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.