Ultimately, Neely wasn’t fit enough to compete in the trials, and she moved into an apartment above one of the Hansons’ running stores in July. She spent the summer and fall building her strength and recovering from Lyme disease — most of her family was eventually diagnosed, a consequence of living on a farm in tick country. Neely had never taken antibiotics, and the treatment, she says, was harder on her body than Lyme disease had been. “July, August and September were pretty tough,” she says.
But by November she was training well and was scheduled to open her fall season at the Dash To The Finish Line 5K in New York during New York City Marathon weekend. When Hurricane Sandy canceled the race, she found an 8K in Richmond, Virginia instead. Steve, a three-hour drive away, had a free weekend and agreed to run. Neely dropped him by mile three and ran 25:22. Steve ran 25:45. It was the first time she’d ever beaten her dad.
“It was exciting and a little sad,” she says. In December, she traveled to Japan to race in the Chiba Ekiden, then spent two weeks in Australia and ran the Zatopek 10,000, her debut at the distance, and won in 32:16.
In Michigan, under the Hansons-Brooks program, Neely is now training like a long-distance runner: two runs per day, more mileage, and more strength-based workouts. “In college I sort of undertrained — trained more like a 1,500 to 3K runner, and then I’d race up to the 5K,” she says. “We’ve put more of an emphasis on strength work here, which is exactly what I needed.”
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Her first workouts were tough, but Keith Hanson says that she’s adapted quickly. She averaged around 80 miles per week this winter, with a long run of 16 miles — plenty for a 10,000m runner, but not enough for the marathon. That won’t come for several more years. “The lower limit is at 100 (miles per week) for elite-level marathoning,” Keith Hanson says. It’ll take another couple of years before she’s there, Hanson says, and in the meantime she’ll focus on making world and Olympic teams at 5,000 or 10,000.
But there’s no mistaking what event she’ll end up in. The Hansons are a marathon group, specialists at building long-distance racers from the ground up. Neely, already a top runner when she joined the group, is in that sense an unusual recruit, and it is clear that the brothers have high hopes for her career. “Look how smooth she is,” Keith says, almost in awe, as she swept by during the workout in Florida.
It wouldn’t be exactly right to describe Neely Spence Gracey as a prodigy: she didn’t break any national records in high school, and her highest finish at Foot Locker national championships was fourth. And because she chose not to attend a bigger Division I school, she has generated less enthusiasm among running fans than some of her higher-profile peers.
But she is now beginning to capitalize on a decade of strong, consistent training, and if her father’s career is any sort of indication, she is years away from realizing her potential. However, the more she succeeds, the more she will be compared to her father.
“Those comparisons to my career are going to be inevitable,” Steve says. “But it’s something that she embraced. And the truth is, she achieved way, way more than I ever did in high school, and she achieved, after one year of college, way more than I ever did as a collegiate. At every point in her development she’s been well ahead of where I’ve been. And I hope that continues for her. I think it will.”
This piece first appeared in the June 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.