In the dawn before Sunday’s Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon, Neely Spence Gracey broke out a black marker and printed three words on the top of her left hand.
Attitude. Believe. Commit.
The ABC’s, she calls the message.
“I want the attitude right from the beginning that this is a race. Stay focused,” she said. “Believe I could do it. Believe in my training. Believe in myself. And when things get hard, know I committed to this.”
On a picturesque morning that began with temperatures in the mid-60s, the self encouragement worked wonders as Spence Gracey immediately sped to the front of the women’s race, winning in 1 hour, 11 minutes, 2 seconds.
For the 26-year-old from Boulder, Colo., it’s the second fastest half marathon of her career, exceeded only by her 1:09:59 at Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia in 2015.
“The goal was to come out and run a hard effort,” Spence Gracey said. “And I accomplished that.”
Tori Tyler of Oakland, Calif., finished second in 1:18:25.
In the men’s half marathon, Jack St. Marie of San Diego broke the tape in 1:09:04. David Smith of Houston took second in 1:10:19.
Spence Gracey is coming off an impressive 2016 season. She made her marathon debut last year at Boston, finishing ninth overall and as the top American in 2:35. She came back in November to place eighth at the New York City Marathon in 2:34:55.
After New York, she took two weeks off, enjoying a European cruise with her husband. The break has agreed with her.
She won Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona last month in 1:12:39. In defending her title at New Orleans, Spence Gracey bettered last year’s time by three minutes and 18 seconds.
“By taking time off, my fitness has definitely come around faster,” she said.
It seems that a successful career in running has always been Spence Gracey’s fate. Her father, Steve Spence, won the 1992 Olympic Marathon Trials, then finished 12th at the Barcelona Games. Spence Gracey was born on the day her father ran the 94th Boston Marathon.
She has become a Rock ‘n’ Roll regular, her blonde ponytail sashaying from side to side at the front of the women’s field.
“My favorite part of Rock ‘n’ Roll is the awesome energy,” she said. “It relaxes the environment. Everyone’s here just to have a good time. I really enjoy coming and getting to be a part of the party.”
The 13.1-mile route passed southern mansions and dipped below massive oak trees. Beads hung from trees and trolley-car wires—as one would expect in the Big Easyjazz—while the music from curbside bands filled the air.
Between Saturday’s 5K and Sunday’s 10K, half marathon and marathon, more than 20,000 runners, walkers and wheelchair athletes hit the streets of New Orleans.
In the men’s marathon, Clay Emge of Tyler, Texas, took first in 2:34:15. Hannah Cooling won the women’s marathon in 2:50:28.
On a course that’s nearly ironing-board flat, Spence Gracey got a kick out of a sign late in the race that read, “This is the last hill.” But she showed her grit and focus. Her final mile was her fastest: 5:09.
Spence Gracey is passing on a spring marathon this year, hoping to set a personal record in the half marathon. She’s targeting a fall marathon, most likely in Berlin or Chicago.
As for inking the words attitude, believe and commit on her left hand, that began last month with her Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon victory:
“I’m trying to take my running to the next level,” she said. “It’s the little details that help make that happen. It’s something to remind me why I’m doing this. When sometimes you question yourself on the course.
“Those words are important. They remind me to stay focused, stay engaged in the moment. It helps me get that little extra out of myself.”