Young American Spence Gracey Puts In The Time — And Miles

Neely Spence Gracey training in San Luis Obispo earlier this year. Photo: Jeff Clark

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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.”

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