When Neely Spence Gracey discovered there was a world record to be held for the fastest mile run while pushing a stroller (with a child inside), she relished the prospect of chasing it. As a lifelong professional runner and mother to two young sons, goal-setting was second nature – and she was pretty sure she had already beaten the record anyway.
“Last summer, I saw someone had broken the men’s stroller mile record, and out of curiosity … I looked up (the women’s),” Gracey said. “I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure I’ve already done that, just running around my neighborhood with my kids.’”
She made it official on June 30 at Englewood High School, with her helmeted son Rome riding, breaking the previous mark — held by Sally Onn of the U.K — by over 30 seconds. Her new record is 5 minutes and 24.17 seconds. But the actual process of applying for and verifying a Guinness World Record is a lengthy one. It required plenty of paperwork, the presence of USA Track & Field officials and video evidence to verify the length of the track, system of the timing, and legitimacy of the witnesses to her feat. For Gracey, all that work was a no-brainer and a shining opportunity to showcase a combined love for her sport and her family.
“As a mother runner, I really love that there’s a new approach to parenting where you don’t have to give up your own goals,” Gracey said. “For the longest time in the athletics world, once (female athletes) had kids, that was the end of (their) athletics career. I wanted to show that … it’s important to still have goals and still chase down those goals and to take your kids on the way.”
Running has always been a family affair for Gracey. Summers in her early childhood were spent in Boulder with her father and Olympic athlete Steve Spence as he trained for long-distance races at altitude. As she was approaching high school, she saw the national high school cross country championships on TV and was instantly determined to set foot on that track herself. By the time she graduated high school, she was a four-time Pennsylvania state champion.
From there, the goals set themselves, and Gracey only climbed higher. At Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, her dad’s alma mater, Gracey won eight national titles and became a professional athlete after graduating in 2008.
“Once I checked off all the boxes and I got to be the most successful that I could in (each) phase, I tried the next thing, and it was the same,” Gracey said. “I had checked off all my goals, I then became a pro right out of college … and I’m racing the best athletes in the world.”
Her athletic career culminated in a top 10 finish as the top American overall at the Boston Marathon in 2016, where her father finished 19th the day she was born in 1990.
All of these professional achievements and progress towards her athletic goals were time-consuming and, according to Gracey, didn’t leave much room for relationships outside her tight training schedule. She says her life didn’t feel truly balanced until the birth of her two sons, Athens, now 5, and Rome, 2. It was then that she was able to introduce her family to her passion for running and include them in her active lifestyle.
“I didn’t really do anything socially … it made me hyper-focus on my running to the extent that I felt like it became unhealthy,” Gracey said. “I’ve thrived a lot more in having a much more balanced lifestyle – having friends, having the kids, having my job.”
Neely Spence Gracey during her world record attempt at Englewood High School on June 30, 2023. (Photo by Dane Cronin)
Running is still at the core of what she does, but now, it’s not just a reflection of her own personal performance. It’s a bridge to a well-rounded way of life. She runs a coaching business, called Get Running Coaching, where she and another “mother runner” help more than 100 people create personalized training schedules and meet their athletic goals. Much like her own life, running is the center of her business, but at its heart is a holistic understanding of her clients’ lives and goals.
“There’s a science to running, like anything, but I think the art of it is a lot more fun to me than the science – learning about who the people are, and about them as a whole person, not just as a runner,” Gracey said. “I have to build this trust and relationship with them so that they feel comfortable sharing big things that are going on in their life that may be impacting them positively or negatively when it comes to their training.”
Beyond personalized training assistance for aspiring athletes, her love for her sport and her family manifests into a specialized drive to support female runners. She co-authored a book called “Breakthrough Women’s Running” (2022), which, according to Gracey, contains all of the information she wishes she had as she was starting her journey. It combines aspects of her own experience and the insights of female runners around her, including breathing in rhythm, mindfulness exercises, and training in harmony with women’s hormones through the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and after childbirth.
“I felt like I had to navigate and learn so much on my own,” Gracey said. “At the end of the day, I just wanted female athletes to feel supported by other women, inspired by other women, and recognize that – ‘hey, well, if they can chase their goals, so can I.’”