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Grace On Fire: 5 Questions With Kate Grace

We caught up with the middle distance runner in advance of the Millrose Games.

Kate Grace is off to a hot start on the indoor track circuit this winter. The 24-year-old, who is sponsored by Oiselle and trains with Frank Gagliano’s New Jersey-New York Track Club, turned more than a few heads with an 8:55.06, second-place finish in the 3,000m at the University Of Washington Invitational at the end of January, outkicking Abby D’Agostino and Jordan Hasay over the final 100 meters to finish less than a second behind winner Brie Felnagle.

Grace, a four-time All-American at Yale, competed in both the 800 and the 1,500 meters at last summer’s Olympic Trials. She’ll turn her attention next to the Wanamaker Mile this Saturday at the Millrose Games in New York City, where she’ll line up amongst a loaded field that includes D’Agostino and Hasay, as well as Olympian Emma Coburn, high school phenom Mary Cain and others.

We recently caught up with Grace, who just wrapped up a month-long training stint in Arizona with her New Jersey-New York Track Club teammate, Olympian Julie Culley.

Last summer you competed in both the 800m and 1,500m at the Olympic Trials, and most recently you ran a big 3K PR of 8:55 indoors. You’ll be competing in the Wanamaker Mile at this year’s Millrose Games. What do you feel is your best event, and where do you see yourself focusing heading into the 2016 Olympic cycle?

The 1,500. My training this year will focus on that event, with the understanding and hope that increased strength will help improve my 800, and upped mileage will allow me to drop my distance PRs. In college, I was an 800-meter runner, who occasionally ran 15s to spice it up and help get points for my team. Since joining Gags in January 2012, I have more than doubled my mileage and workout volume, and added tempos and long runs. It’s fun testing myself with new work, and exciting being able to meet those challenges. The fact that I have the speed background, and am able to hit the strength workouts, tells us that there is a lot more to come in the 1,500. Before the 3K, we were saying it’s like opening a present on Christmas morning: Not quite sure what we’re going to get, but I think I’ve been good, and I can’t wait to find out.

Speaking of Wanamaker, this is the first year they’re hosting a women’s mile, instead of the 1,500m. What does it mean to you to be a part of that star-studded field, which includes a few of your NYNJTC teammates, and do you feel like you have a bit of a home-track advantage being from the area?

It’s been a dream to run at Millrose, and I couldn’t have asked for a better field. All runners that I greatly respect, but also not a clear favorite. The field is open, and that makes for the best kind of race — one in which no one can be counted out.

As for New Jersey -New York Track Club teammates, there is a sense of sharing in each person’s success. They have been there everyday, all fall, doing the same, quality training. And I am as excited to see their improvements start to transfer from practice to race as I am my own. Plus, we get to hang and goof around all day to keep calm.

I actually have not raced much at the Armory. But, I know the warm-up loop, and I know where all the bathrooms are. That’s all it really takes to feel comfortable!

You train under Gags [Frank Gagliano] as a member of the New Jersey-New York Track Club, which is hodgepodge of athletes on the East Coast, including Olympian Julie Culley, Erin Donahue, Delilah DiCrescenzo and others. Talk about the group dynamic, how you fell into it, and what it’s like to train in New Jersey when so many other groups head to altitude or other running “meccas”?

I see the group dynamic as an extension of Gags — driven, passionate, proud, yet with a healthy dose of sarcasm and self-effacement. And always aware of the greater picture — be it loved ones, community, family, religion. Plus, there is an underdog vibe that is great. Maybe it’s because many of us share the story: underdeveloped college athlete, who didn’t immediately score the big contract. Or that we are removed from the west coast ‘meccas’ that get a lot of press. Maybe it’s simply that we aren’t sheltered from friends in big cities with ‘normal’ jobs. Whatever it is, I feel like I am both training with some of the best talent in the U.S., and in on a big secret. And that in itself is a race advantage. Who doesn’t love the underdog?

Coming out of college, I was clueless. But I was also lucky enough to have coaches and mentors who had run for Gags and were able to set up the connection. He watched me race at Princeton, and heard the story of my progression. Really, that was the only way it was going to happen. I was mainly notable in the details: what I had achieved with the given training, the glimmers of a large range from even high school, the competitive spark. And I couldn’t be happier with the result. I thrive with the type of coach who appeals to heart.

As for ‘meccas’ — I have six women who live within a mile radius who I can run and train with every day. We drive five minutes to a 320-meter indoor, or full outdoor track. I could do all of my regular running on soft surfaces out my back door. And there are more options a bit further that we explore on weekends. And being based here doesn’t preclude training trips. Julie spends two months in winter in Phoenix, I joined her for one this January. When we reunited back with teammates, our first run started with a dance party, we were so excited to be together. That is pretty ‘Mecca’-worthy to me.

Over the years, what’s been the single most important thing that’s helped you develop as a runner in terms of your training, recovery or mindset?

It’s always the mindset that makes the difference. Training is just a numbers game. Mentally, the ability to turn off the competitive urge during runs has saved me from injury and overtraining. It means I can go incredibly slow — like, how is it possible to go this slow and still move — on certain warm-ups or recovery runs, if that is what is needed. And it has allowed me to keep some runs for pure enjoyment. As a less dramatic example, I try to take competition out of practice, to train purely physical mechanisms. That way the special stores are saved for races.

And new developments: this year I am working on simplicity and consistency. Common for first year out, I was over thinking everything in 2012, as if I could graph and log my way into greatness. But that just became incredibly taxing, and also made it very hard to get in a groove. If there is one thing I’ve learned from Julie Culley, it’s that the fewer things on your list, the more likely you are to get them done. There doesn’t have to be many boxes on the ‘training’ list, the key is just to make sure they are all checked.

Sponsorship is a major issue for almost all post-collegiate athletes, especially a young professional such as yourself who is less than 2 years out of school. You’ve been representing Oiselle since last year, a small women’s apparel company out of Seattle. How do they help support your professional career? And what do you see as the biggest challenge for runners seeking sponsorship after college?

There is a lot of talk lately about the state of the current system. And runners much more experienced than I have written about the perfect storm — of a bad market, in a post-Olympic year, combined with imperfect information on the available opportunities, creating a toxic training environment. There is no rulebook, no formula, and athletes, especially new ones, are tight-lipped about their individual situations. Runners even years out don’t understand how it all works. Those in college shouldn’t be expected to. If I have had any success in navigating the current environment, it is through no great skill of my own, but because I am able to lean on an incredible set of mentors. They already know the ropes and can guide me as I am learning for myself.

For the business side, it seems that those with the most knowledge are not necessarily the coaches. That is unfortunate, because college athletes are used to going to their coaches for all aspects of track. For me, the journey is possible because I am surrounded by people, coaches and otherwise, who either know the answer, or know where to look.

And that journey has taken me to Oiselle. I do receive financial support from them, but the really remarkable thing about the relationship is just that…the relationships. I am friends with everyone in the office. I have personal connections with ambassador runners. I have even been coordinating with a few about their plans to come cheer me on at Millrose. The core mission of the company is to support that kind of relationship, developed through a mutual love of running. For me, it gives wholeness to the business aspect. And on a larger scale, I think it’s a great model to continue connecting different levels, distances, and types of running. Plus, I get awesome clothes.