Sitting beneath a bridge on Figueroa Street watching the country’s best distance runners struggle through the heat at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, Neely Spence Gracey knew her decision to forgo the race in favor of making her long-awaited marathon debut on April 18 in Boston was the correct one.
“I kept waiting for the pang of regret, and it never came,” Gracey says. “My preparation would have been very rushed, and I may or may not have made it there healthy.”
Gracey is healthy now, and after winning the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon in 1:14:20 on Feb. 28, she’ll be the top American entrant in the 120th running of the Boston Marathon. In her most recent tune-up race, she placed 10th in the NYC Half Marathon (1:13:17) on March 20.
Although she’s only 26, running fans have been waiting to see what she might be able to do in the marathon for a long time. The daughter of 1991 world championships bronze medalist Steve Spence, Gracey was a child prodigy, a high school standout and an NCAA Division II record-breaker at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania under the coaching guidance of her dad.
While she excelled in cross country and in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters on the track, she turned pro in 2012 with an eye on eventually running the marathon. After battling a few minor injuries in the past couple of years, she ran a breakthrough race at the Rock ’n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon on Oct. 31. She placed second in the women’s race in 1:09:58, becoming only the 10th American woman to break 1:10.
Given that the top five finishers at the Olympic Trials are all in their 30s, Gracey could be one of the faces of the next generation of U.S. marathoners by the time the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials are here—along with Kellyn Taylor, 29, Alia Gray, 27, Maegan Krifichin, 27, and Katja Goldring, 25.
“I grew up knowing that being a professional runner was an option,” Gracey says. “Until I was 7, we’d come out to Boulder for my dad’s training every summer. I did not know everyone didn’t do that—that kids don’t go to Colorado for their dad’s altitude training.”
Gracey grew up as an “active kid,” but was more interested in theater and horseback riding than running. That all changed when she ran a 17:40 5K as an eighth-grader, just six months after starting running.
“I think I had that natural ability, and I was raised with the distance running mentality my whole life,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I worked hard to improve in high school, but the love of running was innate.”
Although she is coached by her husband, Dillon, and Steve Magness, the University of Houston cross country coach and author of “The Science of Running,” Gracey says her dad is still one of her key advisers and mentors—especially when it comes to racing strategy and big running-related decisions.
Gracey, who will turn 26 two days before the Boston Marathon, knows she’ll face a deep field there—including London Olympic gold medalist Tiki Gelana of Ethiopia and defending champion Caroline Rotich of Kenya—but she’s not planning to go out with the leaders at a 2:22 pace. She knows the hills will make it a tough course to debut on.
As a 2-year-old, Gracey was there when her dad won the 1992 U.S. Olympic Trials in Columbus, Ohio, earning a chance to run the marathon in the Barcelona Olympics (where he placed 12th). After winning the Trials, Steve crowned Neely with his victor’s laurel wreath. But, she points out, Boston has an even deeper connection for her.
“Every year, I hear the story that I was born while my Dad was running the Boston Marathon in 1990,” Gracey says. “When I knew I couldn’t run in the Olympic Trials this year, the next thing was Boston, and it just fell into place and it seems like a perfect fit.”