Elite runner Adriana Nelson was out for an easy 4-mile run on Thursday evening in Folsom, Calif., when she came across a man she sensed needed immediate help.
Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., but has been training for the Feb. 13 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles with Deena Kastor and the ASICS Mammoth Track Club in California since November.
As she set out for her second run on Thursday, Nelson said she was compelled to take a slightly different route. She said she was enjoying the beauty of the trail she was on but was suddenly startled when she came across a figure sitting on the edge of a retaining wall. As she slowly approached him, she said it appeared to be putting a noose around his neck.
“I saw he had a rope around his neck and looked like he was ready to jump,” she said. “I am not sure how I had the courage to do this, but I ran over to him and asked if everything was OK, and he responded he was not OK.
“I told him, ‘Hey, whoa, whoa, wait … let’s talk.’ I’m here for you right now at this moment. I don’t care if I need to stop my run and that I don’t know you. You’re more important to me than anything right now. I told him, ‘You’re OK, let’s just take walk and talk about it.'”
Nelson, 36, said she asked him to remove the rope from around his neck. While talking to the man, she found out he is 26 years old and has been struggling to support his family without a job for the past few months. After he agreed to remove the rope, Nelson said she grabbed his arm and walked him away from the area. Talking to him the entire time, she walked him 2 miles back to her car and then gave him a ride back to his car.
She said she assured him that everyone struggles in life, but it’s never as bad as any one moment might feel. She related the difficulties she experienced when she moved to the U.S. from her native Romania to attend college and didn’t speak very much English. She was frustrated, homesick and alone but managed to succeed by immersing herself in her education and her running career.
She said she talked to him for about an hour—trying to encourage him to see the positive aspects of his life and offer encouragement to go forward. She assured him that people care about him and that there are ways to get help. She gave him an embracing hug and told him to contact her if he wanted to talk again.
“I told him that no matter what, you just can’t give up,” Nelson said. “I told him life is hard, but you have to keep forging ahead. I really hope he contacts me again because I want to help him. All last night, I kept wondering if I did everything I could, and I hope I did.
“Am I his guardian angel? Maybe, yes. I felt like Superman at that moment. I just hope I had an impact on his life and that he can see that people care for him. No matter who you are or what you’re going through, people care.”
Nelson said she doesn’t know how she did what she did during the middle of her run, but said she just reacted and immediately wanted to help him. She said she initially talked for more than 15 minutes before he said much of anything.
“It was not an easy moment at all … I was picturing the worst to happen right in front of me. He said he was about to jump,” she said. “One thing that surprised me was what he said to me ‘I never have been able to talk so deeply with someone in my entire life…’ I felt very sad but very grateful to be there that moment. He left and I went home overwhelmed with emotion.”
She called her husband, Jeremy Nelson, back in Boulder, after the incident, and also talked to her mom, who has been visiting her in California.
“She was really freaked out about it and concerned for him,” Jeremy said. “I’m glad she was there and was able to help him out.”
Two hours later, Nelson said she returned to the scene and cut the rope that was attached at one end to a metal post.
“I just wanted to make sure that bad thing wasn’t there any more,” she said.
With a 2:28:52 PR from the 2008 London Marathon and several solid months of training under the guidance of Andrew Kastor recently, Nelson, who became a U.S. citizen in 2011, figures to be a contender in the Olympic Trials race next Saturday on the streets of downtown Los Angeles. She and three-time U.S. Olympian Deena Kastor spent most of the winter running about 120 miles per week in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., but Nelson recently relocated to lower altitude in Folsom to finish up her training.
Nelson won the 2013 U.S. half marathon championships in 1:11:19 and, most recently, placed second in the 2015 Rock ‘n’ Roll San Jose Half Marathon (1:12:08) in October. She and her husband started and operate Roll Recovery, a Boulder company that makes a variety of recovery tools for athletes.
Nelson was offered a spot on the 2012 Romanian Olympic team in the marathon, but she turned it down with the intent on competing for a spot on the U.S. team. However, an injury kept her from running in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston.
“This was one of the craziest things I’ve experienced in my life,” Nelson said. “And it’s a reminder to me that people need help sometimes. And if anyone ever feels this way, please go and seek help.”
If you know someone who is battling severe depression or is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.