Nell Rojas and Jenny Simpson, both of Boulder, Colorado, after finishing first and second, respectively, in the 2021 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run. Credit: Kelyn Soong

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Nell Rojas had one final decision to make Sunday morning as she looked toward the finish line with less than a half mile to go at the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run. She could either risk her lead by being assertive early and push for the victory in hopes of holding off Olympian Jenny Simpson, or she could wait and save it for a sprint finish.

With about 600 meters left, Rojas went for the win.

“I made that decision ’cause I was like, you know what, I can’t let Jenny have the last 50 meter sprint,” Rojas said. “I just can’t. She has more leg speed than me. I was like, ‘I’m fine with second but … let me just do this.’ … I didn’t plan on it.”

Rojas’ bold move earned her the victory with a time of 52 minutes and 13 seconds in the Cherry Blossom women’s elite division—her first ever U.S. title at any level. She did it by beating Simpson, a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist in the 1,500 meters and one of America’s most decorated middle distance runners. Simpson finished second (52:16), followed by Antonina Kwambai of Kenya in third (52:23). In the elite men’s race, Kenyan Edwin Kimutai, who was visiting the United States for the first time and ran the race in honor of the recent death of his wife, took charge from the beginning and won in 45:45, followed by Americans Abbabiya Simbassa (46:18) and Augustus Maiyo (46:23).

Both races served as the USATF 10 Mile Championships.

“I was good the whole time,” Kimutai said. “I’m normally running for marathon.”

Sunday also marked the return of large in-person road races in D.C., with the Cherry Blossom event, which is typically held in April, kick starting the local fall road racing season. 5,888 people finished the 10-mile race and an additional 1,670 people finished the 5K, a decidedly smaller field compared to the nearly 20,000 finishers the event had in recent pre-pandemic years. It was also Simpson’s first road race over a mile distance. She decided to take on the challenge after a disappointing finish at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, at which she failed to qualify for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics.

Simpson entered with an open mind and uncertain expectations for herself, but it didn’t take long for the Olympian to establish her presence among a strong pro field that included 2015 Boston Marathon champion Caroline Rotich, Annie Frisbie, and Sara Hall, who finished fourth, fifth, and sixth, respectively, in the 10-mile race.

The lead runners in the elite women’s race around the eighth mile of the 2021 Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run. Credit: Kelyn Soong

“A lot of the strategy was for me to just kind of hang back a little bit and learn as I go and kind of follow the lead of more experienced women,” Simpson said. “But maybe one of the more funny parts about the whole race was that the first mile felt a lot slower than I expected, ’cause I’m so used to getting off so fast. So I got off the line and suddenly I realized, ‘Oh, I’m in the lead. This is going to be a really different 50 minutes compared to a lot of the other running I do.'”

Her plan was to stay as close to the leaders through six miles and then, after that, “just be smart and run what I was able to do,” Simpson added. By mile 7, she was in a lead pack of six runners: Simpson, Rojas, Hall, Frisbie, Kwambai, and Rotich. Simpson said she expected to doubt she made the right decision at mile 8, but felt “great” and could “still kick hard.”

With just about 600 meters to go, Rojas and Simpson separated from the rest. Simpson thought that Rojas may have kicked too soon.

“I really thought with 400 to go, I would be really hard to beat, but this is just a different kind of racing, and I was tired,” Simpson said. “And I really thought even if I’m tired, my legs know how to run really fast, but Nell put on the pressure, and I think she knew she can’t leave it to a real 100-meter kick, so she pushed it up the hill, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe she’s making a mistake.’ But once she got separation, I just couldn’t respond. She was really strong.”

“I knew it was Jenny right there,” Rojas added. “1,500 meter runner. Olympian and world champion, so … like 400 to go, I kept like being, ‘Where is she? Where is she?’ Just hoping that she was tired from the 10 miles and kind of like, just like trying to feel smooth and go, but I was really scared.”

After the race, the two women hugged and took a few moments to catch up and talk about their unique journeys. Both live in Boulder, Colorado, but have taken vastly different paths to the professional running world.

“I was telling her that I’m so proud that two women that really do have different backgrounds—two, courageous, kind of slightly crazy Boulder women came out to this thing and got No. 1 and No. 2,” Simpson said. “So it’s fun for me to think that even people in other sports can look at me and Nell and say, ‘I can try something new to be great at it.'”

Rojas, 33, competed as a professional triathlete after college before turning to long-distance running. Her father and coach, Ric Rojas, describes her as a “late bloomer.” In 2019, Rojas won the Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minnesota, in 2:28:06, and used the Cherry Blossom race to train for Boston Marathon next month. She is currently unsponsored.

“I’m looking for [sponsors],” Rojas said. “Would love a sponsor.”

As for Simpson, 35, she plans to take a break for several weeks before returning to racing. She said her coaches will want her to race on the roads again and her second place finish will give her plenty of motivation during the time off.

“Sometimes the best that can happen in a new experience is to get second,” Simpson said. “If I won or if I was last, I think the decision would be really obvious, but getting second, I’m finishing hungry.”