Neely Spence-Gracey will compete at this Sunday’s World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, where she hopes to help the U.S. senior women’s team return to a spot on the podium.
The 22-year-old first-year professional, who finished fifth at the U.S. Cross Country Championships in February to qualify for the world team, trains with the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Rochester Hills, Michigan. Her first year on the pro circuit has been a successful one, highlighted by two top-3 placings at U.S. road championships (3rd at Tufts 10K, 2nd at CVS 5K), and a win at the Zatopek 10K in Australia last december, where she clocked a personal best 32:16.51 for the 6.2-mile distance.
Spence-Gracey, who was married on New Year’s Eve, was an 8-time NCAA Division II national champion at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, where she was coached by her dad, 1991 World Championship marathon bronze medalist Steve Spence. We caught up with her recently to talk about her first year as a professional, how she’s handled adapting to new coaches and a different training environment, and where she sees her career heading in the next few years.
This year’s U.S. Cross Country Championship featured a stacked field. How exciting was it for you to make your first senior team in your first year as a professional?
It was really exciting. My first-ever world team was the junior team to Jordan in 2009, so I hadn’t raced U.S. cross since then, and it was really fun to go back. They really put on a great event in St. Louis and I really enjoyed myself out there. I met my goal of qualifying and making the team and it’s pretty cool. I’m excited to go to Poland. It will be a great experience. Any world championship race is extremely valuable and this is such a monumentous time in my career.
You haven’t even completed your first full year as a professional yet, but what have been the biggest lessons you’ve learned up to this point?
The biggest transition for me is that my dad isn’t my coach any more. He coached me my entire life until this point, so it was definitely a change. I knew that I wanted training partners, and that’s been incredible. I would rather run in negative 20-degree temperatures and 50 mile-per-hour winds if I had people there than bright, sunny 70-degree weather by myself. Not that it’s that extreme in Michigan, but it’s so true that having people to train with just makes my job so much fun. So that’s been the biggest thing that I’ve enjoyed the most about becoming a professional athlete is having my teammates there every day.
You talked about your dad not being your coach for the first time in your life. How has the transition been going from your dad’s coaching style to Keith and Kevin’s way of doing things?
Keith and Kevin did a great job bringing me back from my injury last summer. We started from scratch pretty much so it worked out really well because we had a lot of communication, a lot of feedback, so they were able to get to know me as a person and an athlete as they were building up the schedule for me. And I would say there were definitely some early workouts where they pushed me harder than what I was used to and part of that was also me adapting to a new system. I undertrained quite a bit all through high school and college so now I finally feel like I’m starting to do some workouts where I’m starting to match my abilities, so that’s been a really neat experience — and a learning curve, too. When I first joined the Hansons they asked for my running log for the last year and went through the whole thing to learn what it was that I had done. They gave it back to me and were like, “Well, you definitely trained like a 3K athlete and we’re going to train you like a 10K athlete and really focus on some strength here.” And I was like, “Great! The strength workouts are what I love. I love long runs and I love tempos.” And that was really exciting to me because I felt it was a weakness and an area I could work on, so that’s been our focus right now. Basically, they put it this way: “Yes, eventually we have to get you to be able to kick a 65 at the end of a 10K, but you have to be there to make the kick happen.” So right now we’re building the 24 laps before that and we’ll work on that last lap once the first 24 are complete.
On that topic, in college you were primarily a 3K/5K athlete, and the Hansons are known as a marathon group, and here you are kind of in the middle of it all as one of the younger members of the team. Where do you see yourself down the road? Will you stay on the track for a few more years or will you start transitioning toward some longer road races soon?
When I was first starting to think about groups, the Hansons never even came to mind because like you said, they were strictly a marathon group. And then I met with Kevin and started talking, and he said, “Well, no. If you have goals at the 5k and 10K, we’re going to meet those. And he was excited about that, and excited about working with me and that got me excited about it because I know that eventually I do want to the marathon, so I wanted a group that could take me from where I’m at, be OK with that, and once I meet my goals here, continue to move forward. And I wanted that option to be available, so yeah, it’s awesome how I can now focus on what I want to focus on and the transition will come when I’m ready for it.
What’s the one thing that gets you out of bed to train every morning and where do you see your career heading four, eight or even 12 years down the road from now?
Absolutely it’s my teammates. We meet every morning at 7:30 and knowing that we’re all relying on each other is incredible. I spent almost two months recently training in Pennsylvania pretty much alone and I’d get out of bed and go for my run and if I don’t start my day out with a run I don’t know what to do. Everything just seems off. But it’s so much more fun to have teammates. My first run back in Michigan was a long run and I did 16 miles with Dot [McMahon] and I finished the 16 miles and I didn’t even feel like I went for a run. It was incredible and the run just passed so quickly and felt great. We were clicking off 6:20 miles at the end no problem just chatting up a storm. So just situations like that make it so much easier and reaffirms my decision to come out here. I definitely feel a huge sense of gratitude toward Hansons and my teammates and everything we can do together.
As far as my career, I definitely see all of those years are running years and I think the next four years are going to be a focus on the 5K and 10K and maybe after that I’ll reevaluate and see if I want to start working on some longer distances. I definitely see the marathon in the future. I’m not sure if that will be in four years or eight years or however long, but yeah, just building. With distance running, every year builds on the previous year. The biggest thing is to have that progression. My progresssion the last nine years has been great, and every year I can say that I’ve improved, so that’s the biggest goal for the next nine years is to continue that trend.