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Elite runner Neely Spence Gracey hasn’t been a stranger to the sport of running since running her debut marathon in Boston in 2016 and quickly following it up with a personal best of 2:34:55 at the New York City Marathon that same year. But in between giving birth to her two children (Athens, now four, and Rome, now 18 months) and dealing with various injuries and setbacks in between, it’s been a while since she’s been in the mix of the top athletes in a major race field. That changed last weekend, when Gracey, now 32, ran a four-minute PR at the California International Marathon, in a time of 2:30:29, which was good enough for ninth place in the U.S. Marathon Championships, which took place as part of the race as well.
In the lead-up to her return to competing at a high level, Gracey, a four-time Olympic Trials qualifier who also coaches amateur athletes, also co-authored a new book with freelance journalist Cindy Kuzma, titled Breakthrough Women’s Running: Dream Big and Train Smart which, through advice from experts and experiences from other professional athletes, aims to help female athletes nail down core aspects of race preparation, such as goal setting, strength training, and injury prevention, to help them achieve a break-through performance. What Gracey didn’t realize was that this work and research would also play into finally achieving her own big breakthrough as an athlete with her performance at CIM.
“I definitely cried some happy tears when I crossed the finish line, just knowing the highs and lows and the ups and downs that I’ve experienced over these years,” she says. “I’m at the point where I just want to run and enjoy where I’m at and what I can do, whatever that looks like, and for it to look like a huge PR was a dream come true.”
Gracey, who is based in Boulder and coached by her husband, Dillon, chatted with Women’s Running just a few days after the race to talk about the biggest lessons she learned that helped her achieve what she considers to be her biggest career breakthrough to date at CIM.
According to Gracey, one of the main reasons her build-up to CIM was one of the best she ever had was because she finally focused on prioritizing recovery as much as her hard workouts and long runs.
“I think I always kind of overdid it [with training] in the past and kind of rode that injury line too closely,” she says. “My perspective has shifted a lot since having kids and I just really don’t care to ride that red line and I don’t have time to deal with injuries. It’s not like in the past when I could go to physical therapy three times a week and get massages every week and rehab in the pool whenever I wanted – I don’t have that luxury anymore.”
For Gracey, this also means focusing on consistency by doing just one workout a week, as well as a long run with quality miles, and then the rest of her weekly mileage as easy runs in between.
Meet Yourself Where You Are
Gracey, who was previously fully sponsored by Adidas, currently gets support from the shoe brand and Honey Stinger for shoes and gear and nutrition products, respectively, and she’s OK with that. That’s because she feels as though she’s still transitioning from her recent status of running being more of a hobby to returning to something more serious, especially after her recent performance at CIM. Still, she’s content to also devote equal time to her kids and coaching business.
“I’m super grateful to feel that I’m exactly where I should be at this point – I think that this first training cycle back really helped me prove to myself that I can get back to that higher-level, sponsored-elite status, but I’m not necessarily in a rush to do that,” Gracey says. “It kind of gets those competitive juices flowing and I’m definitely excited to see where this goes for me. I hadn’t run a PR in six years, so this is definitely an exciting beginning for what’s to come for this second part of my career as an elite athlete.”
Trust Your Instincts. Be Flexible.
Flexibility never came easily to Gracey until she had her kids and not only has she learned to be able to adapt and adjust, but she’s also made that one of the biggest things she stresses to the athletes she coaches. Sometimes that may mean scrapping a workout or a few miles if, for example, your child kept you up all night, in the name of keeping your eye on the big picture (i.e. a race goal).
“This is the reason why my coaching philosophy is all individualized training plans specific to each individual person because everyone’s lives are different and whatever their goals are and what they have on their plates are all going to play into it,” she explains. “I am always trying to help athletes recognize how to make those shifts and changes and adapt to new situations or unforeseen circumstances so they can avoid digging themselves into a hole and have the success at the end of the season that they really want.”
Don’t Force a Comeback.
For many runners, being sidelined for an extended period of time due to illness, injury or coming back from pregnancy and childbirth can leave you itching to get back to top fitness as soon as possible. Being patient with her journey back was something Gracey had to learn the hard way after giving birth to Athens in 2018 and eventually sustaining a femoral stress fracture before coming back to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials.
“The flexibility factor was the hardest lesson for me because I’m definitely someone who’s like ‘This is my plan and I will do everything possible to make that plan happen,’” she says. “I was trying to rush a process that naturally [requires] patience and [I had to accept] the unique needs of my body after having kids and recognize that the extra weight would come off with time and that my hormones would eventually come around.”
Don’t Overlook Your Weaknesses.
No doubt about it; Gracey is thrilled with her performance at CIM. But as a coach herself, she knows that even when a race goes all but perfectly, there are always areas where an athlete could stand to improve. While she hasn’t decided if she’ll take a crack at breaking 2:30 in the marathon before lining up at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Orlando, she’s already recognizing what to focus on to improve her marathon speed, which includes prioritizing strength training.
“Strength training definitely wasn’t a huge priority for me this training cycle and that’s something that I know I need to change so that I have more fatigue resistance in my legs for those later miles when it starts to get hard,” she says.
Similarly, Gracey hopes to focus on bringing down her personal bests in the half marathon (1:09:59, which she set at the 2015 Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon) and 10K over knocking out another full marathon before the Trials.
“I think that for the long-term, the best thing I can do is focus on developing that turnover and efficiency by trying to get faster at 10K and half marathon so that I can have that next breakthrough performance time-wise in the marathon,” she explains. “I haven’t necessarily ruled out the marathon, but from a coaching perspective, if I were to tell an athlete what they should do, I should be focusing on more of a speed segment coming up.”
Ask For Help, Celebrate the Wins
Like many of us, Gracey is no stranger to falling into the comparison trap of what everyone else is doing, and she works to remind herself that she’s likely not seeing the whole picture of what other people are choosing to share.
“I know that it’s tough to look at social media and see other people just seemingly crushing it, but behind the scenes of their seemingly perfect Instagram feed, they’ve had their ups and downs and their challenges, too,” she says. “To recognize that, you have to be patient in the hard times, celebrate the good times and make sure that you’re enjoying what you’re doing, that you are well supported in what you’re doing by the people around you so that you don’t lose perspective when the low times happen.”