Jan 7, 2020

Neely Spence Gracey to Seek OTQ at Houston; First Marathon in Over Three Years

By Barbara Huebner

When Neely Spence Gracey toes the line at Chevron Houston Marathon on January 19, it will be her first race at the distance since November 2016.

If things go the way she hopes, the next one will be just six weeks later at the 2020 Olympic Team Trials – Marathon.

Even at peak fitness, the 29-year-old Gracey acknowledges, she wouldn’t have considered running two marathons so close together. But after pregnancy and injury setbacks, she said, there may always be another race but “there isn’t always another Olympic Trials.”

The string of injuries began during the New Balance Falmouth Road Race in 2017, with foot pain turning into tendinitis. When she couldn’t shake it, Gracey shut down her 2017 season. She and her husband/coach, Dillon, decided they would use the layoff to try to get pregnant and, by December, they got the news. Lower back pain prevented Gracey from running during much of her pregnancy. Their son, Athens, was born July 29, 2018.

A few months postpartum, Gracey seemed to be coming back. Then Athens began teething and his mom stopped sleeping. Trying to train through the daze, she soon developed an injury: shin splints.

After a rocky spring of 2018, Gracey was getting in some decent training again despite tightness in her hips, but in early June her left femur broke during a run. She and her doctor blame the hormone imbalances that can occur when a mother stops breastfeeding. After eight weeks off, she eased into a walk/run routine identical to the one she followed immediately after Athens’ birth.

“That was demoralizing when I thought I’d be racing at that point,” she said. She pulled the plug on her 2020 Trials dream.

“I just wanted to run like a normal person again,” said the eight-time NCAA Division II champion, top American finisher in the 2013 World Cross Country Championships and first American in the 2016 AJC Peachtree Road Race.

But suddenly, six months after she quit breastfeeding, it all started to fall into place. “I thought, ‘I haven’t felt like this in two years,’” Gracey said. “I started to have that itch – I missed the feeling of running fast. Then I knew – I wasn’t quite ready to move on from the Trials.

In late November or early December, she decided to run Houston to seek a qualifying time. Adding a mile a week to her long run, two weeks ago she hit 21 miles on the treadmill after heavy snows on her Lafayette, Colorado, roads. Her training topped out at 74 miles last week, instead of the 110 miles in the past.

“I know I can’t run close to my PR [2:34:55], but I think I would regret it if I don’t try,” said Gracey, who had qualifying times in both 2012 and 2016 but missed both races due to illness or injury. “I want to see what I can do with what I have.”

Adding to her motivation, she said, is the chance to line up in Atlanta alongside three of the women – Caitlin Keen, Ericka Mason and Julie Woodruff – she coaches at Get Running, her online coaching service. Assistant coach Katrina Spratford will be running, too.

“That’s one of the things that’s really inspiring to me,” Gracey said.