After Breakthrough year, Kate Grace looks for more, from RRW

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PHOTO: Kate Grace in Eugene, Ore., in advance of the 2017 Prefontaine Classic (photo by David Monti for Race Results Weekly)

Kate Grace had an excellent 2017. Here's David Monti's feature on her goals for 2017, starting at the Nike Pre Classic.


AFTER BREAKTHROUGH YEAR, GRACE LOOKS FOR MORE
By David Monti, @d9monti
(c) 2017 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved, used with permission

EUGENE, ORE. (26-May) -- Sitting at a Starbucks here in a crisp, white Nike top, reigning USA 800-meter champion Kate Grace sips from her cup of green tea while she speaks with a reporter. Grace, 28, looks confident and at ease before lining up for the 1500m at the Prefontaine Classic here tomorrow afternoon at Hayward Field at the University of Oregon, her first big competition of the 2017 outdoor season.

"Running in Hayward is the best," Grace observed, breaking into a smile. "I feel like it's a home field, even though I never trained here. I love the crowds, especially after the Trials last year."

At last July's USA Olympic Trials here, Grace completed her transformation from a promising talent to a proven champion. She celebrated Independence Day last July with a convincing victory in the 800-meters, gaining her first national title and qualifying for the Olympic Games for the first time. That victory, in which she clocked her first-ever sub-two minute performance of 1:59.10, was the culmination of a journey which began in 2015 when she decided to move back to her native California and train with the NorCal Distance Project in Sacramento.

"Kate reached out via email during our training group's spring altitude trip in April, 2015," recalled NorCal Distance Project coach Drew Wartenburg in an e-mail message. "More than anything, that e-mail was a conversation starter for a process that eventually saw Kate visit Sacramento to learn more about the group and the environment here. By June everyone had agreed that a move seemed like a good fit."

Following the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in June, Grace moved to Sacramento to train with Wartenburg and his wife, Olympian Kim Conley, and others. Grace integrated easily with the group, and both she and the group saw positive changes as a result.

"Kate represented an addition that immediately broadened our base in terms of the experience and background that she brought with her," Wartenburg explained. "On the day-to-day level, Kate expressed and embraced a willingness to operate and train with her sight line fixed on national and global levels of competition. That approach is important in that it directly aligns with, and reinforces, the mission and values of our team."

Under Wartenburg, a narrative took shape that Grace would become a globally-important athlete, and she began to incorporate that into all of her thinking. She quickly came to trust Wartenburg as she felt more comfortable in her new surroundings and as her training progressed.

"The one thing that I don't talk about much is what it takes to trust a coach, to gain a relationship with a coach" said Grace, who was previously coached by Frank Gagliano, a man whom she today called "an incredible person." "That is the one thing that is the most precarious when you join a program, because of the amount of time (it takes) to see results. You can't always force that process."

In the NorCal Distance approach, there were stints of altitude training and more effort-based, run-on-feel training, like fartleks, which Grace wasn't accustomed to.

"I never understood fartleks," Grace joked. "I want him to tell me what pace to go."

Grace opened her 2016 outdoor season with two low-key meets in May which turned out to be important confidence-boosters. She ran 2:00.05 for 800-meters at the Portland Twilight Meet, then four days later won the 1500-meters at the Hoka One One Distance Classic in her hometown of Los Angeles. In that race, she showed a terrific last-lap sprint, clocked a personal best and Olympic Games qualifying mark of 4:05.65, and realized fully that Wartenburg's program was working.

"I was gaining momentum for the months building up," Grace explained. "In practice and privately, I knew I was getting into shape. I think that's when I proved to myself that I didn't have a moon-shot dream that was a fantasy, that there was a talent there, that it hadn't disappeared. Now, I can kind of play with this leading up to the Trials."

At the Trials, Grace saw herself differently than before. She could now control things on the track. The other women keyed off of her, the so-called "alpha athlete" effect. Working with a sport psychologist, Grace was mentally prepared to let her training and gifts show. She was nervous, but she was ready.

"Leading into the final race, I know it was big, but there was a weird peace, that I wasn't overwhelmed or jittery," Grace said. "I really wanted it. I really wanted to make the team. I knew I could make the team. That was my dream. I don't think I realized the gravity of the moment, which was a good thing because I would have been too nervous."

Luck was also with her that day. With 150 meters to go in the final, two of her key rivals, Brenda Martinez and Alysia Montano, were caught up in a tussle where Martinez lost momentum and Montano fell hard to the track. Grace, Ajee' Wilson, and Chrishuna Williams were ahead of the crash, ran unfettered to the line, and made the team.

At the Rio Olympics, Grace would make it to the final, but only after a nail-biting wait after her preliminary heat. Running in the fifth of eight heats, Grace finished third in 1:59.96, missing the second place, automatic qualifying spot by just 4/100ths of a second. She remained on the edge of the field of play, accompanied by an old friend, freelance journalist Catherine Osborn, who was covering the meet. Grace said that Osborn helped calm her as she watched the next three heats play out before it was confirmed that she would advance on time.

"Nobody could run faster (than me); it was the worst feeling," Grace recalled. She continued: "The idea that I messed up, that I could have gone faster, the I was complicit in not making the final was a horrifying feeling."

Grace left nothing to chance in her semi-final, blasting a career best 1:58.79, qualifying on time. She would finish eight --and last-- in the final, but it was nonetheless a great achievement given where she was just a year earlier. She was ready for more.

"Thinking back, I left the Olympics so proud and happy, but thought I had more to prove," Grace said. "The silver lining is that it gives me some fire for this year."

Grace ended her 2016 track season last September with a mighty effort at the Weltklasse in Zürich, lowering her personal best to 1:58.28, before flying home to the States and running the New Balance Fifth Avenue Mile in New York City, where she finished fifth.

Here in Eugene, Grace hopes to build on an excellent indoor season where she ran personal best times for the 3000m (8:47.26) in Seattle last January, and the mile (4:22.93) in New York City at the NYRR Millrose Games last February. She's run only two races so far outdoors, a rust-buster 1500m at the Drake Relays last April (4:16.62) and a low-key 800m in Portland earlier this month (2:01.25).

"It's an incredible field that they've assembled," says Grace of tomorrow's race which boasts six women who have broken four minutes for 1500m, including USA record holder Shannon Rowbury and recently-crowned European indoor champion Laura Muir of Great Britain. "I haven't had any 1500's at this level." She added: "This is definitely a good opportunity to race against world class athletes and test myself out."

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