Neely Spence Gracey’s goals before her debut marathon, which happened to be last April’s 120th Boston Marathon, were numerous.
There were the goals that fell under the KISS category (Keep It Simple Stupid)—finish the marathon, preferably standing up; enjoy the experience; be excited to come back for more.
There were the competitive goals. Place in the top 10, finish in 2 hours, 35 minutes.
Goals set. Goals accomplished. Spence Gracey finished ninth overall among the women in—get this—exactly 2 hours, 35 minutes.
And she loved the experience, despite throwing up immediately after crossing the finish line.
“The first thing I thought of was, ‘I hope the cameras aren’t on me,’” joked Spence Gracey regarding emptying her stomach. “Very unglamorous.”
But overall, the 26-year-old daughter of an Olympic marathon father, who was born on the day of the 1990 Boston Marathon, loved her first experience at the distance.
Taking a call while stretching in the pool at her Boulder, Colo., condo, Spence Gracey said, “When I look back at it, I’m super happy and want to do another one.”
Marathon number two will come Nov. 6 at the New York City Marathon. As a tune-up, she’ll return to the City of Brotherly Love for the American Association For Cancer Research (AACR) Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on Sept. 18. She placed second and set her PR of 1:09:58 last year, running on the day of Halloween.
Returning to its traditional mid-September weekend, AACR Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon will send runners on a fast and familiar course for its 39th year. Five world records and three American records have been sealed at this race. The storied event, which also includes a 5K on Sept. 17, is known for live bands and fanfare, entertaining participants along the course. This year’s post-race Toyota Rock ‘n’ Roll Concert Series will be headlined by Guster.
When asked for the Cliff’s Notes version of what she learned from her marathon debut, Spence Gracey said, “I learned most likely it’s not going to go according to plan.”
Read blindly, the quotation would seem to be harbinger of negative experiences. Maybe the Wellesley co-eds’ screaming bursting Spence Gracey’s eardrums. Or her long blonde ponytail coming unraveled, tripping over a bobby pin and finishing the race with bloodied shins. Or needing motorized assistance to ascend Heartbreak Hill.
Nope. Spence Gracey was speaking of more positive possibilities, like when she was leading the race at the six-mile mark with fellow American Sarah Crouch.
“Never in my wildest imagination did I expect to lead the Boston Marathon at Mile 6,” said Spence Gracey. “It was different than any scenario I could have imagined.”
She was realistic, harboring no grandiose dreams that she might win the race.
“No, not at all,” she said.
That honor fell to Ethiopia’s Atsede Baysa, who finished nearly a mile ahead of Spence Gracey, in 2:29:19.
But the American reveled in the moment.
“In 20 years, I’ll look back at that experience (of the race) and what I’ll remember most is that feeling of leading the Boston Marathon.”
Another experience she didn’t plan: running by herself for miles late in the race. Yet that’s what happened from about Mile 18 on. When a lead group pulled away, she and Crouch basically ran together from Mile 7 through 18, alternating who was in front. But Crouch faded and Spence Gracey ventured into no-man’s land.
“I had no idea what place I was in,” she said. “It was just (thinking) ‘Focus forward.’”
At about Mile 21, she glanced at her watch, began doing math calculations and realized she had to average 5:40 miles the last five miles to meet her 2:35 goal.
“So,” she said, making it sound much simpler than it had to be, “that’s what I did.”
It was no easy task, given that Spence Gracey averaged 6:04 miles from Mile 13 through 22.
“The last 100 meters I was kicking it in,” she said. “I knew I was going to be real close. I also knew I was about to throw up the minute I crossed the finish line.”
Recovery has gone well. Spence Gracey placed fourth (first American) at the Peachtree 10K on July 4, in 33:25. She won the Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon 13 days later, in 1:12:26. That was nearly two minutes faster than her victory at the Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon in February.
She recently finished sixth at the Falmouth Road Race (37:50), a 7-miler on Aug. 21, and then began training in earnest for AACR Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia.
In addition to racing professionally, Spence Gracey coaches runners. Four of them train in Boulder, the others she coaches via the Internet. When her competitive days are history she could go to work for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series, so passionate and genuine is she about supporting the series that emphasizes entertainment, participation and fun.
“I love the energy of Rock ‘n’ Roll races,” she said. “There’s nothing like being out there on the course and every mile having a band cheering you on. They always give you something during the race to pump you up and keep you going.
“Whether you’re an elite athlete or a first-time racer, it provides an awesome venue for everyone.”
It’s still too early for Spence Gracey to assign a time goal for New York and her second trip at the marathon distance. But, it’s easy to imagine that with one 26.2-miler in her memory bank, that she’ll press her foot on the accelerator harder this time.
“I wanted a positive experience (at Boston) and thought it was better to be conservative and come out on the other side feeling confident that there’s more in the tank and wanting to do another one versus having a bad experience and not being excited to do another one,” she said.
“I finished knowing I want to do a fall marathon. And I don’t want to let too much time pass before I forget all those lessons. I want to run another 26 miles while it’s relatively fresh in my mind.”