Going Long: An Interview with Kate Grace
Coming out of Yale in 2011, Kate Grace was not a favorite to make the 2012 Olympic team. With an 800m personal best of 2:03.41, however, she had shown some promise, securing a sponsorship with the women’s apparel company Oiselle and joining legendary coach Frank Gagliano’s New Jersey-New York Track Club to train with some of the best middle-distance and distance runners in the country. Grace qualified for the 2012 Trials, competing in both the 800m and the 1500m, but did not make the final in either event.
Grace left New Jersey in late 2013 after winning a national title in the road mile and relocated briefly to Bend, Oregon, where she sorted through various injuries before deciding to join coach Drew Wartenburg’s Sacramento-based NorCal Distance Project in mid-2015. It was then that her career really began to kick into high gear.
Early in 2016, the 28-year-old Grace popped some fast times on the indoor track, highlighted by a 4:06.75 clocking for 1500m at the New Balance Indoor GP. She also posted impressive performances outdoors, winning the 1500m at both the Hoka Mid-Distance Classic (a 4:05.65 personal best) and Portland Track Festival. At the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Grace continued her winning ways, capturing the 800m title to qualify for the Olympic team. In Rio, Grace qualified for the final, finishing eighth in 1:59.57. She capped off her 2016 campaign with an 800m personal best of 1:58.28 in Zurich and a 4:22, fifth-place finish at the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York.
The 2017 season has brought about some change for Grace, who signed with Nike in January after her contract with Oiselle had expired. I caught up with Grace recently to talk about that sponsorship switch, amongst other topics, including how she got into running, the various transitions she’s made throughout her professional career, dealing with injury, and much more.
Where I want to start, and this is getting a bit introspective, but in your own words, who is Kate Grace?
Oooh, that’s a big one to start. Who is Kate Grace? Kate Grace is a human, a woman, and a runner who maybe took a little bit longer than some to figure out her path and get straight on priorities — someone who loves life, loves pushing herself, testing her boundaries and trying new things, and has been able to focus that spirit toward running over the past few years.
Take me back to the beginning of your running career, or as close to the beginning as possible. How’d you first get into running and what was your initial exposure to the sport?
I was a soccer player. I feel like everyone who’s a mid-distance runner was a soccer player. I played soccer and [running] was part of our training. In California, soccer is a winter sport and we can run cross country [in the fall]. I went out for the cross country team when I was a freshman. That was training for varsity soccer — we would go and run cross country. That was my first experience in a race setting, and I got to know my coach and some teammates who suggested that I continue to come out for running.
It took me maybe two years until I made the transition. Sometime at the end of my sophomore year is when I became more of a track athlete versus soccer player, even though I did continue playing soccer throughout high school. I was a runner in high school and I ran in college, but I wouldn’t say… I don’t know, there was less access to the online running community, or I just wasn’t seeking it out, but I definitely didn’t consider myself knowledgeable in the sport and/or a player in the sport until after college.
At what point did you make the decision to see how far you could take it in running?
There was a very distinct point when I was a freshman in college, I ran a PR in the 800, and I ran 2:06 something, and that was, at that time, the “B” standard for the Olympic Trials. Anyway, that was the first time I linked myself mentally to a time that somehow was linked to the Olympics. I still didn’t quite understand what it meant to train. I would say my senior year in college there were very distinct memories. We had this alumni banquet, and this woman Sarah [Lesko], who’s become a very good friend of mine, came up to me and basically introduced herself and just said, “You have to keep running after college and go for this.” That was the first time I can remember someone telling me that or giving me that idea.
I slowly became aware of Gags’ [Frank Gagliano’s] group, the New Jersey-New York Track Club. I was at Yale, so that was kind of in the same vicinity. It became a thing in my mind, “I have six months, January to June of 2012 when I can …” I was finishing school in December, then it became a thing in my mind, “I’ll go out for the 2012 Trials,” but even at that time I didn’t have a long-term vision so much as this could be something interesting to try.
You just touched on Gags, who was your first coach out of college. Over the course of your professional career, you’ve trained under Gags in New Jersey, then you moved to Bend and trained there for a little while, and now you’re with Drew Wartenburg’s NorCal Distance squad, which is based in Sacramento. Talk a little bit about those stops along the way and how each has impacted the arc of your professional career to this point.
I definitely have had very good experiences and lifelong friends and memories from each place. Gags, I really enjoyed that transition from college. It was a setup that felt familiar, similar to a college team. There’s a lot of people there. We all lived together in the same little town. Gags is like this incredible mentor-coach. My college coach, Mark Young, knew him, and then coach Young helped me with that transition and would talk with Gags and I would talk with Young.
It felt like I was being taken care of in a way and maybe made the transition a little bit less scary. It was one of those things where I felt like every runner who’s anyone who goes professional after being in college: every workout was like the hardest workout I had done, or the fastest I have gone, or the longest run I’ve done. There was just a lot of new things that I was suddenly exposed to. When I was in college, I wasn’t someone who at all was into numbers or understood training. I don’t think I actually even owned a stopwatch until my senior year of college. It was almost like that was me being so stupid. Now I would go back and slap myself — that was just me trying to be different or something. Our coach would take the splits and that’s all I would need.
I got a GPS watch. There’s a lot of things I learned and I was pushed very hard, which always was exciting. For me, the important thing was I was around people who had high sightlines. At that time, I was training with Julie Culley, who went on to win the 2012 trials and make the [Olympic] team. Ashley Higginson, a steeplechaser, I lived with her and we became very good friends. She actually ended up being fourth at the trials but she very much had set a goal of making the team and being a top-ranked runner. Being around people like that I think just pushed me to open my horizons, and also realize it’s OK: I can embrace being a runner. I don’t have to use naïvete as a shield almost. I think I almost used that as a way for me to hedge a little bit. I got out of that, and that’s all Gags.
Real quick, let’s rewind for a bit. While you were still part of Gags group you won your first national title on the roads in the mile. For you, was that a confirmation of the decision you made as a senior at Yale to say, “It was worth sticking with this for a little bit longer.”
Yes. I guess the decision probably happened that year. After the first six months with Gags, I went to the Trials. I didn’t do that well. I did very poorly at the trials, but I did PR that season. Outside of that, I had PR’d pretty quickly under Gags in the 800 and the 1500. Then I also had this thing where I saw how far I still was from being top in the U.S., and I kind of had this realization that this takes a lot of time, but it’s OK. I’m going to put in the time, and I do believe that if I put in the time and the work, and there’s some luck involved, that I can be among the best.
That happened at the end of 2012. I decided to go back to Gags that fall. That’s when I first started verbalizing, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to go for the next Olympics. I’m all in.” I also signed along a contract that enabled me to do that. Then that next year, 2013, I started having big improvements. I won the road mile. I ran a big PR at Drake that same week, in the 1500. I ended up fourth at the trials, and I went sub-2 that summer in the 800.
That was basically after 18 months of being with Gags. All of that together, that was a very good season. I had already made the commitment, but if I needed any extra reassurance that this was my path, that was it.
Then from there you moved to Bend for a little while. Talk a little bit about that transition.
I actually got injured. I got injured at the end of 2013. Injuries are always an interesting time for any runner, I think, and they definitely are for me. They’re the times when I’ve made changes. When injuries happen, I think part of it is that it does allow you to step back and just assess how things are going, what’s going well, what needs to change. I think for me, being in Oregon was so interesting. First of all, I fell in love with Oregon and the Pacific Northwest. It’s one of those things that I just continue to realize how much foundational knowledge was put in place there.
There was a big growing time for me that didn’t necessarily come through right away, but it’s stuff that I still go back to and reference. I think what I realized at one point in time, even when I was in New Jersey, was that I should try to start learning from what the best people are doing right now. They’re training, but there seems to be a lot of things going on in their training programs besides just doing fast workouts. I started getting curious about strength work, about nutrition, about physical therapy. I got plantar [fasciitis], so I got really curious about what do, what I needed to be doing to strengthen and prevent injuries like this.
The setup in Bend would allow me to fill in any kind of knowledge or auxiliary learning that I needed to do in order to make myself a more well-rounded athlete. That was my reason for going. There’s this physical therapist there, Jay Dicharry, who is incredible and I still reference him and occasionally text him questions. I learned a lot from him and his theories of how to keep runners healthy and what runners need to function at their best. Also, I had some very good nutrition consults. I didn’t know anything about athletic nutrition, and increased my knowledge there. There’s all this stuff that in a way — because I was injured when I went there, and then I ended up injured again, and I didn’t have a ton of results from my time there — enabled me to gain a foundation. I believe [a lot of] my success is based on some stuff that happened there.
So more than anything, it was a real learning-heavy time in your career.
Yes, definitely. Also, it’s funny, even learning as far as … I went to Europe. There’s a few things that I did and learned that I would never want to do again. Just some solo travel things, going to Europe one summer, that just did not go that well because I didn’t put in place structures to keep me happy and put together. I ran at the world relays, which was technically my first U.S. team in 2014. There’s just things that I had to go through in order to learn what to do and what not to do.
I did get injured again in January of 2015. I got injured again, this time with like a weird tear through my plantar plate, which is a ligament-like structure in your foot. It’s not plantar fasciitis. It’s basically this annoyingly long injury to heal, because ligaments in your feet are very slow to heal.
Around the same time, Lauren Wallace won an indoor title and I knew Lauren, and she got Drew’s group in Sacramento on my radar, so I reached out about the possibility of joining. I ended up joining them basically almost exactly a year out from the 2016 [Olympic] Trials. I think I had been in a learning phase and I was ready for an action phase. And I definitely came down here on the one hand aware that this was it, that I was going to go all-in, and something was either going to happen or it wasn’t. This was the time to do it because it’s like otherwise you’re probably not going to continue in this sport. That sounds really intense, but I don’t know, at one point I hadn’t really seen results for at least two years.
I am someone who works really well on deadlines, and being able to come down here, have a go, know that I was going all-in, and know that I basically had a year to do it. Drew is known for being really structured with his programs. I wanted something like that because I’m also someone who will second-guess stuff if I don’t think someone else is thinking through everything. I know Drew’s thinking through everything, so I said, “I’m just going to go [all] in,” and I did.
What’s the environment like there?
There’s a very good synergy on the team. Kim Conley also trains here, and she’s someone who’s super goal-oriented. I’ve never done goal-setting in the sense that we do it here, in the very purposeful sense. Yes, I do have goals, but sitting down before every season, writing it out. [Drew] gives us a little sheet, writing out your goals and what’s the process to get there, blah, blah, blah, blah, always referencing it, stuff like that I hadn’t done before. It was very good for me to have that outline and always be reminded this is why I’m here and this is what we’re going to do.
I think for my personality, having a group like this, being able to lean on that structure just really worked and things started clicking. Again, things that had been bubbling up, but just to have that clicking feeling was cool.
It’s almost like all this stuff was going on under the surface, and last year it finally all came up and finally manifested itself.
Yeah, exactly. I ran well indoors. I continued to compete well in the different races and I ended up going into the Trials confident in my ability to compete well there.
You’re going to race at the Pre Classic pretty soon, but big meets like that haven’t always been the norm for you. Throughout your career you’ve run a lot of grassroots-type meets such as the Portland Track Festival, Oxy High Performance, smaller indoor meets at the Dempsey and the like, where you’ve honed your racing skills and made some big breakthroughs. How important are those types of meets to the vitality of the sport here in the US?
It’s funny, the opportunities, especially for developmental athletes — and I definitely was one out of college — to have meets like those, it’s a necessity. It’s a necessary opportunity for athletes. Even my first year out of college I ran my 800 PR with Gags at Oxy. To be able, first of all, when you’re younger to run against what would be higher level U.S. competition, you don’t normally get that because you don’t get into the big meets or European meets. We don’t have the money to go to Europe.
Even last year when I was starting to be more confident and make a little bit more of a name for myself, those meets still give you a chance, first of all, to have more opportunities to race closer to home, and to hone racing skills, which I think is something that I feel like is one of the things that I feel very confident with — my ability to compete — regardless of who I’m racing against. Having that confidence comes from being able to race in more grassroots races like that. It can never be underestimated — the value of working your racing skill — because in the end that’s what we do.
When you get to championship levels it’s not a time trial. Even last year, at the Portland Track Fest, I was looking toward rounds. I did a workout and went into that race [Grace won the 1500m] on tired legs and then practiced having to compete in a race setting knowing that you had done some version of a round a day earlier or two days earlier, which was huge for me. It’s probably one of the main things that gave me so much confidence going to the trials — being able to practice that.
Switching gears, earlier this year you signed a new sponsorship deal with Nike. As you alluded to earlier, your first sponsorship gave you that opportunity to really focus toward 2016 and really be able to dedicate yourself to that Olympic quest, and it worked out. If you’re comfortable with it, can you please discuss the process of switching sponsors?
This is something that I feel like it’s not always clear how the business of track and field works. You sign contracts through a certain time. My previous contract was up, and I knew three years prior that it was going to be up December of 2016. It was kind of like we knew that this was going to maybe be the end of that relationship way before we knew who I was going to go to. But 2016 was such an incredible year — I am grateful to have those memories. And to know that friendships made through track and running continue.
Separately then, I knew I was on the market for a contract and that was a whole new thing to me because I hadn’t dealt with it before. Coming out of college I didn’t have that setup where I was dealing with different companies and what offers might be. So this was a learning experience for me. I was working with my agent, Paul Doyle, and I was really happy with the work he was doing. And after talking with people at Nike, getting to know them, the history and mission of the company, I was excited to take an offer from them.
I signed at the end of January, and now the fun part is learning all about new company. It’s been a good experience and I’m very much enjoying working with everyone [at Nike]. I learned a lot in signing with a new sponsor, negotiating contracts, etc. It allows me to grow more as an athlete, and more in my understanding and capacity as a business person, or business woman in track and field.
Which you have to be as an athlete these days.
Yes. I’m excited and grateful for the opportunity to continue to work toward more goals and bigger goals and I’m excited to do it with Nike.
One thing I want to talk with you about is your mom, Kathy Smith. She was something of an aerobics icon in the 1980s. How has her path influenced your own athletic career, and maybe even impacted some of these more recent situations that you’ve found yourself in as an athlete?
It’s so funny. It’s one of those things that you think of your mom as a normal person. I don’t think I really realized what a unique career, and story, she had until much more recently. That said, I think there’s a few ways she’s influenced me. One, purely just having a very strong female role model in my life from the time I was very young. Also, not being afraid to be a very strong woman and have a physique that has influenced, I would say, my confidence growing up. It was actually my dad was the huge sports fan. He was the one that was always encouraging us in sports and soccer and running.
Just, I think, seeing her, it enables you to envision yourself being an athlete. There are random things. She never considered herself a runner when we were growing up. I know other people whose moms have much more of an understanding of running or love running. Although now, looking back, I think the full circle thing with her is that she got into aerobics first because of running. Her parents had passed away when she was in college and running was her outlet. She actually ran the Hawaii Marathon in 1975, which again, when I was younger I didn’t realize, but that was pretty early in the history of women running marathons.
It’s kind of cool now that I’m much more involved in the running community, realizing her story and that she did do these things. Her knees ended up being kind of a problem place for her, which is actually what got her, in a way, more curious about different low-impact activities, and into aerobics. She was always a big proponent of fitness for both mental and physical benefits. One other thing I’ve taken from her is just the importance of running and general activity as a lifelong skill that enables you to deal with whatever crap comes up in life.
I think it helps as an athlete, especially when I go into these high-pressure situations to have learned from her that this is something I can do forever. It’s not something that necessarily, if I do well or badly, it will impact my relationship with running. I don’t know, and it was really fun for her to come to Rio and she’s good in front of a camera and I’m more awkward. It was cool to have her to be able to take some rogue interviews.
Earlier you mentioned your various injury struggles and how they affected you. What advice would you give to other runners dealing with similar injury frustrations?
If you are in the middle of injury, I think the one thing is knowing it will get better. You heal. When you’re in the middle of it, I’m definitely a fan of finding other hobbies so you don’t make yourself go crazy. I’m also a fan of, again, diving into understanding basic anatomy and physical therapy principles, because that kind of stuff, you will use it continually down the line, and if you get a basis of understanding — not that you’re ever going to be diagnosing yourself — but it gives you some power to understand your body and that it can heal, and also how to strengthen it.
I guess someone who’s in the middle of injury, there’s only so much cross-training you can do. Unless it’s like a very small thing and you’re just going to be out for a week or two, don’t kill yourself. Cross-train only to the point of sanity. Don’t make yourself go crazy because I think regardless, at least in my experience, it’s always going to be a long road back from injury. You want it to at least be a long road where you’re not already mentally tired from too much aqua jogging.
That’s such a great point. Last question: Your days are full of running, strength work, prehab, rehab, massage, and all that stuff. At the end of a typical training day, what does Kate Grace like to do in her spare time?
The problem now is a lot of it is just resting, or resting or reading. At one point in my life I was really into, and I still am, getting outdoors: hiking, or even longer backpacking trips, although I do less of that now. I enjoy being around friends and people and cooking and boring things.
I love my friends. I’m really close with my sister. If I had a free week I would probably figure out some way to see my sister or a friend in a different location, but the one thing is I feel like I have people spread out all over the country. I’ll tell you what I did last season after the Olympics. I saw my sister in New York. Then I went to Oregon and saw some friends there. I went on a hike, did some cooking. I like going on adventures. I like discovering new places. I don’t know. My dad, well I haven’t yet, but my dad was living in Vietnam. That’s the next thing if I ever get a week or two off that I need to go see him. What do I not enjoy? If I’m going for some kind of vacation thing, I want there to be some kind of goal or learning involved. I’m not a great go-to-the-beach person.
You like purposeful time off.
Yes. My friend and I, we were just daydreaming about hiking the Grand Canyon, hiking rim-to-rim across the Grand Canyon or going to Iceland. I don’t know, expanding horizons.
If you want to be one of the first to know about more interviews like this one, subscribe to the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me.