Currently based in Boulder, Colorado, Neely Spence-Gracey was 1st American in her debut marathon at Boston earlier this year. She has since capped off 2016 with a PR (2:34:55) and an 8th place finish at the New York City Marathon where she was also 2nd American.
Having trained at both sea level and altitude, do you have a preference?
I have personally responded really well to training at altitude. I certainly like racing at sea level though! I honestly could train at either place, but for me, the environment is what is most important. Living in Boulder, I am surrounded by people who value an active lifestyle. The culture is what makes such a difference and increases the joy I have while training.
What are some of the key differences you have found between training at altitude as opposed to sea level?
As an elite athlete, I have the ability to adjust my training so I am on a 9-day schedule instead of trying to cram 2 workouts and a long run in every week, I instead of 2 easy days between every hard effort. This allows me to recover between hard sessions, keep my volume higher, and not get over trained. I also have learned to adjust for effort vs having to hit exact paces for every workout. I trust that I know how hard I should push and it has carried over very well to sea level races where I run consistently 15-20sec faster per mile than what I do training at altitude.
We are what we eat… what are your pre and post run favourites?
I certainly go through phases – before a workout or race, I always have coffee! I only have decaf, or a sports drink on non-workout and race days, so I really look forward to the caffeine to give me a little extra pep in my step! As for post run, my go-to is an egg sandwich.
Your switch from Hanson’s to Steve Magness has seen you run two pretty amazing marathons. What are 3 things that have changed in your training that you believe have made a positive difference?
While running for the Hanson’s, I had no intention of doing a marathon for several years. I had never even run a 10k until I started training under them. So the focus was more on the 5k-10k range, and XC where I was 13th in the world in 2013. I had a lot of success, but after I had knee surgery and my lyme disease flare up, I was really frustrated not to be hitting PRs in these shorter races. I decided I needed a mental rest from chasing times and wanted to pursue something new that I couldn’t compare myself to in the past. At the same time, my husband got a job offer in Colorado that was too good to pass up, so we made the move and I signed up for the Gasparilla Half Marathon. I raced, and finished second to Jen Rhines. I felt amazing running the distance, and qualified for the Olympic Trials with a 1:12.
- It was just the thing I needed to regain my love of the sport and I started to believe in myself again. After that moment, I started to consider the marathon. I actually continued to train with the 9 day schedule the Hanson’s use, as I felt that I really benefitted from those 2 easy days between hard sessions. It also allows the long run to be more of a workout that is ideal in prepping for longer races. The change is that my workouts are more varied. I am a historian by nature; I have every workout I have done since 8th grade written down in a training log. So repeating workouts can be a huge positive if I have made progress, or very negative if I am comparing too closely. The variety really helps me focus on the present and the task at hand.
- I am in control of my training. My husband and Steve Magness work together to develop my training plan, but Steve lives in Houston and Dillon is at work during the week, so I am in control of my workouts and of executing them according to plan. They trust me to adjust as needed for conditions, footing, how I am feeling, etc. Sometimes I run a little faster than prescribed, and other times I go off the effort I need to hit despite not meeting the time goals initially laid out.
- As I mentioned earlier, the culture of Boulder inspires me daily. I grew up spending summers in Boulder when my dad was training as an elite marathoner, so it feels like home to me and living in a place that you’re happy is such an important part of being successful.
You mentioned on social media after NYC that many lessons were learned. What will be doing different heading into /during your next marathon?
Unfortunately, I experienced the “wall” in the final miles of the NYC marathon. I felt great until mile 21, and then the wheels started coming off. I realized, too late, that I didn’t get in the fuel I needed at mile 18. I plan to work on this for the future and develop a stronger stomach to handle the gels needed for the distance. I am proud of the race I ran, and I know that I have some details to iron out that will allow me to really improve for the future.
It’s starting to get cold, and snow should soon be on the ground in Colorado. How does your training change during the winter? Are you flexible with days and workouts or will you get out the door and get it done no matter what?
Having lived in Michigan for a few years, I am not at all perplexed with the Colorado winters. The sun comes out, and even a few hours of sunshine will make a huge difference with the road conditions. If it is a light snow, I will just wait until 9 or 10am to go run. If it’s a heavier snow, I will utilize the treadmill. I actually prefer workouts on the treadmill to just an easy run because I am more focused and the task of a workout allows the time to pass more quickly.
It is always important to be flexible and adjust as needed for weather conditions. Last spring, while training for Boston, we got hit with a 2-foot snowstorm the weekend of my longest scheduled long run. It also happened to be Easter, and since my husband has an extra day off work, we did a spontaneous trip to Flagstaff in Arizona to get in my long run outside. By the time we got back the roads were clear and I was good to go for the final 2 weeks of training.
Watch out for Neely in 2017 and she continues her progress as one of America’s leading female distance runners. You can follow her on Twitter & Instagram @neelysgracey and on her website neelyruns.com