Kate Grace is on a bit of a tear right now—just maybe not the one she had originally anticipated. The 2016 Olympian, who finished eighth in the 800-meter finals in Rio, missed making the 2020 Olympic team by just 0.38 seconds at the U.S. Track & Field Trials in June.
Grace, 32, could have dwelled on that disappointment. Instead, she hopped a plane bound for Europe and proceeded to blaze a new path forward for her summer. Grace’s first stop was in Oslo, Norway, where just three days after the U.S. Trials final she won the women’s 800-meters at the Bislett Games in 1:57.60, marking a new personal best and her first Diamond League win. Then three days later it was on to Stockholm, Sweden, for a third-place finish and another personal best (1:57.36), before heading to Diamond League Monaco to grab another personal best (1:57.20) and another third-place finish. Grace capped off her impressive European tour with a win at the Millicent Fawcett Mile (4:27.20). According to World Athletics, Grace is currently ranked fifth in the world in the women’s 800 meters.
At the beginning of 2021, Grace made a big change, too, leaving the Bowerman Track Club to join Team Boss, the group based in Boulder, Colorado, started by world champion steeplechaser Emma Coburn and Joe Bosshard (Coburn’s husband and coach of the group).
We caught up with Grace by phone when she returned to the states following her two-week blitz to talk about processing the disappointment of Trials, what it felt like to bounce back in such a big way, plus what’s in store for the rest of the year. (Hint: She’s not done yet!)
Women’s Running: So how are you? Where are you right now?
Kate Grace: I’m in Portland [Oregon]. I actually still live here. I joined a Team Boss in January and just because it was so close to the Trials, and my boyfriend and I have a condo in Portland, we haven’t actually moved. I’ve just been at the training camps and crashing at people’s places in Boulder. So I’m going to move now, like in the next coming month.
WR: Have you had any time to find a place?
KG: No, it’s coming. I’ve actually only been in Boulder I think a total of like seven weeks this whole year, because so much of the time is, as you know, spent in Crested Butte and then we were in Phoenix. If we would have been in Boulder the whole time it would have been worth it, but we’re not even there. I have an idea of where I want to live and honestly we’re probably just going to get like a pretty generic apartments at one of these big complexes, so we were kind of just waiting until it was closer to the move date.
WR: That makes sense. So, what precipitated the move to work with Joe [and Team Boss], and why did it feel like the right fit?
KG: I had been seeing what they were doing over the last year or two, Cory [McGee] and Emma and Dani [Jones] were all running really well in middle distance last year. And I’m friends with Aisha [Leer] and kind of learned through her a little bit more. But backing up, the big thing is that I knew I wanted to focus middle distance. I think for awhile I was straddling 1500 and 800, and really focusing on the 1500 and trying to move up. But basically after 2019, I have been pretty set that I realize I think my best shot internationally is just going all in on the 800. And honestly, the reason it took so long partly was just because COVID happened, and so I didn’t really get the chance to try out my plan of going 800 training.
But in a weird way, I would say the silver lining of having that year off is I was able to just kind of evaluate my training and where I thought I could benefit. And I started learning a little bit more, just from social media and through Aisha and different things, about what the program was and it reminded me somewhat of what I had done in 2016; also the idea of having a more collaborative and hands-on coaching situation, and also very 800 focused. Because of all those things, I figured it was like as the best possible situation I could find in the U.S. for what I wanted.
WR: What’s been the biggest shift in your training since you joined?
KG: I’m focusing on the 800, so that’s a big shift, whereas before I was much more distance-based. So focusing on the 800, and I think because of that, there is much more focus on consistency versus any like huge, monster workout. I’m getting prescribed stuff every day. I think sometimes [in the past] I would fall into a hole where I would have a great few days, but then I would have to take a few days down or off because it was a little bit too hard of a load. So right now I think I’m benefiting from just more oversight from Joe in terms of keeping things consistent and moving along. I’m doing 800 specific-workouts, and I’m putting the biggest amount of energy toward that; some of the longer workouts, like aerobic development type stuff, is a little more sub-maximal and so it’s supportive, but it’s not totally draining my energy for the more 800-specific stuff.
WR: So, back to Trials. Can you talk through what was going through your mind during that final?
KG: I was confident going into Trials. I felt really good, I had been hitting very good workouts, so I was nervous, but there was also this idea that I did know that I was capable of [kind of what I ended up running in Europe]. And in that final race, I was trying to be more of a front runner, but honestly, it was just this deflating feeling realizing in that final hundred that everyone was passing…I don’t know, it’s not fun. It’s just a let down, it just sucks. There’s this idea of what you think might happen and then it kind of just slips away.
But it’s funny, I definitely do have this thing where I kind of go into this dazed shock mode after those kinds of races, so I guess what I’m saying is it’s not like I really have any coherent thoughts, and I’m not even really that sad. It is a let down and it’s like you’re just kind of getting hit with reality, but even then it’s more of a feeling of shock versus any kind of intense emotion. Usually for me, I don’t get that kind of wave of sadness or whatever until about a day later once all of the adrenaline is down.
WR: Do you feel like that response has maybe helped you along your career?
KG: Yeah, I think so. It’s interesting, I definitely do get the emotion. I’ve learned that I have to acknowledge that. I’m not a robot, necessarily; I got to Oslo and I cried on my run and it was pretty upset. But I think what has helped me in my career is just this idea that you can have emotions, but you don’t have to be like governed or controlled by them. You can feel them, but then you can move past it and still act. I mean, that’s also just like a cognitive behavioral therapy thing that just is helpful in life. It’s OK to have the emotion, but you can’t just sink into it. So I tend to be pretty good at that aspect. Even if I’m having a big feeling, not having it change my actions.
I think also having a pretty strong confidence and feeling of internal control that I pretty quickly can identify or try to identify things that could have gone better, either with preparation or with my execution of the race. And it’s not to get down on myself. If anything, I feel like it really helps me because if I can identify a few things that I could have done better, then in my mind it’s like, OK, well that means that I can still get there. I’m not just a bad athlete or a bad person. I know that these few things went wrong, so overall that means that I can still hope to improve. That’s another thing that’s been very helpful.
WR: Yeah, it gives you an actionable way forward versus just feeling helpless. So was Europe always a possibility, or was it a post-Trials decision?
KG: It’s always a possibility. In my mind, I was like OK, if you make the team, you’re going to go to St. Moritz and maybe do one race before Tokyo. If you don’t make the team and you run well, then you’re going to try to immediately go over and run Diamond Leagues. And, if you don’t make the team and run poorly, then it’s harder to get into those races so you might run the the U.S. races. So yes, in general, that’s always kind of how it goes. You have idea that there are a few different paths you can take, but this was way quicker than I’ve done before. I didn’t even know I was a possibility with Oslo. I had just ended the race and was doing a little debrief with Joe and he was like, “Oh, so you’re on the start list for Oslo.” My agents had put my name in the hat. But literally it was like 9 p.m. and I was like OK, let’s do it, and I got a flight for 12 p.m. the next day in Portland, so I had to leave at 9 a.m. from Eugene to drive to Portland. So it was a very last minute decision and flight plan.
WR: Out of those four races, how did each of them stack up for you?
KG: Oslo was just the best, because that is about the rebound race. Even though I say that I had identified things in the Trials lead up and then my execution that weren’t great but I could improve, there is still the tiny doubt where you can’t help but think, oh shit, is this all I have? Was I just wrong? Am I just misreading my fitness? And so to be able to so quickly run well and really demonstrate fitness and just show, no, this is right, I am in good shape, I am ready for this, that was just the best feeling in the world. Also, I had never won a Diamond League race, that was huge for me; and I honestly haven’t PRed since 2016. There were so many things that were just really awesome to have that come together. But each of them had their own little mental hurdle. Stockholm I was way more tired, so the fact that I could PR again, that was really cool.
WR: You wrote a post recently about your age. Can you talk a little bit about all of that and how you think about your career?
KG: It’s so funny, I mean, I am one of the older runners, especially in the 800. On the start list, I’m born in October ’88, and there’s no one born in the eighties. It’s crazy. But I just think of it as such a gift, like even when I was in Europe right now, I was like, wait, am I 25 again? Because that’s what it feels like, it literally feels like I’m 25 again and I’m having the time of my life and it’s so fun. So in some ways, it’s just been an amazing gift because I’m able, I think, to appreciate it so much more. When you’re young and you have a breakout season, it’s great and you’re on a high, but I think you just assume that it’s going to always be like that. You assume that every year from now on. And as you get older, you realize, no, nothing’s a given. You get injured, some years aren’t great, whatever. So I think in a way this has just been this incredible situation in which I’m so aware that this is not the norm or this is not always what’s going to happen, and then I’m just so able to soak it in because of that.
I think I’m trying to talk about [my age] more recently just because I know it’s a thing. I mean, I think very much it was a reason that I so distinctly moved to the 1500—I just thought that would prolong my career. Which at this point I realized, if I could do it again, I probably would not do that because I just am very clearly like a very top 800-meter runner. I mean, it was crazy that basically 2016 was the only other year that I’ve trained for the 800 and I ended up eighth at the Olympics. And then instead of thinking, Oh, that’s cool, I was really good off of pretty little training, I should keep doing this, I immediately switched. And I made the team the following year in the 1500, but I wasn’t as competitive internationally. I’m just more and more realizing that it is this trap that runners fall into where you limit yourself, and so that’s partly why I’m trying to talk about it because if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s don’t do that. Don’t let other people tell you what your limit is, or that you should feel a certain way; if you don’t then go with what you’re good at and listen to your body, not necessarily this somehow common wisdom that isn’t even really based in full reality.
WR: The Olympics are great, and of course we get all excited every four years, but there’s a lot to celebrate and be excited about in running outside of the Games. You’ve obviously been on both sides of it. What’s your perspective in terms of the significance of the Olympics?
KG: The Olympics is just an amazing event and it brings the world together, and I think in many ways it opens people’s eyes to track and field in a way that’s great for the sport. It really is such a unique experience with having, what, like 190 countries represented [or however many], there’s nothing else in the world like that. So in that way, yes, I think it’s deserving of all of that. I hope track continues to be able to thrive and continues to bring that energy and demonstrate to people that it is a fun sport to follow outside of the three weeks every four years, you know?
In a way I think we’ll have a chance to do that next year, because world championships are in Eugene; I think it’s a chance to bring this energy around track, and more awareness, and just show people that no, actually, there are other competitions you can also root for and it’s really fun watching track and field events and you don’t have to wait every four years to do it.
I mean you don’t want do “silver linings,” but with the Sha’Carri situation, I hope that she’s there next year and that everyone’s more obsessed with her and we get to see just amazing performances.
WR: Yeah, the Olympics certainly open the door for people who don’t grow up competing in the sport, but there are so many more races that are just as exciting to watch and follow.
KG: What’s really cool about the Diamond League events—also the American Track League season in the U.S.—is when you have multiple races back to back, you have more of this chance to have a storyline develop. It’s fun being able to follow someone’s progress through race after race, and see people have matchups and rematches. That’s the kind of stuff you get in other sports that sometimes you kind of miss out on the track. And so I’ve enjoyed as I get to learn more about the sport and get the chance to run in these races, to have that ability for a narrative to develop.
WR: That’s so true. So I know you mentioned you’ll take a couple of weeks just to train back here. Then what’s next for you?
KG: The way the Diamond League works is that you at each of these events you get points for your finish, and then the top eight people at the end of the seven different events earn a spot at the final. The final is going to be in Zurich on September 9. That is a championship finals, so basically then the points are wiped clean and whoever wins that race wins the Diamond League. For me, that’s been a really cool pivot for this year where, once Tokyo was off the table, I’m now able to think to about competing there. It’s going to be a full stadium, great crowd, so it’ll be a really fun event. So that’s going to be the end goal this year, and there’s two more Diamond League 800s—one in Brussels and I think one at Prefontaine [Classic] in Eugene—that I will hopefully run.
WR: So what does training look like right now?
KG: I’m on a “mental break” for the next two days, so whatever that means. I really do want to come back and just continue to hit a great few races from the middle of August until the middle of September, have another little season. So I think it’s going to be like mental break for a few days, and then just back to hitting all of the core types of workouts and have a little like five week training block. And once everyone is back from Tokyo, I will go and meet up with them in Boulder.
WR: Obviously Team Boss is high up there, but what races are you really excited to watch or athletes that you’re excited for in Tokyo?
KG: Yeah I mean, Team Boss, for sure — for Emma, especially, going back there, and then this is Cory’s first Olympics. What else am I excited to watch? I’m a huge fan of the 400-meter hurdlers and kind of want to see Dalilah [Muhammad] and Sydney [McLaughlin] back again [after their race at the Trials]. I’m also a big fan of Dalilah so that will be cool to see. I mean, American distance right now, it’s just gotten better and better, so we’re much more capable of really competing at the world level. Whereas just a few years ago people would make the team, but then not going to be a factor, you know? I mean 800, honestly, like that’s why I wanted to go over to the 800 team. It’s going to be really exciting to watch what everyone can do. Athing [Mu] has just been so untested, so it’ll be really cool to see what she’s doing.