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Young American Spence Gracey Puts In The Time — And Miles

Although she missed the recent U.S. championships with an injury, Neely Spence Gracey is poised to become the next great American runner.

Although she missed the recent U.S. championships with an injury, Neely Spence Gracey is poised to become the next great American runner.

Shortly after 8 a.m. on a brisk morning in early March, Neely Spence Gracey is running along a vacant stretch of road near a housing development in central Florida. Her coach, Keith Hanson, is following in a large, garishly painted camper van and stopping every half-mile to call out splits. An up-and-coming 5K runner as a collegiate athlete and young professional, Neely is running a workout — four one-and-a-half mile repetitions, with half a mile recovery between each — a standard session for runners in the Hansons program, but longer than almost any other she’s done. And she looks great.

Earlier, Hanson told Neely to begin her reps at 5:40 mile pace and work down to 5:30 by the end of the workout. But out on the road, her first mile passes in 5:29. If it were another runner, Hanson says from behind the wheel, he’d be yelling at her to slow down, but Neely knows her body, and she’s unlikely to go over the edge. “She doesn’t skip a beat,” he says.

By rep three she is running 5:10 pace and looking about as comfortable as she did warming up: back straight, hands low, her stride long and prancing. Hanson says, to my surprise, that he thinks she’ll be able to hold this pace on grass at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships later in the month. It seems ambitious — Neely is just rounding into shape, and was fifth at the U.S. nationals in February, in 26:54 — but she runs rep four, which finishes slightly uphill and into a headwind, in 7:58, a pace of 5:20 per mile.

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In the van, Hanson explains that Neely doesn’t consider a workout complete until she has jogged the final rest interval, a bit of superstition. As we pull alongside, Hanson asks if she wants water. She says yes, but reminds him she still has a couple more minutes left. Hanson smiles. Neely, he says, often reminds him of Olympian Desiree Davila, who is back at the team’s home base in Rochester Hills, Mich., recovering from a femoral stress fracture. Both are focused, unusually motivated, and yet totally coachable. They believe in the program. On a lighter note, Hanson says, both are also fans — students of the sport. “She can tell you everything about everyone in the sport,” Hanson says.

Neely, who was an eight-time NCAA Division II national champion at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, has been with the Hansons since last August. Many close to the sport think she’s primed to become one of America’s next great distance runners — and with good reason — although probably not until she progresses to running the marathon in a few years.

But by most measures, 2012, an Olympic year and her first season as a professional, was tumultuous. After almost a decade of slow, steady progress running under the guidance of her father, 1991 World Championships marathon bronze medalist Steve Spence, she left college, sustained her first major injury, missed the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, got sick, got married, and moved eight hours away from home. Home-schooled for much of her youth, Neely says that she now lives out of a suitcase. The Hansons are the only other people aside from her father to have worked as her coach, and while she is upbeat, positive and “even-keeled” (in Keith Hanson’s words), when I meet her in Florida, there is also a sense that the stakes are higher than they have ever been. She is out on a limb.

Two weeks after my visit, Neely finished 13th in the talent-rich 8K race at the cross country world championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, beating three of the women who finished ahead of her at the U.S. championships in St. Louis, including 2012 Olympian Kim Conley, and outleaning Irish star Fionnuala Britton at the line. By dint of a new IAAF rule, any runner who cracked the top 20 was automatically credited with an A-standard in the 10,000m for this summer’s track & field world championships in Russia, so she picked that up, too, greatly increasing her chances of making the world team, provided she finishes in the top three at the U.S. championships in Des Moines, Iowa, in late June. It was likely the best race of her career. The limb, so far, is strong.

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For years, Neely did long runs with her dad or worked out with boys because few girls could keep up with her. And, a lot of the time, she simply ran alone. By the fall of her senior year at Shippensburg in 2011, eyeing the U.S. Olympic Trials the following summer, she was on a different schedule than the rest of the Ship team, training through races and doing different workouts. By NCAAs in Spokane, Wash., undefeated all fall, she was desperate for competition.

On the morning of the race, Neely awoke to hard snow and high winds. “We started off and 600 meters into the race we ran straight across a field and made a sharp left,” she remembers. “At the sharp left I went into the lead and led the rest of the race. At the time when I took over, Lauren Kleppin from Western State says, ‘Go get it Spence,’” essentially conceding the win. Neely ran alone to the finish, and instead of celebrating the final win of her NCAA career, she hated every step. It was a cold, lonely grind. “I finished and I was like, that wasn’t what I wanted out of my last cross country race at all,” she says.

Post-race, three things happened. First, Neely decided that she wanted to end her season on a high note, so she registered for the U.S. club cross country championships two weeks later in Seattle, where she would run against a handful of pros. And when she finished as runner-up there, losing to Brie Felnagle by only four seconds, she realized that she was ready to become a professional herself. Third, wherever she ended up as a pro, she knew she wanted teammates.

Within days, Steve Spence was calling agents and Neely was polling other runners for advice in securing a shoe contract. She settled on Ray Flynn, who manages Lauren Fleshman, Ryan Hall and Deena Kastor, among others, after a two-hour conversation over the phone. Since Neely was still in cross-country mode, Flynn suggested she run at the Great Edinburgh Cross Country race in Scotland in early January to make her professional debut. In fourth place with less than half a mile to go, Neely jumped over a muddy water bar, landed awkwardly, and broke her left foot. Six months from the Olympic track trials and barely minutes into her professional running career — so new that she hadn’t even signed a shoe contract — she was badly injured.

The Spence’s are a running family. Neely’s parents, Steve and Kirsten, met at a road race and married in 1989. Kirsten gave birth to Neely on Patriot’s Day in 1990 while Steve was running the Boston Marathon. Both parents trained hard through Neely’s early childhood (Kirsten is a 17:00 5K runner) and for years the family spent summers in Boulder, Colo., for altitude training. “My parents would get a babysitter so they could go run,” Neely recalls. By age 3, she had learned to ride a bike to keep up with her parents on training runs. “To be a part of the family, that’s just what I had to do,” she says.

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Steve, a two-time NCAA Division II champion and 1985 graduate of Shippensburg, had his big break shortly after his daughter was born. Self-coached since college, he ran up to 150 miles a week, often with only his dogs for training partners, but it took until the Columbus Marathon in 1990, his sixth try at the distance, before he could get it right. He won in 2:12:17 and several months later finished third in the 1991 world championships marathon in Tokyo. He remains one of only two American men to medal in that event at the world championships. He later won the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon and went on to place 12th at the Barcelona Olympics before going into semi-retirement in 1997, when he took the coaching job at Shippensburg.

Having parents who ran, even at a high level, didn’t mean that Neely was forced into the sport, or even, necessarily, that she would want to run. She showed only mild interest in the sport until she was 13, when she watched a tape of the Foot Locker National High School Cross Country Championships that Steve’s assistant coach at Shippensburg had recorded. “She saw that and she was like, ‘Wow, this is the greatest thing ever,’” Steve remembers. Neely asked her dad if he could help her get to Foot Locker, and he agreed.

Shortly before Neely’s 14th birthday she joined her dad at a St. Patrick’s Day 5K road race. Several weeks earlier she’d run a 5K in 18:58, and Steve figured she might be able to finish this one in around 18:30. After he crossed the line in a bit under 15 minutes, he stood near the finish with family waiting for Neely. “At 17:30 into the race, I’m like, ‘Neely should be in in a minute, so we should start looking for her,’” he says. “And then my mom says, ‘No, there she is!’” Neely ran 17:40, shocking her father. “Things were able to take off from there,” he says.

Neely, like her two sisters and brother, was home-schooled on the Spence’s seven-acre farm and coached by Steve throughout high school and college. Unlike Steve’s career — in which he experimented on himself and learned through trial and error — Neely’s training has been structured and moderate. Her weekly mileage in college topped out at 75, with days off every two weeks or so. “He was careful and held me back,” Neely says. “He wanted me to graduate with a lot ahead of me. He’s brought me along in such an incremental way, with just constant, steady baby steps.” Neely has been running for nine years, and she has recorded at least one PR in each of them. The fracture in her foot from the cross country race in Scotland was her first injury.

The first half of 2012 was tough for Neely. She and then-fiance Dillon traveled to Houston for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon, where she met with Kevin and Keith Hanson. She was drawn to the program in part, she says, because it was group-based, and after years of being the best runner on her team and training mostly solo, she wanted training partners. It didn’t hurt that Desiree Davila had made an Olympic team that weekend, or that Dot McMahan and Melissa White have continued to run PRs into their 30s.

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“I want a long career,” Neely says. The brothers agreed that she should stay home in Pennsylvania through the track trials in Eugene, after which she would move to suburban Detroit and join the program full-time.

The injury had rattled Neely, though, and she was unwilling to concede that she might miss her chance at making the Olympic team. In the process of sounding out other runners as she decided on an agent and a training group, Neely also solicited advice on cross-training.

“She had it in her mind that she was going to go crazy with the cross-training,” Steve says. He wanted her to rest — an Olympic spot would have been a long shot, even if she had been perfectly healthy — and he worried that going overboard would simply slow her recovery. But Neely wouldn’t give up.

“She had these goals, and she would not let go of these goals of making the Olympic team, of getting to run in the trials,” Steve says. “It ended up becoming somewhat of an unhealthy obsession.”

Ultimately, Neely wasn’t fit enough to compete in the trials, and she moved into an apartment above one of the Hansons’ running stores in July. She spent the summer and fall building her strength and recovering from Lyme disease — most of her family was eventually diagnosed, a consequence of living on a farm in tick country. Neely had never taken antibiotics, and the treatment, she says, was harder on her body than Lyme disease had been. “July, August and September were pretty tough,” she says.

But by November she was training well and was scheduled to open her fall season at the Dash To The Finish Line 5K in New York during New York City Marathon weekend. When Hurricane Sandy canceled the race, she found an 8K in Richmond, Virginia instead. Steve, a three-hour drive away, had a free weekend and agreed to run. Neely dropped him by mile three and ran 25:22. Steve ran 25:45. It was the first time she’d ever beaten her dad.

“It was exciting and a little sad,” she says. In December, she traveled to Japan to race in the Chiba Ekiden, then spent two weeks in Australia and ran the Zatopek 10,000, her debut at the distance, and won in 32:16.

In Michigan, under the Hansons-Brooks program, Neely is now training like a long-distance runner: two runs per day, more mileage, and more strength-based workouts. “In college I sort of undertrained — trained more like a 1,500 to 3K runner, and then I’d race up to the 5K,” she says. “We’ve put more of an emphasis on strength work here, which is exactly what I needed.”

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Her first workouts were tough, but Keith Hanson says that she’s adapted quickly. She averaged around 80 miles per week this winter, with a long run of 16 miles — plenty for a 10,000m runner, but not enough for the marathon. That won’t come for several more years. “The lower limit is at 100 (miles per week) for elite-level marathoning,” Keith Hanson says. It’ll take another couple of years before she’s there, Hanson says, and in the meantime she’ll focus on making world and Olympic teams at 5,000 or 10,000.

But there’s no mistaking what event she’ll end up in. The Hansons are a marathon group, specialists at building long-distance racers from the ground up. Neely, already a top runner when she joined the group, is in that sense an unusual recruit, and it is clear that the brothers have high hopes for her career. “Look how smooth she is,” Keith says, almost in awe, as she swept by during the workout in Florida.

It wouldn’t be exactly right to describe Neely Spence Gracey as a prodigy: she didn’t break any national records in high school, and her highest finish at Foot Locker national championships was fourth. And because she chose not to attend a bigger Division I school, she has generated less enthusiasm among running fans than some of her higher-profile peers.

But she is now beginning to capitalize on a decade of strong, consistent training, and if her father’s career is any sort of indication, she is years away from realizing her potential. However, the more she succeeds, the more she will be compared to her father.

“Those comparisons to my career are going to be inevitable,” Steve says. “But it’s something that she embraced. And the truth is, she achieved way, way more than I ever did in high school, and she achieved, after one year of college, way more than I ever did as a collegiate. At every point in her development she’s been well ahead of where I’ve been. And I hope that continues for her. I think it will.”

This piece first appeared in the June 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.

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