There are few professional runners as upbeat as Neely Spence Gracey. The 27-year-old daughter of Olympic marathoner Steve Spence had a knockout 2016, when she won both the Chicago and New Orleans Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathons, was the eighth woman to finish the TCS New York City Marathon and was the top American at the Boston Marathon. This year, she’s dealt with the highs of winning (scoring first in Chicago for the second year in a row) and the lows of injury, which sidelined her for the 2017 TCS NYC Marathon. The 2020 Olympic hopeful spoke with us about the importance of training consistency, the inspiration she draws from her coaching program Get Running and her advice for those new to our sport.
What do you attribute to your long string of excellent performances in 2016 and 2017?
On the outside, things look like they’re going awesome. Day-to-day, it’s never quite what we let it appear to be. It’s a lot of very diligent and steady consistency with training, staying healthy, and doing the little things like sleeping, eating well and staying hydrated. That’s what I’ve found has helped me be successful.
I often say, “Don’t try to follow in someone else’s footsteps.” You have to create your own journey; it has to be something that you can enjoy the process for. What I do is completely different from what many other people do. It should be that way. You have to find what works for you, because every person is an individual, and we all have different strengths and weaknesses. It’s all about just figuring out what those are, and letting yourself become your best you.
My whole day revolves around doing my run, preparing for my next run, recovering from my previous run. When I’m in full training, it’s a very all-consuming career. It’s great when things are going well, because I see everything clicking. But when things start to fall apart, that’s when things start to get hard. [Running is] an identity. I’m used to doing all these things that support and focus on my running and my career. When I’m taking time off or I’m injured, it’s almost as if I’m in an identity crisis. Who am I if I’m not running and training and I’m not chasing these goals constantly? It’s a difficult thing to turn off. That presents its own challenges. For me, I find that I need to stay busy and focus on other things and realize that, yes, I’m a runner; but I’m also Neely the coach and Neely the wife and Neely the sister. I have a lot of other things that I need to put my energy into that I can see benefit from putting time into them. Sometimes those things start to cripple a little bit when I’m just focused on one goal.
When you are dealing with an injury that prevents you from keeping up with your normal routine, what other tactics do you use to maintain your fitness levels?
I incorporate cross-training even when I am healthy, so when I’m not healthy and I need to rely more on cross-training and less on running, it’s a relatively easy transition. I have an ElliptiGO, which I have been using since 2012, when I had my first stress fracture. That’s been a really helpful piece of my training because it most closely imitates running, but without the impact. It allows me to get in good, hard workouts without dealing with the impact if I’m fighting an injury.
I also like to spin, so spin classes are really great. I’m competitive, so I can go in there and really get my heart rate up. I enjoy it. Being in a group atmosphere helps make the cross-training a little more enjoyable. Swimming is my least favorite; I’m very bad at swimming, so it’s actually a very good form of cross-training because it makes me work pretty hard. But I feel like it’s super isolating; it’s not a time where I can interact with other people, which is what I miss the most when I’m not running. A lot of my runs are very social: I’m meeting up with friends, chatting and catching up, so if I’m in the pool by myself, it becomes depressing. Unless I’m aqua jogging and meeting people to aqua jog, I tend to not get in the pool that often.
How has your role as a Get Running coach influenced your own training?
I started Get Running back in 2013, when I was injured. I went to college to be a coach–I have communication and coaching degrees. I felt like that was the perfect time, so I went and got the LLC set up. I started with five clients that were just friends who had said, “Hey, you should start a coaching business, it’d be really cool.” It has grown; I have about 75 clients now. It’s been way more rewarding than I ever expected.
Being a coach has helped me be a better athlete because I listen to what I tell my clients—it’s a constant reminder to apply it to my own training. I’m also super inspired by my clients. I have moms who have three kids, and they wake up at 4 a.m. every day to get their workout done on the treadmill. I think that’s absolutely amazing, and it gives me no excuses to not wake up and get out the door.
Everyone has a different story. I have an athlete who’s going through chemo right now, and we’re just super flexible, day by day. Some days she can get a run in, and some days she can’t–and that’s okay. What she’s doing is so amazing, and the fact that she wants to be able to run and have that be a part of her days is incredible. There are so many stories, and it’s very inspiring to see everyone chasing their goals in different ways. My coaching is very individualized. I want to create a specific plan for that individual based off what their goals are, where they’re at with life, what other stresses they have, and I want to work with them so that running can be fun, a stress-reliever, something that they look forward to, and so that they can reach their goals. That’s my philosophy: to take each person as an individual, learning about them and what can make them successful.
What advice would you offer new runners?
The thing I always come back to is: Find a routine. If you can develop a routine and consistency with it, over time your body will become more efficient, and it’ll get easier. … Running is really hard. When I take even two weeks off and I get back to running, it feels like I’ve never run before. I go through those exact emotions of someone who is new to the sport.
I’ve often questioned, “Why do I do this? How is it possible that I can do 100-mile weeks when I’m training, and then when I take two weeks off and come back, a 4-mile run feels terrible?” It’s important to slowly chip away and let the fitness naturally build. Over time, that will happen with finding a routine and consistency. What I recommend is, if you run three days a week, make sure you run every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 6 a.m., or whatever it is. That way, you know it’s part of your schedule, it’s part of what you do on those days, and it’s set: it’s a block of time that you already have isolated from the rest of your day. Often what happens is, life gets in the way. If you have a goal of, “I’m going to run three days a week,” but it doesn’t matter which day, then all of a sudden you get to Friday, and it’s like, “Oh no–I haven’t gotten my runs in.” Then you have to cram it all in, and that becomes a stress. If you can establish a routine throughout your week, I think that’s really beneficial.
It’s also helpful to meet with people, because that creates accountability. You’re not going to let someone down, and so you’re less likely to skip a run, as well.
It can be easy to push runs off during busier weeks, and then by Friday you’re suddenly thinking, Oh no–I forgot something.
Exactly! And then you feel guilty, and it just becomes this negative spiral where you hate running. That’s the opposite of what you’re trying to do.
What does your perfect run look like?
These don’t happen very often. I find with running, I have about 80 percent average, B-type runs, 10 percent amazing runs and 10 percent terrible runs. That seems to be a pretty good trend, so don’t expect every run to be amazing. I think that’s something that people often don’t understand–with professional runners, as well. They think, “They must love running every day because it’s so perfect and amazing.” No—we don’t have very many perfect and amazing days.
If I close my eyes and envision an ideal run, it would be a 50-degree fall morning, with the leaves changing, bright blue skies, a warm morning sun and very little breeze on a cinder path. I love running through beautiful scenery on a nice day, but I prefer a smooth, crushed gravel surface, so it’s not as much pounding. And running with friends, because I enjoy the social aspect of running.
I wanted to ask about your Vizsla, who’s a running buddy of yours and frequent feature on your Instagram feed. How old is Strider?
Strider is two and one-half. We got her right when she was 8 weeks old from a local person here in Denver who had her first litter. It was sort of funny, because when I first got her, I didn’t actually want a dog. We’d just bought a house, I was in the middle of racing, and I was like, “We have a lot going on; we don’t need a dog.” My husband secretly put us on a waiting list, and all the puppies had already been claimed. But the day she turned 8 weeks old, the breeder called and was like, “Someone backed out, and you guys are next.” We literally got in the car, drove there and bought a leash on the way home. I was so mad at my husband for the hour that it took to drive there. But since we picked her up, it’s been the best thing ever. I’m very grateful now, and so whenever he makes decisions and doesn’t ask me first, he always goes back to that moment, like, “Remember how great that turned out?”
How far do you run with her?
She’s done up to 8 miles with me. She prefers 3- to 6-mile runs. I feel like she gets bored when we go further.
I really enjoy running with her. I’ll do a warmup before a workout with her, or I’ll do a few loops around our neighborhood with her before going out for the rest of my run. It gets me out the door, it gets her exercise in, so it’s really nice. She is great while running; she stays super focused. We got her used to wearing a harness and the running leash. We use a leash called the Iron Doggy, from a Colorado company; you wear it around your waist, so it’s hands-free. We taught her to always run on the left side and to not pull, so she’s very well-behaved. Once you put the leash on, she knows that it’s all business and we’re not playing. Whenever we finish the run, I like to give her a bit of unstructured running time. It’s so funny, because the second I take the leash off, she becomes this little crazy puppy and zooms up and down the stairs and all over the house and in the backyard. The run gets her excited, and the second I take off the leash, she lets loose. It’s fun to see her enjoy it. That’s something that’s super important for us: we want her to always enjoy her runs. We don’t want to take her so far that she doesn’t like it, or doesn’t want to run again. We only usually run her about three days each week, so it’s not every day–again, because we want it to be something she looks forward to.
Do you have a favorite mantra for tough workouts or races?
I’m all about mantras because I think it’s important to train the brain to remain positive. If you can train the brain to focus on something positive, a mantra or something that’s meaningful to you, then you can work through those tough times.
I created a bracelet with [Momentum Jewelry]; it says, “Trust the process.” For me, that’s a strong mantra. When I can remind myself to trust the process, that can keep my mind focused on achieving what I want. It’s a little thing, but it makes a big difference.
When you’re out there chasing goals, we all have those moments when we start to doubt ourselves. In terms of songs, I don’t necessarily have one specific song that gets me pumped up. I don’t listen to music often when I run, unless I’m running on the treadmill. But I do enjoy listening to country music whenever I’m cross-training, so often I’ll hear a country music mix of some sort. I use the app RockMyRun; they have a bunch of different mixes, and you can set it for different tempos. If I want to get in a harder workout, I can pick a tempo that’s going to be faster, and that’ll help keep me excited and working harder on the bike than if I want a slower, easy-type song if I’m just listening or doing core workouts or something. That would be my recommendation: to find an app or a playlist that you really like for different types of work that you’re trying to get in. For those who do run and train with music, that’s awesome. Find what works for you. One thing that I started doing is listening to podcasts while running. Music can mess up my breathing rhythm, but a podcast is like having a conversation, like you’re talking with someone. I really like that. There are so many options out there nowadays.
The other thing I’ll do if I’m running on the treadmill is, I like to watch race footage, so I’ll put race coverage on. I’ll watch marathons–like if I’m prepping for the New York City Marathon, I’ll watch last year’s marathon over and over again, because I get to see the course, visualize it, and it keeps me focused on my goal.
What are you looking forward to in 2018?
I’ll continue trying to establish myself as one of the top American distance runners. I see each race as an opportunity to learn and gain experience, so I want to continue to look at those races as moments in my career that I can always take something positive from. Not every race is going to go perfectly according to plan, but if I can learn from each race and gain valuable experience to help me improve and become a better athlete and a better person as the year goes on, that’s really what my goals are.