A Q&A with Juniors world team qualifier Neely Spence a day after her XC win in MD

Shippensburg freshman Neely Spence made her first USATF World team with her victory on Saturday, February 7th at the USATF Junior Cross Country Nationals in Maryland. A day later, Spence took the time to talk with PennTrackXC editor Don Rich about her race, about training simultaneously for track and cross country, and about her continuing growth from a top prep runner, to what she hopes is a successful career at the collegiate level and beyond.


PTXC: Had you considered racing junior cross nationals in the past?

NS: It was one of those things where it never worked out for me to run the USATF cross meet. I was signed up to do it my sophomore year, and then it snowed three feet, I was anemic, and it just wasn't worth the trip to New York. And then I was focused on Foot Locker my junior year. And then last year, I really thought about it, but I thought that it would probably affect my outdoor track season. I wanted to do well in the 2-mile (winning Nike Outdoor), and I was able to do that. It just worked out perfectly in the schedule this year and it was the last thing I needed to check off of my goal list for the fall.

PTXC: What kinds of goals?

NS: I had GPA goals, and sleep goals, and church goals, but then there were also my running goals. And I had met all of them except this one, and I was able to check it off.

PTXC: What was it about this race that attracted you?

NS: I really like having the big meet competition and race energy. It's really exciting. To go there and be a part of it and have that feeling of being part of something bigger than just running alone or on a small team. This is like a running community, and people come from all over the country just to run in this race. And I knew a lot of the people there, so it was nice to catch up. And it's a good experience to prep me for later making an international team. So I'm really excited and honored to have this opportunity. It was really nice to have it close to home because my family was able to be there with me, so I had a good support system.

Allie McLaughlin, CO, took it out. But Spence had planned for that.

PTXC: Did that view of something bigger come from hearing your dad's stories while you were growing up, or is it more your competitive nature?

NS: I think it's a mixture. Running has been a part of my life forever. And I grew up at races like this, so I'm very comfortable being in a hotel around all kinds of elite athletes. It's something we would do every weekend when I was younger. Now I'm getting back into that, except now I'm there for me. I really enjoyed racing against girls that have about the same level of experience. In college you're racing juniors and seniors. So this was a little less emotionally draining because of that.

PTXC: Do you think your experience racing in college 6k's for the past several years was an advantage for you?

NS: I would definitely agree with that. I talked with a couple of the girls after the race who said 6k was fine, but they were a little nervous about it coming in because it's three-and-a-half minutes longer than what they're used to. That experience helped me... but also having experience on a lot of different courses was helpful because this course was unique.

PTXC: Did the warm weather help.

NS: The weather put me in a good mood, at least. I love that weather - 50 to 60 degrees is my favorite temperatue to race in. But I don't know whether I do better in the cold or the warm, or if it even matters... but I just enjoy it (warm weather) more.

PTXC: What was the plan for your race?

NS: I watched Foot Lockers (2008 Nationals), and I saw Allie McLaughlin and how she runs from the front and takes it out. And I watched how Jordan Hasay ended up winning. So I knew exactly what Allie was going to do. And I've raced Ashley (Brasovan) four times previously so I knew how she would run... how the great part of her race was the last mile... so it was one of those things I knew exactly how people were going to run. I figured that it would go exactly how it did.

Spence (left), and Ashley Brasovan, FL (338) led the chase pack. 

PTXC: Describe the race itself.

NS: The whole race went exactly as I thought it would, except that I felt a lot better during it than I thought I would. I let Allie go through the first lap and I was waiting, feeling comfortable and relaxed. And then when someone makes the move to go get her, I'd just go with them. So at the 2k, I felt really good, and no one else was making the move and I was ready to make it. So I looked around as said "Ashley, let's go get her." I tried to pull those girls that I was running with, with me. It sort of worked. I caught (Allie) just after 3k, and we ran together to right after 4k, and then I took the lead. The course was rolling, so I used the uphills and downhills to my advantage, and tried to maintain a steady effort through them. That's how I was able to break away. And I knew when Ashley saw Allie sort of fall back that she would come to get Allie and them hopefully come and get me. So I was just listening for feedback - how far back Ashley was. I heard people say she was coming. The lead was 40 meters and she brought it to around 20, and then I pulled away a little bit at the end.

PTXC: So you actually talked to your competitors at 2k?

NS: I said 'let's work together.' I guess I didn't want to do it by myself. It would be easier if we had a group so we could all work together to go get her. I think their reaction was kinda 'what?' I don't know if that freaked them out, or what. But no one really responded like I was hoping they would. My plan going in was to wait for someone to take it and then go with them. But I was really feeling good and no one was going to take it, so I went.

PTXC: You made up 100 meters in 1k.

NS: After 2k, there is a pretty significant downhill and uphill, so I used that to close on her within about 25 meters, and then I just slowly moved up after that. After I caught her, we ran together for a thousand meters, or so. I just settled back, relaxed, pulled myself together and was really able to work the last loop.

On her own after 4k, Spence maintained a 20-40 meter lead on Brasovan
who had passed McLaughlin in her chase for Spence.

PTXC: Was Ashley you're biggest worry?

NS: Ashley was my biggest worry coming into the race. But my goal was top six, so as long as I got that, I'd be fine. But when the race went out I felt so in control if it. And I'm not used to that. I'm used to races like Paul Short where I'm just hanging on and doing everything I can to just stay where I am. But I knew she had a lot of ground to make up. I knew she'd make up some of it, but I didn't think she would make up all 40 meters. I think my experience at the distance really helped me.

Editor's note: January 17th, Spence set a PSAC Indoor record in the 3k at 9:51.65 at Bucknell. At the same meet, she and teammate Mary Dell were to run a tempo mile, but were outsprinted by Bucknell freshman Stephanie Fulmer, all three finishing under 5:02, with Fulmer 1st, Dell 2nd and Spence 3rd. On January 30th, Dell and Spence joined with Shannon Hare and Abby Huber to set another PSAC record, going 11:30.59 in the DMR at Penn state, the fastest in DII this season. Villanova dominated that race, but Ship beat Georgetown, anchored by fellow freshman Katie McCafferty. The next day at Bucknell, Spence broke her own 3k record, running 9:42.25.

PTXC: You and your Shippensburg DMR had quite a productive January leading up to your big cross country race. Take me through that two weeks of racing and records?

NS: In the mile at Bucknell, Mary and I were supposed to go out there and run around five minutes. So I paced it torun that time. I looked back with 60 meters to go, and Mary was in front of the other girl, so I thought we had one-two. Then something happened and Mary and Stephanie started battling it out the last 50 meters and I thought it was just Mary coming. Right at the line I looked over and it was both of them. I needed to run my own race, and I didn't. I was pretty upset. I let the team down.

At Penn State, I was nervous anchoring the DMR because we got in the fast heat with Villanova, Georgetown, and Princeton. Mary handed off, and we were right there, except for Villanova who was way out. Then I got the baton two seconds behind Katie McCafferty. I had raced Katie before. I made up those two seconds in the first 400, and settled in. I was on her shoulder and then outkicked her. I felt kinda bad because that's what I did to her last year in the 2-mile at Nike Outdoor. We were just about two seconds off the Division II national record (less than a second off the Division I provisional mark). I know I can go faster going for time. Mary says she can run 2-3 seconds faster. Abby can definitely run faster. Shannon ran 57, but she can probably get lower. Maybe we can run sub-11:20 in the right race. That's exciting.

At Bucknell the next day, it was nice to have Erin (Richard) to run with. I led the first mile. Then she led for 800. It was nice. We were able to work together. (Richard finished less than two seconds back).

PTXC: So that busy January all fit into your training for USATF Cross. Talk about what kinds of things you have been doing to stay sharp for track, yet still race well for your main goal at 6k.

NS: I've been doing a long run each week.  I have kept my long run mileage up. In fact, I actually did my longest run ever and it's track season, so that was kinda weird. I'm used to doing long runs of 100 minutes during cross country, but I usually back off to 90 minutes for track. I did 105 minutes two weeks ago. It felt really good. Normal days are eight miles and easy days are seven. And my long run is about 14. I've done a couple of hill workouts to build some strength. And we've done two track workouts. And we've done some tempo. I've been training 5k-10k stuff, and once a week instead of that, I do the workout with Mary and Abby, which is the 1500 workout. I've been trying to build my speed that way. Doing the hill workout with them took everything I had to stay with them. And I've been lifting twice a week, and that's going really well. For workouts, I did 200's and 800's last week, and just 800's the week before, plus the hills and some 2x3-mile tempo. We do two workouts a week, unless we race.

PTXC: So what are the plans for track between now and World cross in the end of March?

NS: For PSAC's (end of February), I think I'm doing the mile, the DMR and the 3k. I won't be doing the NACAC race with the cross team March 7th because that is the one weekend we don't have a meet. We have PSAC's the weekend before, and then spring break, and then we leave the 10th for DII Nationals in Texas. We'll be gone that whole week, then back one week, and then I go to Jordan (IAAF World Cross). I am missing so much school. For NACAC Cross in Orlando March 7th, we have a choice to go to it or not. Some people are doing both.

PTXC: What are your expectations for the IAAF race in Jordan?

NS: I haven't thought about that yet. It's one of those things I just want to go. I need to sit down and try to figure out who I'm going to be racing. Look at the last few years and figure out what my goal is beyond just making it there.

PTXC: What are you aiming for in track this spring?

NS: Our main focus is the DMR for nationals in March. Possibly, I might run the 5k at Nationals as well. It's the only event we don't have to do the trials in. For spring, I'll be pretty exhausted after getting back from Jordan, so I may not race for the first few weeks, and try to get back into it the middle of April. I have a few goals - mostly time, not place. I'll have to evaluate how I'll be feeling. One goal is to help the team win outdoor PSAC's. I am sure we will be looking at a national race, too. I haven't gotten that far yet.

PTXC: Are you looking forward to racing in the senior cross race in 2010?

NS: Yeah. On the way back I talked with my dad about it and said I think I'd like to do it again next year.

PTXC: Is that another stepping stone toward your ultimate goal of making a US world team in track or cross?

NS: I think this fall I made some really good breakthroughs. With each year, I've gained a lot more experience and wisdom, and more strength, both mentally and physically. I think in a few years it definitely could become a reality.

PTXC: What were the breakthroughs you mentioned from this past fall?

NS: In high school, I would race pretty much by myself. And I didn't race that often. And it wasn't until the last two or three meets of the season where it was actually tough. Even states wasn't that stressful. A lot could go wrong, and I still could win it. In college not knowing what is going to happen has helped me along as a runner. It's been really nice to have Mary to run with and train with... and some of the boys help me in tough workouts. At Paul Short I surprised myself. I had trained hard, but I had not seen those kind of results. I could tell a difference in the way I trained after that... the way I perceived myself as a runner. Then at Penn State we did a workout and I still ran a good time, so it gave me confidence and made it another step up. At Nationals, Ididn't feel that great.  I was getting sick. But it was a good experience and I think having all those different courses to run on and the competition, and different weather conditions from perfect, to windy, to snow, it gave me a lot of experience and to realize that I could handle them.

PTXC: Is cross country still your favorite?

NS: I was actually really excited for track after cross, but after racing indoor for the first time ever because I never raced it before, running cross country Saturday was like a breath of fresh air. It was so nice and I was so happy to be back on the grass. I think that outdoor track I am beginning to like, but I think cross country is still my favorite. Indoor track, I just feel like a hampster.

PTXC: One last question: what color are you going to paint your nails in Jordan?

NS: (laughs). That's a good question. I'm not sure. It was one of those things that Ship's colors are also the USA colors, so I was able to double-dip. I might continue that, or I might go exotic. We'll see.