When Steve Spence was a ninth-grader at Lower Dauphin High School in Hummelstown, Pa., he went out for cross country and, during a race, ran a mile in under 5 minutes. No big deal, lots of teenagers do that.
No one, however, has done what Spence accomplished May 11, when he ran a sub-5 minute mile for the 41st consecutive year. Spence clocked 4:54.0 on the track at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, where he was a collegiate star and where he has been the head cross country coach since 1998, was a past head track coach, and is still the assistant track coach.
Spence, who turned 54 two days before his mile, was paced by “Ship” assistant coach Matt Gillette, a past U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier with a half marathon personal best of 1:04:37. Spence was cheered on by roughly 40 of his student athletes, who had an easy training day before traveling to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference championships at Mansfield University the next day.
Spence said he felt strong the entire way, running the mile aerobically without having to over-exert himself to reach his goal.
“It was a beautiful day,” Spence said. “I gave the team a bit of a warning before their shakeout run, that if my warm-up and strides felt good I will try for the sub-5. Team members then took over, as they have done before. They grabbed stop watches, got ready and set everything up.
“It’s become a tradition. They get excited to do it, and it was the last opportunity before the summer (break). They definitely get excited about it and yell, cheer and stuff, and hopefully got fired up before their conference meet.”
It must have helped, as the Raiders won both the men’s and women’s conference crowns, continuing their own impressive streaks. The Shippensburg women won for the seventh consecutive year, and it was eight straight for the men.
Spence’s splits were 75-74-74-71 seconds for each of the laps.
“The 75 first lap felt comfortable,” Spence said, and after that first 440 “there was no stress or doubt in my mind that I would not make it. I felt good and was confident. Matt cranked it down (on the second lap), maintained it and on the last lap, I thought, ‘alright, let’s get going and close it out,’ It felt good. I never got in trouble.
“I was just happy that I got it done and I did not have to struggle too much. After a few minutes I was recovered and actually felt stronger than before the mile,” he said. He says he’s excited about his level of fitness as he gets ready for the summer road racing season.
Spence did not feel so good when he squeezed in his 2015 sub-5, last December. However, six months of working on stretching with Phil Wharton, the well-known physiotherapist, made all the difference.
“When I did the mile back in December, it did not benefit me, it tore me down more than helped me,” Spence explained. “Phil just lives over the mountain from here and volunteers (with the team). He got me back on the stretching and that has really helped. He got me going in the right direction.”
Spence has been going in the right direction since starting running. After graduating from Shippensburg with two NCAA D-II titles to go along with a degree in Business Management, he went on to become one of America’s top marathoners, taking the bronze medal at the 1991 IAAF World Championships marathon and winning the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. He also had the American road records for 12K and 15K.
During those years, the affable father of four, including elite runner Neely Spence Gracey, ran for himself, for fast times and prize money. Running fast was his profession.
Now, he runs to inspire others.
“My motivation now with running is to help other people a lot more than myself. I make it about others and not about myself,” Spence said in a phone interview from the Inside Track in Mechanicsburg, Pa., one of four central Pennsylvania running stores owned by his buddy, Mark Amway. Spence was there to talk with store manager Jim Agate, who is going to attempt to break 17 minutes for 5K; Spence is going to help him.
What does Spence attribute his remarkable streak to?
“Clean living,” he said. “I try to take care of myself. I try to eat well and take my supplements and get plenty of sleep and rest. Right now it is something for fun, I don’t necessarily have huge goals. I take it as it comes and try to have fun with it.
“I also feel inspired by the young women and men that I interact with on a daily basis. They have many more distractions than the runners of my era and much more is expected of them academically, but track performances at all levels are off the charts.”
Spence weighs about 135 pounds, just as he did when he was a professional runner and less than his high school and college weight. Watch him in this YouTube video from his sub-5 last December and see how he has retained his world-class form. On a recent run, journalist Scott Douglas told Spence, “’You look the same, your stride still looks the same,’” Spence recalled.
That is what Spence strives for.
“As an elite athlete, you push the limits of what the human body is capable of doing and hopefully inspire people along the way. I am still doing that to some extent, but in a different way. I am still hoping to inspire others to a healthy lifestyle and to go after their goals.”