Steve Spence: His Take on Neely Leaving School Early

Steve Spence is the head cross country/assistant track & field coach at Shippensburg University. Steve’s been coaching there since ’97, and was even an All-American himself there (class of ’85).

NCAA Div. II Cross Country Championships in 2010. Courtesy of Bill Smith/Shippensburg University.

After graduating, he enjoyed tremendous success on the roads. At the World Championships in 1991 he earned a bronze medal in the marathon. In 1992 he represented the US in Barcelona, placing 12th in that Olympic marathon.

Steve is also the father of Neely Spence Gracey, who was featured in an interview in the latest issue of Level Renner. Neely ran for Shippensburg, under Steve’s guidance, before leaving a semester early to turn pro (in December of 2011).

After coaching his daughter to monumental success, he then helped guide Neely to the situation that best suited her needs. We talked about that experience with Steve to find out a little more about what the process was like. As both coach and father, his perspective is certainly unique.

How difficult of a decision was it, not only as a coach but as a parent, to support Neely’s decision to leave school early?

It was more of a difficult decision for her.  I felt that she was ready after her junior year and Kirsten (my wife) and I encouraged her to consider going pro at that time, but she insisted that she had unfinished business and a lot of goals for her senior collegiate seasons.  After the NCAA cross country meet in 2011, I again brought up the idea of going pro.  She wanted to run the USATF Club XC meet, to compete early January at the BUPA meet and then prepare for the Olympic Trials.  I pointed out that a collegiate track season was not necessarily the best option to help her achieve her goals.

NCAA Div. II Cross Country Championships in 2010. Courtesy of Bill Smith/Shippensburg University.

How soon before Neely turned pro did you realize this was a possibility? Was there a specific race or a workout where you thought ‘She’s ready’?

We realized this was a possibility when she was a high schooler or maybe even before that when she ran a 17:41 road 5k as a 13 year old.  Her decision to stay at Shippensburg after her freshman year had a lot to do with preparing her for a post collegiate career.  When she ran 15:33 at Mt. SAC in 2011, I felt that she was ready.  From that point, she began to think in a larger scope than the collegiate scene.

How involved were you in the search for a suitable program for her?

I made the initial contacts with potential agents and also the initial contacts with the coaches of the various training groups.  Once Neely signed with Ray Flynn, he arranged for her to visit with the training groups which we thought had the potential to be a good fit for her.  I had some very informative and lengthy conversations with many of the coaches.

Looking back, we are happy with her decision to turn pro in December 2011 because of the time it took to secure a shoe contract.  There were many factors to consider.  Some shoe companies required that you join their training group directed by their coaches.  Others allowed their sponsored athletes to seek their own coaching and join groups like Mammoth where you could be affiliated with any shoe company.  She also needed to make visits, which was time consuming.  Some were flexible with travel and time away from the group, while others only gave a five-day Christmas break and then they wanted her back.  It was definitely a much more lengthy process than what we anticipated and it was good that Neely was able to dedicate time while she was injured.

Do you find it hard at all not being hands on with her training now? Or is it easier knowing that she went from your guidance right into an established, renowned program?

Letting go has not been hard for me.  The plan was for me to coach her through the trials and then she would be guided by the Hanson’s after the trials. We did a lot of research and I’m very comfortable with what Keith and Kevin are doing with her training.  They are a little more aggressive than what I was with Neely as I always erred on the side of being conservative with her paces and volume.  They are pushing her closer to the line, which I see as a good thing.  They realize that she has fewer stresses now that she is just an athlete and not a student-athlete.  They are doing a great job at developing her aerobic strength with the longer faster runs and longer intervals.

NCAA Div. II Cross Country Championships in 2010. Courtesy of Bill Smith/Shippensburg University.

NCAA Div. II Cross Country Championships in 2010. Courtesy of Bill Smith/Shippensburg University.

I loved the story of the 8k that you and her raced late in the fall. [See this Runner World article for more on that. They both broke 26:00 and Neely got the course record.] How competitive are you two with each other?

Neely used to get very frustrated that I could take long periods off from training and still be able to run with her in workouts and beat her in a race situation.  That all changed when she started running mid 15s for 5k.  We now have fun with the competitive aspect.  I’ve been trying to help her out with workouts when she is at home.  That means that I try to hang on as long as possible.  She had a 6 mile progression run in September in which she started at 6:20 and dropped 10 to 12 sec each mile.  I was able to feel great through 4, hang on through 5 and then I was done as she went on to run the last mile in 5:17.  Another workout she was doing 10 x 800 in 2:34 range on fairly short recovery.  I helped by leading her through 600 meters in each and then got some extra recovery as she ran the last 200 on her own.

My goal at the 8k was to get her through 3 miles and then try to finish.  I knew I wasn’t quite ready to run her pace for the full 8k, but I must admit that it was tough on me mentally to watch her run away from me at 3 and realize that there was nothing I could do about it.  I did have visions of grandeur prior to the race in which I thought that maybe I’d be able to hang on and out-kick her.

What do you think of the business side of the sport for athletes now compared to your days competing?

The sport has definitely been professionalized much more than when I competed.  I was talking with Don Janicki last week and we discussed how we were all on our own back in the 80s and 90s.  There were really no training groups or coaches.  We were pretty much trying to figure things out on our own and would create our own training groups.  When I was in Boulder, Chris Prior was my main training partner in the summer.  He was fantastic and in that he would kill himself to help me through a workout, and he is a great story teller which entertained me on long runs.  Barrios, Steve Jones and DeCastella were jealous that I had Chris to workout with and called him my domestique like they have in cycling.  I also set up training camps with Steve Taylor several times and with Keith Brantly.

I was fortunate enough to be recruited by Dr. Dave Martin who was in charge of the Long Distance Runner Olympic Development program.  Being part of the program in the late 80s to the mid 90s involved going to Atlanta several times per year for testing which included:  VO2 max, pulmonary function, bone density, cybex strength tests, dietary analysis and blood work.  Although Dr. Dave didn’t coach me on a daily basis, I ran all of my training plans by him and made adjustments as he thought necessary.  I also kept in touch and used him as a resource whenever I experienced any problems.

It was explained to me by the agents and coaches that shoe and other sponsor contracts including a hefty bonus structure for specific times and places are much more important than they used to be.  It’s disappointing to see that some of the major road races no longer exist, like the Cascade Runoff, and that many of the major road races offer similar amounts or sometimes even less prize money than was offered in the late 80s.

This originally was published as a blog post on It is the follow up companion piece to my interview with Neely Spence Gracey that appeared in here yesterday (and also in the Mar/Apr issue of Level Renner).


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About ejnshow

Runner. Writer. Lover of the absurd. Hobbies include bringing all three of these elements together.

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  1. Neely Spence Gracey on Turning Pro | The EJN Show - March 28, 2013

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