Neely Spence Gracey may just be the most talented American distance runner you’ve never heard of. And it’s not for a lack of results: At 26, Gracey already has some top credentials on her running resume, including a win at the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon in February, and a 13.1-mile personal best of 1:09:58 (set at November’s Philadelphia Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon). But after struggling with injuries and Lyme disease over the past few years, Spence Gracey has remained, for the most part, an under-the-radar runner.
Until now. Set to run her first-ever marathon in Boston on Monday, Spence Gracey seems prepared to step out of the shadows of the bigger names before her and carve a distinct space for herself on the elite scene. Here are six things you need to know about this budding star.
- She has good timing.
Born on April 16, 1990–Patriots Day in New England–Neely made her grand entrance into the world on the very same day her father, Steve Spence, was running the Boston Marathon. One of the world’s top marathoners at the time, the elder Spence finished 19th in a lifetime best 2:16:40, and Neely’s birth was mentioned in the New York Times’ coverage of the race.
- She was a homeschooled high school phenom.
Raised on a farm in rural central Pennsylvania, Spence Gracey was homeschooled until college–and remained living at home throughout her college tenure at nearby Shippensburg University. Despite not being part of an official high school cross country team (she was coached by her father, and sometimes trained with local runners her age), she went on to place as high as eighth in the nation by her senior year.
- She’s a fighter.
After a successful college career where she was an eight-time NCAA Division 2 All-American at Shippensburg, Spence Gracey’s running trajectory stalled in the fall of 2012. “I felt so weak and exhausted, almost like I had anemia,” she told Excelle Sports in a phone interview. “Plus, I had weird allergic reactions that came on randomly to things I’ve been eating or using my whole life.” The diagnosis? Lyme Disease, which she believes is chronic. Enduring aggressive symptoms including achiness, inflammation, and fatigue, she turned to holistic treatments like herbal supplements and acupuncture as well as the routine course of antibiotics. “The combination worked to help me get over the worst of the symptoms and onto recovery,” she said. “Every year, I’ve gone longer and longer in between rounds of antibiotics, but it’s still a struggle.”
- She does most of her runs solo.
Although she and her husband, Dillon, now live in the runner’s Mecca that is Boulder, Colorado and count professional runners including Kara Goucher as friends, Spence Gracey intentionally logs most of her miles alone. “In 16-week the build-up to Boston, I ran every workout on my own. It helped me lock into my marathon pace both mentally and physically and let me prepare for any scenario on race day.” This tactic proved to be helpful at last month’s New York City Half Marathon, where she stuck to her marathon pace and finished 10th in 1:13:17, more than five minutes behind winner Molly Huddle. “I have to be comfortable letting the lead pack get away from me, which is what happened in New York. I was able to stay focused because I knew I was running the best pace for me.”
- She coaches a small army of runners.
When she’s not training herself, Spence Gracey runs a successful coaching company, Get Running, mentoring up to 35 runners around the country at a time. “I’ve wanted to coach all of my life and went to college for it–I minored in coaching,” she said. “I have three runners who will be racing in Boston as well. Coaching helps me to be a better athlete because I’m constantly reminding them to do all of the important things I need to do myself.”
- She’s realistic about her chances in Boston.
Despite the storybook vibe of her full-circle journey to Boston, Spence Gracey says she’s not seeking a Hollywood ending. “I don’t expect to win, and I know that I’m not going to get everything right,” she said, admitting that she is in shape to run 2:30–which would land her some seven minutes behind last year’s winning time for the women. “My hope is to perform well, and have a positive experience so that I’ll be excited to do another marathon. This is only the beginning.”