In January, professional runner Neely Spence Gracey shared some exciting news with Women’s Running: she’s expecting a baby in August! In the month since her announcement, she and her husband Dillon Gracey have also revealed the baby’s sex by way of a balloon-popping video posted on Instagram and continue to update fans on social media. Last week, we checked in with Neely to ask how she’s feeling 16 weeks in, what role running currently plays in her life and how she’s pursuing a fit pregnancy.
How are you feeling? What’s changed for you since we last spoke?
Things are going well. Overall, I’ve been really fortunate. Nothing has hit me hard in terms of the morning sickness that some people struggle with in the first trimester. I was tired and a little sick, but it wasn’t anything compared to some of the terrible stories I’ve heard.
I’ve successfully run every day so far; some of those days have only been a mile. I’m running less and less overall, and feeling worse and worse while running. I don’t know when running every day will stop, but I don’t feel like it’s that far away. I’ve been running 30 to 40 miles per week. The last time we talked, I was still running around 40 to 50 miles. I’ve been able to do a lot more in the gym, which I really enjoy. I started working with ReCORE Fitness on Instagram; she does a lot of prenatal core-strengthening, as well as helping bring your body back to what it was, once you have the baby.
In what ways is running starting to feel worse?
Over the last two weeks, I started to notice a feeling of pressure that pregnant women talk about, where it feels like you have a 20-pound dumbbell strapped to your stomach, pushing down on everything. Each step is harder; I don’t have as much pop and I don’t feel like I’m going as far with each step because I’m having to work harder for it. The feeling of having to stop to pee a lot is there. I’m going to try wearing a pregnancy belt while running, because I feel like my stomach needs a little lift and support. If anyone wants to know what it feels to run while pregnant, just strap a 25-pound dumbbell to your stomach and go for a run.
What questions do you hear most about pursuing a fit pregnancy?
The number one question is, How have you changed your training? I would say it’s completely unstructured my training, and that has been the biggest change. I’m running much slower; I feel like I’m running one to one and one-half minutes-per-mile slower at the same heart rate at which I used to run. If I do a 4-mile run, I feel like I did an 8-mile run. I do a lot better when I stick to flat runs, because going uphill is really challenging. Anything that elevates the heart rate gives me more exhaustion faster.
I can’t comprehend doing a workout right now. Everything has shifted so much. When I’m in structured training, I wake up, my breakfast is organized and I’m very dialed in to my routine. I go out, I accomplish my workouts, I go to the gym and lift for an hour, then I go swim, come home, take a rest, get lunch, and then I’ll do a second run or cross-training activity. Now that I’m pregnant, I really have to take time to rest in between.
How are you adjusting to that change in routine?
I thought it’d be way more difficult than it’s been. I think Mother Nature knows what she’s doing. Your body just becomes programmed to knowing what it needs. There were a couple of days early in my pregnancy where I tried to do what I used to be able to do: an 8-mile run, barre class for an hour, straight to lifting for an hour–and I was feeling so sick and terrible for the rest of the day. I realized, I can’t do this anymore. Once I adjusted, I felt so much better. You learn what your body needs, and you make those adjustments as necessary.
A lot of it is also preparing your body and lifestyle for how things have to change when you have the baby. You can’t do what you did before; it doesn’t mean that what you’re going to do can’t be better, but everything has to have a purpose so that the energy you’re putting forward is the most efficient. For someone like me, I’m my own boss when it comes to my coaching business and my training is very much in my own hands. I’m very self-motivated. I put a good amount of energy into what I’m doing, but I think all of these things will shift to a different focus later. I’m not going to be able to go to the grocery store every day like I do now to pick up what I want on that day; I’m going to have to plan ahead, because I won’t have the time or energy once I have the baby. I think the body prepares you throughout pregnancy to help you recognize the needs the baby will have.
How did you go about making the decision to temporarily leave your career to start a family?
My career is obviously on hold for a year or more in order to have a child. But every single woman out there who decides to start a family has to go through some understanding that the life they currently have is going to change. If they want to keep their job and go back full-time or part-time, or not go back at all, those are big decisions that women have to make. If there are any complications with pregnancy or delivery, how’s that going to affect your career? In some ways, I’m fortunate that I have the career I do, because I can stay at home for as long as long as I need to, and there aren’t going to be as many consequences.
The difficult part for me is that it’s extremely challenging to stay relevant when I’m not racing. There’s no guarantee of pay. Many professional athletes lose contracts. At what point is having a family more important than where I am in my career? Is it something that I can go back to and be successful in while pursing this role as a mother?
I was hitting that point where I’d been pursuing my career for so long and putting off having a family. [Dillon and I] initially wanted to start a family in 2016; that was our plan since we got married in 2012. But things were going really well: I had just signed a contract with Adidas and I wasn’t wanting to put my career on hold. It made more sense for me this year, and I felt like I wasn’t able to fully enjoy my training because I was starting to get frustrated that it was taking away from this other life goal. If I’d waited, when would there be a good time? There’s never a perfect time to put your career on hold. My husband [said], “We’re just going to see what happens. If things happen, we’ll pursue that; and if they don’t, we’ll pursue a spring marathon.” It took the pressure off on both sides, and I started to really enjoy training as a result. I was excited about the possibility of this, and when it happened, I was thrilled. Obviously it’s going to set me back in terms of my job for 2018, but it also allows me to pursue coaching and put more time and energy into that. There are so many positives.
I also had concerns with, What if I can’t get pregnant? What if we start the process now and figure out that it’s going to be more complicated than we thought? I’d rather have more time to figure that out than start that process at 35 and already be considered higher risk because of age.
Being so fit and healthy also means that your body is in a good place to take on this new challenge.
Backing off from running during the time that I was trying to get pregnant did help. I was doing 30-mile weeks, nothing too hard. I put on about seven pounds from my race weight, and I think that made a difference. Exercise and working out and running is so healthy and important; it’s something I hope to do for as long as I possibly can. But running 100-mile weeks is probably not the healthiest approach. It is difficult on your body and mind. I didn’t want to force my body to get pregnant when I was stressing it in other ways.
As a runner, you learn to listen to your body. As a pregnant woman, you learn to really listen to your body. I thought I was pretty good at reading what my body needed, but when I was around six weeks into the pregnancy, I noticed that things needed to change. I had about a month where I didn’t make running plans with anyone because I didn’t know how my day would go. I felt like each day was so unpredictable that I didn’t want to bail on people when my body wasn’t cooperating. Sometimes I wouldn’t get out the door until 9, 10 or 11 a.m., when I’m used to running at 7 or 8 a.m. I needed to have more of the morning to wake up or feel less sick, or I just decided that I wanted to wait for [the weather] to warm up. I learned to adjust and adapt to what my body needs each day, and it’s constantly changing.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten so far is to have no expectations. Just because today went well doesn’t mean tomorrow will. Some days I feel extremely emotional, where the hormones are super strong. On other days, I feel great and amazing, I have awesome energy and I feel like I have that pregnancy glow. Other days I’m so hungry, and then I have days where I’m not hungry at all. I still can’t really eat vegetables; I like vegetables, I enjoy them while I’m eating them, but after I eat them I don’t feel good. During my first trimester, I couldn’t even look at vegetables. Now I’m reading about this and freaking out, because I’m reading that the food you eat while pregnant is the food your baby will like once it’s born. I’m like, What? My poor kid is going to be eating pizza and toast–that’s it! But it’s what my body needs. I don’t know whether it’s because vegetables don’t put on weight, so maybe my body needs more carbs so that I can put on the weight I need. So much of it is listening to what you need.
It’s helpful to have people to talk to who have been through pregnancy in the last year. But everyone’s different. Recognizing that your story is your own is similar to running in that everyone’s training is different, and everyone responds differently to certain stimulants. When you line up on a starting line, everyone’s gotten there in a different way. It’s the same during pregnancy, where everyone grows a healthy baby in a completely different way. Accepting that, being okay with that and recognizing what your body needs–I’ll read the books, and it’ll say, “You may have started to notice that you’ve put on a pound or two.” I’m like, “Or 15–that works, too.” That’s just how it is. Everyone’s completely different.