Reynah and Margeaux Spence discover they are runners after all.
To observe the Spence clan of Shippensburg on a run, in training or competing, you would naturally think that their love for the sport comes as effortlessly as their breathing.
You would be mildly mistaken.
To arrive where they are today,... there were twists and turns for this talented family, and not all of them were to the left.
The trials and successes of the patriarch of the family - Steve - are well chronicled.
Following closely in his footsteps is his eldest daughter, Neely, now a junior who is running for her father/coach at Shippensburg University. A two-time Foot Locker Finalist and all-American, high school national champ in the 2-mile, and now national champ on the U.S. level in Junior XC and NCAA DII; Neely's resume is growing as fast as her times are dropping (she recently set the DII 5K track record of 15:33.83). (Neely will run the 3000 at Distance Night at the Penn Relays, Thursday, April 28)
And now Neely's twin sisters, Reynah and Margeaux - four years her junior - are taking the sport as seriously as their father and older sister; but more importantly; they are having unbridled fun doing it.
For a long time, that was not the case.
With natural talent, in-home role models, and at-their-disposal world-class coaching, it is not a path that was easily negotiated, nor accepted.
There is, of course, (self-imposed) pressure. There is the natural competitiveness of twins. And there are the external expectations.
Just accept your God-given gifts you say?
When your dad is an Olympian and World Championship medalist, and with your sister setting the bar higher with every passing race, that is easier said, than done.
Following in such huge footsteps can leave some pretty big canyons to forge.
Raynah and Margeaux have traversed some fairly rough times to get to a place they never thought they'd be - never really wanted to be - and that is... having a blast running, training, competing, and as they say - 'breathing the familty sport."
The family sport could have been basketball.
If things had gone the way Reynah and Margeaux envisioned them, the two might still be running up and down a court rather than around a track.
The girls acquired their love for roundball quite honestly. The sport had been a favorite of their dad's when he was in high school.
Steve loved the game so much, he went out for cross country as a freshman because he thought it would help him get into shape for the grueling back-and-forth of a game of full court hoops.
He was right.
But he was good at running, too. So good, he won every 1.5 mile race that first year. "And the girls thought that was pretty cool, winning races, getting publicity, so I became a runner, too."
He played tennis that frosh spring instead of running track; and played basketball through all four years of high school. But Steve was now a runner.
Reynah and Margeaux wanted to be different from their dad and sister... so dad taught them a sport he knew well - basketball.
The girls were good.
Following in the footsteps of their point guard father, they used their natural speed, strength and some good home coaching to pick up the game rather quickly. "We were very motivated, and got really good, really fast," Margeaux says with only a slight hint of embarrassment. "We liked it because it was so competitive," interjects Reynah.
They moved up to the varsity rather quickly... and that apparently upset the natural order of the Shippensburg rec league universe. So after their third year with the "Sparks", they rather unwillingly, but understandably, quit the game.
They started to run a little, "because we had nothing else to do" says Margeaux. And finishing the thought; as the two girls often do for each other; Reynah adds "At first we didn't like it."
The twins were between sports. And Neely was in transition, as well.
The summer of 2003 was a pivotal one for the Spence girls.
Reynah and Margeaux were running occasionally, but only for something to do.
Their mom - Kirsten, who happens to have a 17:00 5K on her resume - would get the girls up in the morning to have some company on her run. "At the beginning, we would pout when she got us up. We do not like mornings" says Margeaux.
Reynah says her parents didn't force the issue.
The girls had nothing better to do, and their confidence was a bit shaken from the experience with basketball... so they just kept at it. "We were both really determined to keep doing it even though we didn't like it that much," says Reynah.
So they ran. They also renewed an outlet for their competitive natures.
Growing up, they used their two-on-one advantage against their older sister. And this particular summer was no exception.
Neely had become a bit burned out on the sport after her 7th grade year, and with her parents blessing, took what she thought would be an extended break.
However, with the twins running with their mom on a regular basis, Reynah and Margeaux were getting pretty fit.
And they continued to do what siblings do. Annoy their older sister.
Neely would give chase.
But unlike years past - during this turning-point summer - Neely could not make the catch.
"It is difficult when nine-year-olds are running faster than you," she says now.
The twins found another incentive to train other than chasing, or being chased by Neely.
The Ausherman Series is a summer of one, and two-mile cross country runs sponsored by the Chambersburg RoadRunners. The twins; always competitive; would run the mile.
During the first two races, they had an encounter with a young gentleman their age, who apparently felt the need to do some trash-talking with the girls during the race. He would then pull away and leave the girls more than a little annoyed.
By the middle of summer, Reynah and Margeaux would refer to him simply as "The Boy."
Beating "The Boy" became their summer goal. And they enlisted dad's help in training.
When the final one mile race arrived in mid-August, Reynah and Margeaux exacted their revenge.
Reynah picks it up from there... "we were both running behind "The Boy", and we both passed him on either side near the end. He was a good sport about it, but we don't think he ever ran again." The quick glance between the two recalling that day said it all.
The girls tied in first place in 6:31.
While the twins were having the kind of fun only twins can have, Neely was going though her own reawakening.
The year before, while successful, would find Neely getting extremely nervous before races. “It wasn’t fun any more. I used to put so much pressure on myself. I always wanted to run well, and I wasn’t happy if I didn’t finish with a good time or a PR. And that’s not a good way to run, because everybody has off days. It was just too much. But I did it to myself.”
Her parents knew the signs, and her dad told her, “if you get stressed about it, don’t do it.”
The break was exactly what she needed.
Not catching her twin sisters was merely the little extra incentive Neely needed to start running again.
By mid-July, she joined the family at one of the Ausherman races, winning the mile at one, and doing well in the two-mile at the final two races, seeing signs of progress each week.
The rest, as they say, is now history.
For Reynah and Margeaux, it was mission-accomplished. "After we beat 'The Boy'", Rehnah says, "we kinda stopped, because we had met our goal."
Neely's high school career just took off, and by the time she was a junior, she was welcomed to the Shippensburg high school team, thanks to a recently enacted law that permitted homeschoolers to participate in their local school's activities.
Discovering the runners within was not an overnight change for Reynah and Margeaux.
The girls know they are different from their dad and sister. They know there are differences between them. But discovering those differences, and then being able to build on their individual strengths is hard enough without the presence of an Olympian dad and US champion sister in the house.
So as they said... they simply decided not to quit.
That fall, they took advantage of the family 'business.' They trained with the Shippensburg University college women's team. Reynah admits that the only reason they didn't quit running all together was the commraderie with the team.
The next year - their freshman year competing for Shippensburg High School - they ran cross country. But cross country was their sister's event, and they reluctantly admit their hearts weren't really in it.
"We liked track better" says Reynah. "Neely was really good at cross, and in track we could find other events than her."
Although both parents cautioned and counseled the girls against comparing themselves to their older sister, the advice was not heeded at first. "It's hard not to make comparisons," Reynah admits.
When track started, the girls found there were differences they could use.
Neely excelled at the longer races. And the twins had more raw speed than their sister.
Steve says the athletic differences are quite striking, even between the twins.
When Steve was a professional athlete, his strength guru was Doug Lentz of Chambersburg.
Lentz does strength training for the girls, and was rather pointed in his encouragement to the twins. Steve says Lentz told Reynah and Margeaux that they are more explosive than their older sister. "Neely was a bit frustrated," Steve relates. "She could not get some of the movements and exercises that Reynah and Margeauz could."
Reynah used that speed right out of the gate as a freshman. She qualified for the PIAA state meet in the 800, running a PR 2:20.62, but missing the final.
(Photos by Don Rich unless otherwise noted)
And Margeaux found her event... the steeplechase.
Margeaux discovered that she loved the hurdles. She didn't think she was fast enough in the 300 variety, but was attracted by the jumping. "I loved it right away. It helps me break the race down, barrier to barrier."
At that year's Shippensburg University Invitational, Margeaux won the 2000 meter steeplechase in 7:50.38.
So Reynah had her two-lapper... and Margeaux had her hurdles.
They were not competing against the legacy and resume of their older sis. Or against each other.
Margeaux put it diplomatically when asked why Neely never found the hurdles to her liking.
"Neely can't jump."
Reynah was a bit more direct... "She has some technical difficulties when she tries to jump anything. She falls."
Neely concurs. She is quite happy with her own gifts. And she is obviously proud of how far the girls have come. "They have blossomed into athletes. You can just see it."
Fast-forward to sophomore year, and the experience of cross country is, once again, not fulfilling. Cross is Neely's...
But in track, Reynah and Margeaux are back in their new comfort zone.
Reynah once again qualifies for the state championship in the 800, running 2:17.73 in the District 3 meet, and 2:17.95 in the prelims at states. (Photo by Doug Michaels) She doesn't advance to the final, but is so much closer than she was in her freshman year.
Margeaux is at home in the steeplechase, running a PR in the 2000 meter variety at an early June meet, going 7:30.81. And she PRs in the 800 at districts, running 2:22.63.
There are marked improvements.
But something bigger has occurred.
The girls have decided they are full members of the running community.
"It wasn't a particular moment," says Reynah. "We were like, wow, we're into this."
Margeaux finishes the thought... "We didn't need to discuss it. We just both knew we felt the same way. We don't like to talk about things. We just know."
As juniors, Reynah and Margeaux decide they'd just rather, well... train.
This past fall - as juniors - cross country wasn't about cross country for the twins. It was about training. Specifically, training again with the Shippensburg University women's team.
The girls had some bridges to cross.
They had been here before. And they had been asked to leave practice before.
As alluded to earlier... the two are (were) competitive with each other. And after one particularly engaging workout, the two ended up in a bit of a tussle. They were excused from practice.
There were apparently other unreported 'incidents' over the years.
They had a sit-down talk with their parents. They mostly listened.
All that has now changed, say the girls. They are getting better at competing with each other, something that they could not do before.
During track as sophs, they actually both PRed in the same 3200 meter race.
Training last fall with the Ship women's team went well... and the girls noticed other changes in their approach to the sport and to each other.
The team is one of the top DII teams in the US, and the girls watched and learned their lessons well.
What they learned was that they are pretty good.
On Thanksgiving Day, Reynah ran a 3-mile Turkey Trot in abysmal conditions, and went 17:20, effectively breaking 18 for the 5K. Her PR had been 19:46.
Neely believes that was a big turning point for the girls. "They were training with the college team, gaining confidence and thinking to themselves, 'these are the girls we train with, and they are racing fast.' "
Reynah and Margequx realized they were now runners. And getting good.
Running for the right reasons. Their own.
Steve has always had the gift of self-awareness. "I always read my body well. I'd let things come to me, never setting high goals."
For Neely, it was about being a serious runner. "That's what she always wanted to be," says Margeaux.
But while Neely is as serious and focused as they come, there has been a big change for her as well. It's been fun now for a long time. And now that Reynah and Margeaux are enjoying it too, she is closer to her sisters than ever. "On a family vacation over the winter, we got to run together. I'll go home some days and do a long run with Margeaux. We do abs together. It is definitely special."
For the twins, it was about finding their own path... which for years, led them to challenge each other.
Time, maturity, an older sister who gets it, and parents who give them the boundaries they need, along with the freedom to be themselves, have opened new doors for the girls.
Maregeaux wants to have many more interests than running. "I want lots of different things going on, because it helps to take the pressure off."
As for Reynah, she's seems to be taking the lead a little bit on this running thing. "The older I get, the more I see myself as a runner, because it's really what I like to do."
Their first races of the year opened some eyes.
The girls had not raced since Districts (for Margeaux) and States (for Rehnah) in 2010. So April 9th was a big day for them. Pan-Ram at Central Dauphin attracts some strong fields, and this year's was no exception.
Reynah opened the competition for the two with a very smart, tactical 1600. Racing against experienced talent in Cumberland Valley senior Leigha Anderson, and daring, rising talent in Pottsville freshman Paige Stoner, Reynah waited until the final two laps to gap Anderson a bit, and then the final 250 to put away Stoner, finishing in a PR of 5:08.84 on a cold, breezy day.
"I have watched my sister race, and dad, and other people who race smart too, so I have a pretty good instinct how I can run my best."
Margeaux was in the 3200, and like, her sister, followed instructions, going for even splits. It meant she was toward the back of the pack at 600... but she knew people would be coming back. She has seen it so many times before. Stoner, and Lower Dauphin's Jenna Flickinger took the pace out hard, and made it a two person battle from the gun. Margeaux worked her way through the entire pack, keeping an even pace, and moved into third before being passed on the final turns by Carlisle's April Schlusser. Stoner and Flickinger were in at 11:09 and 11:19, respectively. Schlusser at 11:45, and Margeaux at 11:52. It was a PR.
While pleased with her start, she came away from the race with one new lesson. "In hindsight, I would have kept them (Stoner and Flickinger) in sight. I did have a lot more left."
The hope for the following weekend was to run the 1600 for Reynah and the Steeplechase for Margeaux. Reynah got to race, but was left with a hard workout as she dispatched the field and cruised to a 5:20 in the wind and rain that dominated April 16th in PA.
Margeaux never got the chance to run the steeplechase because it had been moved to the end of the day after having been the opening event for years. The meet was canceled because of thunderstorms near the end of the 4x100's.
She may get the long-awaited steeplechase chance at a Millersville University meet the weekend of Penn Relays.
"Running is like breathing for our family"
From basketball, to running, to finding their own identities, Reynah and Margeaux have come full circle.
It would have been easy to just accept their gifts and the family business and grin and bear it and just run.
But Kirsten and Steve Spence don't force their girls to be anything but themselves.
It happened for Neely... and now it has happened for Reynah and Margeaux.
Reynah pauses when asked what has changed for her... "I want to be good. I have that intensity now to get there."
"Me too," Margeaux adds. "Me too."