THE FOURTH IN A SERIES of event-focus articles on the U.S. women’s 1500, an event on a hot streak and one in which we expect to see fierce-fierce racing when the competitive trek toward the Tokyo Olympics resumes.
IN THE GROOVE, rarin’ to make great things happen. Ready for the Olympic season. That’s how miler Kate Grace felt in February. We all know what happened next. All across the world, to everyone. Life’s rhythms, and track & field’s, careered into a ditch. Don’t you mean “careened,” you ask? No, worse, humanity’s boat got flipped.
“I’m coping, but I can’t say it’s pretty,” Grace wrote on Instagram a day after the news of the Tokyo postponement broke. Grace favors thoughtful, long form IG posts, and her opening line by itself hovers sans context. But she concedes putting dreams to sleep for a year smarted a little more for her. She has “known for a while that this would be my final Olympiad.” That’s another line from her “coping” post.
“I was initially very upset when they postponed,” Grace admits. “It’s just hard when you plan for 4 years and it feels like things are coming together in such a great way. But to be honest, since that first day, basically after they announced the postponement I’ve been just trying to lay low, reduce drama as much as possible, take advantage of this for what it is. And I think also reset my mindset kind of in terms of the idea of having an extra year. If I was all excited about the different things I was implementing in my training this year [she was] and then I have an extra year, that just means that I get more time to do that.”
Grace, who is 31, isn’t the oldest athlete on the short list of women chasing U.S. Olympic berths in the 1500. Jenny Simpson at 33 is older, Shannon Rowbury who hasn’t revealed her event choice for ’21, is 35. But both those women own World Championships medals. Simpson’s collection includes ’16 Olympic bronze.
Grace points toward Tokyo from a different place, from the cusp, she hopes, of finishing a journey begun in ’16. That year, you will remember, she was the Olympic Trials 800’s upset winner, the 2-lapper who sprinted through a pile-up with 150 to go in the final to a 1:59.10 clocking that chopped a 3-year-old PR. The lone American to make the final in Rio, she placed 8th and then hit another best, 1:58.28, at the DL Final in Zürich.
The breakthrough, made possible in part by revamping her formerly inadequate and weight-obsessed diet, confirmed for the ’11 Yale grad that she could race with the best. Grace shifted focus toward the 1500 in ’17, placed 2nd to Simpson at USATF that year and reached the Worlds semis.
When the NorCal Distance Project group she trained with for those seasons was dissolved, she made the move north to Portland and Jerry Schumacher’s Nike Bowerman TC, in which she is the sole 800/1500 specialist on the squad.
This winter after placing 5th in the screaming-finish USATF 1500 last July and wrapping her ’19 season with a 4:02.49 PR win in the U.S. vs. Europe dual in Minsk in September, Grace is primed to capitalize on the work she has put in with her more aerobically oriented Bowerman teammates and, she says, the still ongoing process of optimizing the coaching relationship with Schumacher. The coronavirus’s grim strike has few auspicious consequences. But Grace can point to one for her.
“One more year [of Olympic preparation] with Jerry,” she says. “I get one more year of training, all of the above, just to be that much more ready.” Analyzing further, she adds, “I think it just takes time with a new coach. Right? Especially when you come in like this. I think in the past when I changed groups, it was a smaller group and so maybe it was a quicker transition so that I felt like I was getting individualized training. And I think with Jerry, we’ve just continued to, I don’t know, get to know each other better each year and I feel like we finally are having good conversations about exactly what kind of training I need and what’s going to be good for me. And just acknowledging that unlike I would say a lot of the other athletes in that group, I’m not going to ever be an internationally elite 5K athlete.
“So training to my strengths in the end will be the best thing for me to do. So, I mean, to be honest, a lot of it’s TBD, right? Like that was the plan for this year and now all of it’s on hold. That’s the other thing that I’m happy about, that we have more time. It’s just more time for Jerry and I to get to know each other and for us to work together so that it’s training in his system but he’s continuing to train me to be the best athlete that I can. And I’m optimistic about that.”
For the moment, Grace is resting—crosstraining but no running—to heal a sore Achilles. She honestly admits to thinking her malaise early on as life-amid-a-pandemic took hold contributed to the injury. “It all started those first few weeks,” she says. “Lockdown was starting, I was really stressed and upset about that. I kind of stopped doing a lot of my prehab exercises. I wasn’t being as vigilant as I normally am. Normally I’m doing a lot of rolling and different stuff and I was just kind of going for runs and it was hurting, but I just didn’t care and wasn’t doing anything about it so I may have made it worse.
“But the moral of the story is it happened. To be honest, I would be acting totally differently if we were in an Olympic year. I definitely wouldn’t be taking time off running, right. I’d be running through it, trying to figure out how to patch things together. And now it’s the opposite situation where we decided, ‘OK, let’s make sure this is fully healed and then we’ll get back to workouts in a few weeks and build from there.’”
This is a demoralizing time for everyone. “At times like these,” Grace says, “you realize obviously that everyone is dealing with their own personal tragedies. Tragedies may be too big of a word [in some cases], but everyone’s dealing with their own personal sadnesses, right? Or hardships. Hardships hitting people in the healthcare sector, people who have lost their jobs or people who have lost family members. Or even just plans changing, [track] seasons changing. And I think I’ve just more and more realized that my feeling of grief over the change in the Olympics was more the norm than the exception. Everyone has their own griefs.”
She has decided, in her way, to help mitigate that collective grief, “trying to bring some kind of charity and a sense of community,” she says. And she has incorporated the effort into her love-hate relationship with the internet.
“Social media can be weird,” Grace says, “and I tend to have a more positive sense with it when I can use it, hopefully, to make someone’s day a little brighter.
“The first month I just did a big donation to [Portland] food banks, and some of my other teammates did as well. It was like a tenth of my income for that month to food banks in the area.”
Next Grace bought five restaurant gift cards to support Portland restaurants and five of the same from local coffee houses. Using a random number generator, she gifted the cards in pairs to locals who commented with recommendations for worthy recipients on an Instagram post she wrote—restaurant card to a lucky someone, coffee house card to the person who suggested them.
Grace’s most recent act of random kindness? “Just kind of fun stuff,” she says. “I just did spring cleaning, so some Nike swag that I have around my house.” She is doling that out via social media, as well.
Next year? Grace hopes ’21 is the season for a gift to herself: peak performances at the Olympic Trials and Games.