Neely Gracey was sitting in a Copenhagen airport in Denmark on Monday, more than 1,000 mile away from her home base in Michigan, when she finally realized something.
It was the first time in six months where it felt like she had some time to actually breathe and think. The 22-year-old professional runner, who is fast becoming a can't-miss talent in the American women's field, hadn't been in one place for more than 11 days since October.
She made pit stops in Japan, Australia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida, Missouri, South Carolina and Poland before finally settling in the airport, where she would be on her way back to Michigan for three weeks.
"I am so ready to stop living out of a suitcase," said Gracey, somewhat travel-worn by the circumstances, but ultimately optimistic and hopeful for the future.
Neely Gracey of Team USA finishes 13th in the 40th IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Poland on Sunday, March 24. Gracey is an eight-time NCAA Division II National Champion with Shippensburg University.Michael Scott, USATF
In this case, the former Shippensburg University runner and eight-time NCAA Division II National Champion has certainly earned some relaxation time.
On Sunday, she ran for Team USA at the 40th IAAF World Cross Country 8K Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland and was 13th in 25:08, becoming the first American and first non-African to finish.
Her American teammates weren't far behind either, earning Team USA a fourth-place finish and $10,000 in prize money.
On a four-loop course that featured frigid temperatures, long stretches of soft mud and uneven footing, Spence not only survived, but thrived.
"If there is one thing running has taught me, it's that being adaptable is one of the most critical components of success," Gracey said. "With all the uncontrollable factors out there, I had to control everything I could and then not put energy into worrying about what was beyond my control."
Heading into the Championships then, Gracey ultimately focused on everything she prepared for, including downhill running, which she considered one of her biggest strengths.
"I thought that Neely did a very good job of using the field to run the best race that she could on that day," Neely's father, Steve Spence said.
Spence, the head cross country coach for Shippensburg University, coached his daughter for nine years and went to Jordan with Gracey in 2008, when she raced for a junior Team USA and was still with the Red Raiders.
"Her main strength is that she can somehow establish a rhythm even on courses that are hilly with a lot of turns and poor footing," he added. "She also transitions very quickly from being an uphill runner to a downhill runner which served her well in Poland."
Back in Michigan, weeks before the race, she worked with her coaches, Keith and Kevin Hanson, on replicating race pace with high intensity interval work -- like the 8x1000K workouts that sought high foot turnover and minimal recovery.
There was another workout, two miles at 5:30-minute pace, followed by 6x800s, followed by another two miles at 5:30-minute pace, that forced Gracey to work hard with little recovery, pushing into fatigue and still finish at race pace.
Those efforts ultimately built Gracey up for a grueling course in Poland. She said she felt effortless during her workouts in the weeks leading into the Championship race, adding that "feeling fit is a beautiful thing I do not take for granted."
Training was a crucial ingredient to a successful finish, but strategy also played an important factor. She had intended to get out early, establish her pace, roll through the downhills and finish strong.
Not knowing where she would land within the pecking order, Gracey's coaches were preparing to yell the number of seconds she was off from 15th place, but after Spence nearly led after the first lap, "they had to come up with other things to say."
Finishing where she did in the Championships, Gracey was a bit surprised. The experience, however, was important for her confidence moving forward. Spence believes Gracey can compete with the top Americans in the 5k and 10k, and is rapidly improving.
It was also a visceral experience to watch his daughter step up on one of the biggest stages.
"We were all excited to see Neely establish herself on the world scene in a race of that importance," Spence said.
Gracey meanwhile, is ready to eventually move on to other races. She'll concentrate on the 5k and 10k distances in the coming months as she focuses on breaking previous records.
"To finish a race and have accomplished all the goals as you know (sic) is a rare and wonderful occasion," Gracey said. "I'm enjoying the moment, but I was still beat by all six Kenyans, so there is plenty of work left to do."
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