to New Jersey did her marathon story build serious momentum.
“I started running 60 miles a week and completed a small marathon (the Mohawk Hudson Marathon) in upper state New York and ran 2:37:54 (a seven-minute PB),” explains Groner. “That led to my first coach, Hector Matos, and we went from a 2:37 to 2:30 together, which I ran at the 2017 US Championships to finish second.”
Last year Groner ran a solid 2:31:01 in the New York Marathon for 12th and early this year she decided to connect with the experienced Houston-based coach Steve Magness.
“He has huge knowledge and background in science and data,” explains Groner. “We have a very relaxed relationship, I am an adult so I don’t need my hand held, but we talk a lot about the process.”
In her first marathon under his guidance, Groner ran a PB of 2:29:09 for fifth in April’s Rotterdam Marathon. The following month her World Championship selection was confirmed.
Juggling full-time work as an office supervisor for primary care doctors, being a mom to three busy, active boys and squeezing in her training programme is far from easy but she insists “time management” is of primary importance.
“Working 8.30am-5pm every day is more manageable than in a hospital setting, where I used to work,” she explains. “Generally, I’ll run on a morning before work and then get the kids to school. I’ll then often run on my lunch break or, if my ex-husband is looking after the kids, I’ll run in the evening instead.”
For the future, however, Groner wants to seize every opportunity that presents itself and she hopes that her story in Doha can help motivate others.
“From taking my first steps back in the sport (11 years ago) to sixth in the world shows you never know what is going to happen,” she adds. It is kind of inspiring.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF