Olympic marathon hopeful recounts fateful encounter on Folsom trail

Elite marathon runner Adriana Nelson will compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials on Saturday, a moment she has looked forward to with hope for years. But first, she says, she’s hoping for a phone call from a young man she ran into under dire circumstances in Folsom a few days ago.

Nelson, 36, said she was on a training run on a dirt trail outside town Thursday evening when she saw a man sitting on a bridge ledge with a noose around his neck. Shocked, she stopped, and asked whether he was OK. He said no. She said she got him to take off the rope and walk and talk with her for an hour.

“I was really nervous,” she said. “I grabbed his arm. I said, ‘I’m here with you.’ 

He told her he was 26, jobless and without family support, she said, and she counseled him about the need to persevere, telling him everyone goes through dark times.

Nelson, a resident of Mammoth Lakes and Boulder, Colo., is in Folsom this week with a training group on final preparations for the Olympic marathon trials in Los Angeles. She has written about the incident on Instagram and Twitter, including posting a photo of the rope tied in a noose, and the story is resonating on social media in the elite running world.

She was running alone on the trail that day and did not call police, Nelson said, because she didn’t have her phone with her. She said no one else was involved.

She said she didn’t get the young man’s full name or phone number. But she gave him hers and asked him to call her to get together for coffee or lunch this week before she leaves town. She took him to his car, she said, they hugged goodbye, and he smiled.

“I really hope he is OK,” she said. “I told him, ‘Call me. I really care.’ 

Later, Nelson went back to the site with her mom, who is visiting from their native country of Romania. She said they untied the noose from a pole on the bridge and threw it off the wall where the young man had been sitting. The rope was visible at the bottom of the gully this weekend.

Nelson’s husband, Jeremy, who flew into Sacramento on Saturday to join his wife, said she called him shortly after the incident, clearly unnerved.

“If you knew her, that is the only thing I can imagine her doing,” he said. “I couldn’t think of a better person to be there at that time but Adriana.”

Mental health experts say the scenario offers important lessons on dealing with crisis situations.

Alex Filippelli, manager of crisis mental health programs at the Gender Health Center in Sacramento, said it appears Nelson handled the situation well by reaching out and showing she cared. “She took him away from the ledge, just changing the moment.”

People with mental health problems often need professional treatment, the experts said. But not everyone in crisis needs to go through a formal process of police and hospitals, which can create added stress. “What people need is human connection,” Filippelli said. “Someone to say your life matters.”

Debra Moore, a Sacramento psychologist and book author, said mental illness remains stigmatized, causing some people to feel alone and others not to want to get involved.

“Oftentimes our first reaction is not to get involved because mental health issues are seen as somebody else’s business,” she said. “I believe lives can be saved if we changed this perspective, and if people are willing to make verbal face-to-face contact with people who are hurting, struggling with depression, anxiety, or have emotional distress.”

Moore said it is often good when dealing with depressed or emotionally troubled people to ask them questions, and try to help them formulate a plan, with specifics, about how they can move forward.

Liseanne Wick, director of Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services at Wellspace Health in Sacramento, added that suicidal people are often desperate to talk.

“It doesn’t take a licensed professional to do that,” Wick said. Don’t put yourself in danger, she said, but “anybody can have a conversation with someone who is suicidal and can turn it around. It sounds like this person was willing to talk calmly without judging.” She said it can help to let people in crisis know they can call a 24-hour counseling center.

Nelson, who has lived in the U.S. for years and is a citizen, is among the top-rated long-distance runners in the country. The recent experience, she said, has made her stronger and added new perspective to her Olympic Trials run. If she makes the team, she said, it will be “the most incredible thing.”

“But this feels better than anything I have achieved in my career. I feel refreshed and love life more.”

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak

Where to call in crisis

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255