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When Stephanie Bruce embarked on the 12 weeks of preparation for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials, she thought about what more she could do to give herself every chance at success.
Along with committing to all the work—the basics of mileage, massages, lifting, and recovery—she also took a hard look at her nutrition, which has perhaps been one of the most challenging parts of her professional running career, aside from giving birth to two sons. She’s dealt with many food allergies, as well as Celiac disease, and the one thing that’s stood between Bruce and (almost) flawless 26.2-mile performances is gastrointestinal issues.
So, this time she asked for help, believing that to remain the strongest she’s ever been and the healthiest, too, came down to better nourishment. She connected with Lottie Bildirici, a nutrition coach based in New York who also worked with Kara Goucher leading up to the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. Bildirici visited Flagstaff three times to help create meal plans with Bruce’s allergies and goals in mind.
“My gut issues have led to crashes in training and racing and it’s still a little bit of a mystery to me, but this is probably one of my last Trials in my career, so I wanted to go to the start line knowing that I prepared in every way possible and I felt like paying more attention to my nutrition was something I need to put more effort into,” Bruce said.
While she hasn’t figured out all her nutritional mysteries yet, she has changed her perspective on fueling and clean eating. And it’s led to a successful training block ahead of Atlanta. Bruce comes to the Trials with a 26.2-mile best set in October at the Chicago Marathon. In 2019 she also set personal records at 5,000 meters (15:17.76) and the half marathon (1:10:44), where she won her second national title.
The momentum going into the Trials on February 29 in Atlanta is on Bruce’s side, though her goal in preparing has been to take it all one day at a time, in the company of her Northern Arizona Elite teammates Kellyn Taylor and Aliphine Tuliamuk, who are also competing for the coveted top-three spots to make the Tokyo Games.
“The training block was a lot like the marathon itself. There were some days where I really had to reach for it and I was really struggling and had to ask a lot of myself,” Bruce said. “And other days just flowed and came really easily. I just tried to remain neutral and calm on those days, because that’s the marathon. You have really good miles and really bad miles and you try not to get overly emotional during either.”
Olympic Trials Qualifying Time: 2:27:47 (2019 Chicago Marathon)
Marathon PR: 2:27:47 (2019 Chicago Marathon)
Peak weekly mileage: 120 miles
Favorite workout: Four days before the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona half marathon, where she and Taylor ran a workout effort and tied for first place, Bruce, Taylor, and Tuliamuk ran 15 x 1-mile alternating 5:35 and 5:25 pace. With warm-up and cool-down, the entire workout was 21 miles, run on a loop in Campe Verde, Arizona, about an hour south of Flagstaff at 3,000 feet above sea level.
“It was very intimidating on paper—I had never done 15 by a mile,” Bruce said. “I just felt like I didn’t know if I could do it, in the context of a big training week. It ended up that the workout just came to me—I don’t like to use the word ‘effortless,’ but I didn’t need to reach for the splits. Toward the end, with two to go, I was so cheerful. You hope for those days to happen.”
Best part of training for the Olympic Trials: In early February, the trio set out on Lake Mary Road in Flagstaff for a 26.2-mile run with six miles of marathon effort (at 7,000 feet, runners rarely go by specific pace) from miles 18 to 24. They surpassed expectations that day.
“We just traded off the lead and ran single file,” Bruce said. “We had a favorable tailwind and we were just locked in. We finished very controlled and we finished together. We just executed perfectly. I don’t know how everybody was feeling individually but it was just a really good day.”
Worst part of the training for the Olympic Trials: Bruce had a few days in which she battled some gastrointestinal issues. One day in particular, when the group had 24-miles on tap at Sunset Crater (a national volcano monument north of Flagstaff), it seemed nobody had a great training run.
“I felt like I was sprinting to run marathon pace and I was like, ‘This is not a good sign.’ But we all felt the same, so it probably was because we were all tired,” she said. “Those are the days when you know the marathon is no joke. It can humble you. Bad days and good days are necessary in the training cycle and I think you learn a lot about yourself on those bad days.”
Best piece of advice or encouragement given: One of Bruce’s closest friends, who lives in California, often texts her random messages of positivity and encouragement that have come to mean a lot.
“It’s hard to explain…she helped me come up with the ‘Relentless’ motto,” Bruce said. “Three weeks ago, for example, she just texted me, ‘In case you forgot to tell yourself today, you are limitless.’ After I ran the half in Phoenix, she texted, ‘You are f*cking incredible.’ She’s just one of those women who has given me positive messages our whole friendship, but more so this training cycle.”
Taper tantrums: Bruce copes just fine during the taper, until somebody asks, “How are you feeling?”
“I severely dislike when people ask that,” she said, laughing. “I try not to attach how I feel to anything—how you feel is different than your fitness or your ability. Do I ever feel good doing a workout at altitude? No, but I do it.”
A renowned fan of all the “Rocky” movies, Bruce used to watch the films during the taper to psych herself up. Not this time, though.
“I’m doing stuff that I find very non-emotional,” she said. “I’m watching the Harry Potter movies.”
Pre-race superstition or good luck routine: Bruce may allow herself about 30 minutes of “Rocky IV” before the race, but otherwise she doesn’t have many rituals.
“I like having [her husband] Ben around. Sometimes my kids are at races and sometimes they’re not, but I like hanging out with them,” she said. “I don’t have that many routines that I go through.”
Race-day shoes: A new Hoka racing shoe that hasn’t been released to the public yet.
Looking forward to most on race day: The possibilities and the competition.
“I love having a chance on the start line. Sometimes that’s all you need—a chance,” Bruce said. “That’s why we train so hard.”
Dreading on race day: Bruce doesn’t enjoy the pre-race nerves but welcomes them as part of the process.
“Neves aren’t a bad thing,” she said. “I just try to remind myself that the race is the fun part. The moments before, sometimes I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh why did I do this? Why did I sign up for this?’ But then I get in the race and I’m like, ‘I’m good.’”
Impressions of the Olympic Marathon Trials course: She ran 18 miles on it and came away with one word: “unrelenting.”
“It was difficult. It felt like a grinder’s course,” Bruce said.
Support crew in Atlanta: In addition to her husband, Ben Bruce, and sons Riley and Hudson, Bruce has 20 other family members who will be there to cheer her on, including her mom, who’s currently living with stage four metastatic breast cancer and undergoing treatments.
“We were nervous and weren’t sure where she’d be right now, so I’m really grateful that she’s healthy enough to make the trip,” Bruce said. “She’ll be all smiles and you’d never know that she’s sick if you see her—it’s encouraging at this point.”
Morning routine for a late start time: Bruce will wake up likely without an alarm, trying to stay on Mountain Time to ease the impact of a late 12:20 p.m. (Eastern) start. She likes to write down a race plan and relax in the hours before a race.
“I’ll watch some silly TV, do some activation drills, and then go execute those race-day plans,” she said.
Olympic Trials breakfast fuel: Sweet potato “toast” with almond butter, coffee, and maybe some white rice and a Picky Bar.
Race-day mantra: Anything from “Rocky” will do the trick.
“He says, ‘I’m still standing here,’ and ‘I’m still on my feet,’ when he’s just trying to get to the end of the fight,” Bruce said. “He’s going 15 rounds.”
Walk-up song, if you had one as a pro runner: Obviously “Eye of Tiger,” by Survivor (or “anything from the ‘Rocky’ soundtrack”)
Slow and strategic or fast and furious: “I’m ready for anything,” Bruce said.
How she’ll know that she did everything she could, even if she doesn’t make the team: Over the past couple of years, Bruce has learned how to prepare and race with no regrets, she said.
“I always leave it all out there and sometimes that’s good enough and sometimes it’s not, but I can be happy and proud that I know I left everything out on the course,” Bruce said.
Celebration beverage of choice: Bring on the Prosecco. “I’m not fancy, but it goes down easily and I would like to drink more alcohol rather than little,” she said, laughing.