Neely Spence was born on April 16, 1990, the date of the 94th Boston Marathon. Her father, Steve Spence, ran Boston that day, finishing 19th, not finding out until after the race that his wife had given birth to a baby girl.
Two years later, Steve placed 12th in the marathon at the Barcelona Olympics.
Born to be a runner?
Neely remembers childhood summer drives from the family’s home in Shippensburg, Penn., to Colorado for dad’s altitude training, setting up his water bottles along the roads. On career day, while others kids showed off their doctor-lawyer-salesman dads, Neely’s father led the kids on school-yard jogs.
“It was my normal, it was my every day,” Neely says of her father’s profession. “I didn’t recognize that it was something really special.”
Daughter followed dad’s footsteps. She’s 25 now, married – she goes by Neely Spence Gracey – and is one of America’s most promising professional runners. Sunday morning, Spence Gracey will line up as the women’s favorite for the Humana Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon.
The race will be a tune-up for Spence Gracey, shaking out some post-injury cobwebs that prevented her from making her marathon debut at the U.S. Olympic Trials. Now she’s preparing to make her 26.2-mile debut at the 120th Boston Marathon on April 18th.
Of Boston, she says, “I’m so excited. And so nervous at the same time.”
If a Hollywood director arranged a casting call for the ideal long-distance runner, the description would resemble Spence Gracey.
She watched the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships in the eighth grade, was moved by the grit the runners displayed and said, “I’m going to go there. I want to be one of the best.”
“That’s the Olympics of high school,” her father told her. “It’s going to take a lot of work.”
“Tell me what to do,” she replied.
In the 11th grade, she finished eighth at Foot Locker, then fourth as a senior.
She began taking college classes her junior year in high school. Upon graduating from high school she had already earned a semester of college credits.
She ran collegiately at Division II Shippensburg University where she was coached by her father. (Today, she’s coached by Steve Magness and her husband, Dillon Gracey.)
While she often begged her father to let loose of the reins, let her grind out one more 400-meter repeat, train six days a week instead of five, in hindsight she appreciates that he was cautious with her work load.
“Intrinsically, I was very motivated,” she says. “His job almost was to turn it down. Not burn me out. I think he recognized I had the ability to potentially make this a career one day. He recognized the long-term approach, the progression of letting my fitness occur naturally.”
Patience of the long-distance runner?
The Bible’s Job was a harried New Yorker compared to Spence Gracey. She qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials in the 5,000 only to suffer a foot injury that prevented her from competing. She was only 21. There would be other chances to fulfill her Olympic dream, she told herself.
Then came 2015, a breakthrough. She moved her training base to Boulder, Colo., and changed shoe sponsors to Adidas. She set PRs at the 5K on the track and on the road at 7 miles, 10 miles and the half marathon. She qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at her debut half marathon last February, running 1:12:38 in Tampa.
On Oct. 31, 2015, at the American Association For Cancer Research Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon Philadelphia, Spence Gracey broke 1:10, finishing second in 1:09:59. She also suffered a bone bruise on her left foot that cost her four weeks of training. On Jan. 1, she decided she would not have time to be prepared for the Olympic Marathon Trials.
The Olympic dream has been put on hold again.
“It was frustrating for me when things didn’t work out as planned,” she says. “I like to plan things. I like to be in control of everything. But that’s part of the sport. Injuries are part of the sport I’ve chosen.”
“She’s been through some tough times in the running world and obviously real good times,” said Magness. “It hasn’t been a great, smooth progression from child star up to professional career. It’s taught her how to deal with setbacks and come back stronger than ever.”
Her goal Sunday in New Orleans is replicate a marathon pace ranging from 5:30- to 6-minute miles. Then, if feeling good and surrounded by competition at about Mile 10, let the competitor inside take over.
“I hope that’s the case, that I feel good and strong and I’m able to close hard. That would give me a nice confidence boost.”
More than 23,000 participants have signed up to race in the 10K, half marathon and marathon. All 50 states will be represented, as well as 32 countries. Local bands will be playing throughout the races and high school cheerleaders will support the runners, participating in a Spirit on the Course competition.
“I love being part of the energy of Rock ‘n’ Roll races,” says Spence Gracey. “I appreciate being able to be a part of something bigger. I like celebrating everyone’s effort. A mile’s a mile. When you’re out there you work hard. You sweat, you suffer. It’s exciting seeing other people chasing their goals. Everyone has a story.”