In the fall of 1999, 21-year-old Roberta Groner was convinced her running career had already run its course.
In fact, she felt a sense of relief that her final cross country season at St. Francis University was coming to an end.
Thanks to a promising high school career, Groner had landed a partial track/cross country scholarship to St. Francis, a small NCAA Division I school roughly 80 miles east of her native Pittsburgh. Once there, she experienced success, becoming the school's first four-time all-conference cross country honoree. On the track, Groner still ranks among the school's top-10 all time in the 1,500 (4:41), 3,000 (10:10) and 5,000 meters (17:35).
At the same time, however, her interest in the sport began to wane. By Groner's senior year, she no longer found the same fulfillment in running.
"I had some talent, but not the drive to do everything I could with it," she said. "Running became less and less important to me. When your coach asks you to put in miles over the summer and you're thinking of how little you can do, that's a sign."
Groner finished that cross country season and bid what she thought was a permanent adieu to competitive running. That was until about 10 years later when Groner's crazy, hectic life left her longing for a small slice of daily "me time." By then, she was married, working as a full-time nurse and raising three boys: Dylan, age 2; Aiden, 3; and Bryan, 6.
"I had three kids in less than four years, and by the time the youngest was 2, I was just looking for something to do on my own for about 30 minutes a day, but was not sure what to do," Groner said. "I'm not the type to do crafting or anything like that."
Then, a surprising thought crossed her mind.
"I was like, 'Why not try running again?' and that was it," Groner recalled. "I started running and it became fun for me again. I really looked forward to getting away for that little bit of time."
A decade later, what began as a way to de-stress has evolved into Groner becoming one of the world's best masters (age 40 and up) distance runners. Somehow, the 41-year-old is getting faster with age.
On April 7, Groner became just the third American woman to break 2 hours, 30 minutes for the marathon after turning 40, finishing fifth in the Rotterdam Marathon in 2:29:06. She chopped more than 90 seconds off her previous best of 2:30:38.
Deena Kastor (2:27:47) and Colleen De Reuck (2:28:40) are the only faster American masters. Unlike Groner, however, they were world-class runners throughout their 20s and 30s. Kastor is also the American elite record holder (2:19:36).
"The goal was to break 2:30, which I thought was within reach, especially on a fast course like Rotterdam," said Groner, who also dipped under the 2020 Olympic qualifying standard (2:29:30). "My strategy is usually to run negative splits, and I came through the first half in exactly 1:15. I started to feel it about 4 [kilometers] from the finish but was able to run the second half faster."
Still, Groner experienced some hiccups along the way, like having to start among the sub-elite (instead of elite) women. There was also confusion at some water stations, forcing her to nearly come to a dead stop or even run back to get water after passing it.
Groner ran mostly with men throughout the race and had no idea what place she was in among women. Finally, with less than 2,000 meters remaining, Groner saw two women ahead of her. Though weary, she began pursuing them. Groner passed 24-year-old Natsuki Omori about 1,000 meters from the finish before catching 30-year-old Giovanna Epis in the final 500 meters.
"I'm not used to out-kicking anybody, so that was a thrilling way to finish," she said. "With about 200 meters left, I saw the [finish line] clock said 2:28 something and knew I had my goal. Then, I finally found out I took fifth and was ecstatic everything worked out so well."
So was Steve Magness, the renowned Houston-based coach Groner began working with remotely following her 12th-place finish (and first in the masters division) at last fall's New York City Marathon. He is the author of several books, including "The Science of Running."
"In training, all signs pointed toward Roberta running under 2:30, so then it was a matter of how far under 2:30 she might go," said Magness, also the University of Houston's cross country coach. "She was feeling good and pushed it. Roberta is not afraid to do that because she has a good sense of what her body is telling her during a race."
Groner, who was accompanied on the trip by friend Laura DeLea and agent Larry Rosenblatt, celebrated in Amsterdam with a canal dinner cruise, cycling tour, and a stop at the Heineken brewery before flying back home to Randolph, New Jersey, three days after the marathon.
Typical of her barely-time-to-breathe schedule, Groner returned to work for two days before heading to Boston with her boys, now 11,12 and 15, to cheer on friends in the Boston Marathon, including some of her New York Athletic Club teammates.
Groner's time is 12th among those who have qualified for 2020 Olympic trials and the second-fastest masters time in the world this year behind the 2:24:11 Australian Sinead Driver ran at the London Marathon.
"I had registered for Boston, but Steve and I decided to pick a faster course to give myself a greater chance to meet the Olympic qualifying standard should I make the Olympic team," Groner said. "It turned out to be the right move, and to leave there just 1:19 off the American masters record was very exciting."
The past 11 months have been especially exciting for Groner, who also has set personal bests for 8K (26:48), 10K (33:31), 15K (53:13), 10 miles (56:01) and the half marathon (1:12:35) during that time. Only two masters runners in the world recorded better half-marathon times in 2018.
Remarkably, she has strung together that impressive list of performances despite being a now-divorced mother of three and full-time nursing supervisor. She shares custody with the children's father.
Balancing family and work while training and racing at a high level requires some creative scheduling on Groner's part. She averaged nearly 100 miles a week in preparation for Rotterdam, often running twice a day and taking only two days off once she began training in earnest for the race.
Groner has even found a way to train twice on days when she has her sons without sacrificing any evening family time with them. That means venturing out in the dark for a 5 a.m. run or squeezing it in after dropping the kids off at school prior to work. "Alarm off, running clothes on, shoes tied, hair up. Let's Go!" her Twitter bio states.
Less than seven hours later, Groner is training again during her lunch break. She reserves longer evening workouts, such as 15-22 miles at a varying pace, for when her sons are with their father.
Groner connected with Magness through agents Rosenblatt and Josh Cox. He assigns Groner a week of workouts, but affords her the flexibility to decide which ones are done each day.
"It's all about time management," Groner said. "If I want to achieve my running goals while still performing well at my job and being a good mom, this is what I have to do. Like everybody else, there are days when I'm tired, but I've learned how to push through."
Unlike her college days, Groner is enjoying running more than ever. A major reason is that her sons have a greater understanding of her accomplishments, allowing Groner to better share the experience with them.
"They all understand now what I've been able to achieve in running and why I do it," she said. "They are there to cheer me on in many of my races. Running has been great for family bonding."
Dylan thinks so highly of his mother's accomplishments that when his school teacher assigned him to present a report on someone famous, he Googled Groner's name and chose her as the subject.
"I was a little surprised, but that was so sweet of Dylan," she said. "The boys all support me, 100 percent."
In her first race after resuming running, Groner plodded through a 5K in just over 24 minutes. A little more than two years later, she decided to try her first marathon at the urging of friends. With a goal of 3:15, Groner finished the 2011 Chicago Marathon in 3:12:42, qualifying for Boston.
"Meeting my goal at Chicago really opened my eyes about marathons and was very motivating," she said. "I was like, 'I really enjoyed that,' and wanted to see how much I could lower my time."
Groner's personal best dropped significantly over the next few years.
She broke three hours at the 2013 Boston Marathon (2:57:58) and 2:50 at the Columbus Marathon six months later (2:49:30). Groner lowered her best to 2:45:30 in finishing 19th at the 2015 NYC Marathon, missing the 2016 Olympic trials qualifying standard by just 30 seconds.
She dipped under 2:40 in winning the Albany Mohawk Hudson River Marathon less than a year later in 2:37:54. Groner again lowered her best at the 2017 Boston Marathon, finishing 16th in 2:36:33. Her most eye-opening breakthrough, however, came at the California International Marathon in December 2017. Groner sliced nearly six more minutes off her PR, finishing second in 2:30:38. Groner and Magness are formulating plans for the remainder of 2019. She has an outside chance of being named to Team USA for the Pan American Games in August or world championships in early October. If not, Groner would like to run another marathon prior to the 2020 Olympic trials in February.
"We'll see how Roberta's body heals and go from there," Magness said. "You can't help but be enraptured with her story, though. What Roberta has done despite all her commitments is incredible. American women's distance running is loaded, but she is certainly in the Olympics mix."
Groner's sons will be in tow when she travels to Atlanta for the trials.
"That's what I promised if I qualified," she said. "They are counting down the days to the trip. No matter what happens, having them there will make it a special experience."