By Bill Morgal ’06-’10M
Neely Spence Gracey ’12 was born to run marathons. She was brought into this world on Marathon Monday in 1990, the same day that her father, SU’s head cross country coach Steve Spence ’85, finished nineteenth in the Boston Marathon.
While a student at Shippensburg, Gracey was many things—a distinguished scholar, an Academic All-American, a student-coach, a running instructor for children, and an eight-time NCAA National Champion distance runner. Since graduating, she began her professional running career with Hanson/Brooks, and most recently has transitioned to Pro Adidas. In April, she achieved her most significant mile marker as a professional.
On a warmer-than-normal Patriot’s Day morning in Beantown, the ten-time PSAC Athlete of the Year set out to run her first marathon just two days after celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday. Gracey completed the prestigious women’s elite race at the 2016 Boston Marathon in ninth place, finishing as the top US female in the field.
Speaking with Runner’s World magazine after the race, Gracey expressed content with her performance. “I’m definitely pleased,” she said. “I ran conservatively. I wanted to be set up for a positive outcome. I met my goals of top ten and 2:35.”
Her time that Monday was two hours and thirty-five minutes on the dot—an average of a 5:55-minute mile.
Marathons are 26.2 miles, or 42,195 meters. Right around the 10,000-meter mark, Gracey and fellow American Sarah Crouch led the women’s elite race. Gracey told Runner’s World, “We were saying, ‘Wow, we are leading the Boston Marathon. We need to take this in and relish the moment.’”
Leading with Crouch was especially meaningful, as the pair have a long history of shared competition that dates back to their days at NCAA Division II schools. The US field was smaller than normal at this year’s marathon because of the Olympic Marathon Trials. During her Shippensburg days, Gracey ran in multiple national championship races against then-Sarah Porter, a Western Washington alumna. Their memorable head-to-head duals included Neely’s 2010 cross country national title in Louisville and her 2011 5K outdoor national title at Cal State Stanislaus.
This year on Marathon Monday, Gracey added to an already storybook-like running resume with another remarkable chapter. It’s likely her first of many successful marathons to come.
During a live post-race interview with NBC Sports Network, an emotional and charismatic Gracey said, “Oh my goodness, I just can’t believe I just ran 26.2 miles.”
Gracey also was asked by NBC Sports what she would say to her father, who was there to watch the race, now that she had completed her first marathon. “I have so much respect for him, doing twelve of these,” she responded. “I know that this is the beginning of my marathon career, and I
hope this is the beginning of my following those footsteps.”
Will Whisler, sports editor for SU’s student newspaper The Slate, tracked Gracey down on the night of the marathon, asking her to reflect upon the race and her time at Shippensburg. She said, “I met all of my goals out there. It wasn’t a fast day on the course, but I executed my plan and strategy very well. I played it conservative to have a positive finish, and I’m excited for it being the beginning of my marathon career.”
As for her time at Shippensburg, she told Whisler, “I think SU set me up to have a successful professional running career. Starting with my freshman year, I was a part of a team that won a Division II National Championship. It opened the door for me to love the sport. It made the
running experience more fun today.”
For Gracey, the aftermath of running 26.2 miles was less overwhelming than anticipated.
“Recovery physically was far better than expected,” Gracey said. “I could have done a
workout two days later. Mentally, I needed the time off to relax. I took two weeks totally off and one week of active recovery.”
With her first 26.2-mile race down in her professional career, Gracey is already headlong into the marathon. Her next race is likely to be the Peach Tree 10K in Atlanta on July 4, with a possible marathon in the fall. Down the road, her sights are set on the 2020 Olympic Trials and a hopeful trip to Tokyo.
To read about Gracey’s remarkable career at Shippensburg, visit shipraiders.com/neelyspence. Whisler’s full article in The Slate can be accessed at http://www.theslateonline.com/article/2016/04/su-alumna-neely-spence-gracey-conquers-the-boston-marathon.