Neely Spence Gracey on Turning Pro
At the end of 2011, Neely Spence Gracey signed with the Hansons-Brooks team to begin her pro career. In doing so she decided to forego her last season of indoor and outdoor track at Shippensburg University. Neely had nothing left to prove there after winning the last two NCAA Division II cross country titles and a combined six titles on the track (5k three times outdoors and once indoors along with two indoor DMR titles).
Much is made of the lucrative pro contracts in the major sports and of the athletes leaving school early to pursue them, but not so much in the world of the elite runners. With that in mind, we reached out to Neely to try to see what went into her decision and to try to shed some light on this subject.
Q: You were dominant at Shippensburg, but ultimately turned pro before the conclusion of your senior year. With whom did you sign and what factors led to your decision to leave school before your last season of track?
A: Yes, I signed with Ray Flynn and FlynnSports Management in December of 2011. After the collegiate XC season, my dad sat me down. He said as a coach he really wanted my points for the team, but he also felt that my training and racing track schedule was going to be so different than that of my teammates, (I was extending my XC season into January at the BUPA XC Challenge in Edinburgh, Scotland, and then revamping with a main goal of competing at the Trials to make an Olympic team) that it didn’t make sense. The race in January changed things when I broke my foot in the final 200 meters of the event which then caused me to miss the entire track season. But it gave me the opportunity to look at training groups, coaches, and contracts and really make an educated decision for my future career.
Q: Do you think that potentially leaving a couple of titles on the track might have cost you a little in terms of a professional contract and what exactly does a pro contract look like?
A: Honestly, it was a tough decision. I really wanted to be a four time 5k NCAA champ, and the DMR indoors was always my favorite event in college. So missing out on those races was very sad. In terms of a contract, Ray felt that being DII and having 8 NCAA championships was plenty. Adding a few more would not really have made me more marketable. The difference would have been in whether I had an Olympic “A” standard and that was something I could chase either way.
The timing may have been one down side for gaining a contract because companies expect to sign athletes in the early summer after the collegiate season is over. But on the other hand, I was able to do my research and determine what I felt would be the best setup for my future, and it wasn’t crammed into the few weeks between NCAAs and the Olympic trials. Brooks has a great contract and bonus structure that is very straightforward and objective, based on times run and honors achieved. I appreciate that transparency because then I am more in control. If I meet the times and place, I am rewarded. No one talks contracts and there needs to be more info on how it works for those who are interested in pursuing it as a career.
Q: How tough of a decision was it to select a coach after being guided by your dad (Steve Spence, bronze medalist at ‘91 World Championships) for so long?
A: My dad and I were both at the point of realizing it was time for me to find a coach/team that could provide the support needed to achieve at the pro level. My dad coaches 50 other people and the college team is his job. I felt bad taking up any more time and energy than he would give any other athlete. We worked together very well and have continued to in a more father/daughter way than a coach/athlete one.
But when I talked with Hanson’s, both Keith and Kevin were very open to talking with my dad, looking at my past training, and learning how he progressed me from the beginning so they could just continue that pattern of steady improvement. Their underlying philosophies are very similar as they all worked closely with Dr. Dave Martin who helped form their training ideas. My dad and I still talk running; he asks about what my workouts are and then shares what he has been doing… I think he is secretly trying to train at a level that will allow him to beat me, so I don’t always share all the Hanson’s secrets.
Q: What was the adjustment like from college to the pros?
A: I have adjusted well to doing 70-84 miles per week as opposed to the 60-70 that I did at the end of college. One thing I always heard about the pros was that easy runs become a lot slower and workouts become a lot harder. This has been very true for me. The workouts are not as intense as I was used to (I trained as a 1500-3k runner in college), but they are a lot more strength focused so they are much longer. A normal workout day is at least 11 miles in total. There are a few reasons why I adjusted really well to the increase in mileage:
- No longer have the stress of being a student as well as an athlete.
- Teammates to run with every day.
- Slowed down on my easy runs to help me recover.
- We are on a 9 day rotation so every three days is a hard effort and every nine days is a long run (which is considered a workout) which helps with recovery.
- We have a huge support system with chiro, massage, PT, housing, and the opportunity to work in the Hanson’s Running Store where the hours are adjusted to meet the training needs of the athletes.
Q: Since returning from your broken foot, you’ve posted impressive performances at some new-to-you distances (37:52 for 7 miles at Falmouth; 3rd at the US 10k Road Racing Championships). To what do you attribute that success?
A: We focused on building my strength this fall and it certainly showed in these longer races. I still feel 10k is a stretch, but the 8k was a perfect distance, and I know that last mile and the overall pacing of the 10k will get easier with practice. It is great being the youngest and shortest distance runner on the team because the other women give me such a new perspective on mileage, training, and racing. When I am hurting during the last mile of the 10k, I think of my teammates who hurt the last 6 miles of the marathon!
Q: One of your first pro races turned out to be a battle between you and American record holder Molly Huddle (US 5k Championships in Providence). Is there a big difference in the mental approach to a race like that, especially compared to your recent college experiences?
A: I realize that I can only do what I have trained for, so I embrace races like the US 5k Champs where there are excellent athletes to pull me along to a performance indicative of my fitness. I can’t control the weather, who is racing, the course, etc. But I can do everything possible to make sure I do the best I can on that given day. That’s all I have ever asked of myself.
Q: You’ve shown the capability of dropping your PR’s in vast chunks (as many as 40-50 seconds). Do you think with the situation you’re in now that you can make another significant drop fairly quickly?
A: Those races are always so awesome–whenever I run faster than I thought I was capable of. It’s a nice feeling to surprise myself. But this is not always the case. I certainly hope there are more huge PRs in my future, but also the more elite the athlete, the more appreciative of a few seconds one becomes. But my goal is to just keep on moving forward and improving. This comes from consistent training and smart racing. Things are going really well, I am just coming back from my two week break and am very excited to see what 2013 will bring!
Q: I read that you believe you’re better at the longer races and the results seem to back that up thus far. Have you given much thought to which event you want to focus on for the 2016 Trials?
A: I am guessing it will be the 5k or 10k. I am most comfortable with the 5k right now, but with only one 10k track experience, I have a lot of space for improvement. I do not think the marathon will be my 2016 event though but maybe 2020!
Q: I recall you saying that one of your goals is to be better than your dad, and he was pretty good. How much does his past success and current prowess push you?
A: He has taught me so much about the sport and life. I have a great deal of respect for everything he accomplished and learned throughout his career. I know that I have a head start already because I have him, his experiences, and knowledge on my side. I have done more in high school and college, and someday I hope to say I too hold American records, Olympic teams, and a World Champs medal! But all that aside, my dad is my favorite runner, my hero, and my fan. Also, a shout out to my coaches, teammates, friends, hubby and family who really are the reason I am living my dream. Their unwavering support is much appreciated and to all those who are seeking improvement and chasing goals in running and life, my suggestion is to build a team around yourself because that is how you will succeed.
This originally appeared in the Mar/Apr 2013 issue of Level Renner magazine. Both photos are courtesy of Scott Mason Photography and were taken at the 2012 CVS Downtown 5k. I also interviewed her father (and college coach) Steve Spence to get things from his perspective, which can be found here.