Dear Younger Me: Neely Spence Gracey

Dear 11-year-old Neely,

I see you right now, out riding your pony, Rose, unaware that life is going to take you in a different direction very soon.

You've always been an outdoorsy, bird-watching child, a hiker, and a tree-climbing free spirit, and you've embraced life as one massive adventure.

I know that when you've committed to something you've felt strongly about, you never stopped until it became reality. If you decided to accomplish something, you did it 110-percent, and you enjoyed every step in meeting the goal.

Little do you know, that mindset will prepare you for your life to come.

It will develop your mind, and it will be the focus you will need to become a professional athlete. Clear and undistracted.

Growing up, your Olympian father, Steve, will teach you that you can create your own destiny. And when you hit eighth grade, you will watch the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships on TV, and it just clicks.

Without hesitation, and with both feet, you'll jump into the world of distance running, barely a teenager.

Call me crazy, but you will soon see that this world is going to change your life for the better.

You'll learn about perseverance. It will take three years of progressive training to make your dream come true: making a Foot Locker Cross Country Championship.

And there will be surreal moments, like winning that national championship in the 2-mile to culminate your high school career.

You'll decide to make a decision that some will doubt, running for your father at Shippensburg University, a small Division II school in Pennsylvania. But he'll make you believe that you can do anything. He always has. You've always proved him right.

There will be very tough times. Years later, Lyme's disease will hit you hard and take away six months of your livelihood, of running.

Injury will test you, but listen to me when I say this: You will come back even greater than before.

You'll race against the world at the IAAF Cross Country Championships and finish in 13th place as the top American. It will become a poignant moment in your career, and it will make you realize the best way to perform is to only give your best on that day -- that only you can control the race you run.

Healing from knee surgery, you will learn how many people have truly supported your career. You'll experience love and encouragement, and you will be so overwhelmed that you are humbled beyond explanation.

You'll get married to the man you love, to someone who loves running as much as you do and who pushes you to be your best and who encourages you to never regret anything.

You'll run the Boston Marathon, just like your father, and you'll be the first American to finish in your debut!

In 15 years, you won't remember a life without running.

You'll have traveled to 40 states, 10 countries, and become the person you've always dreamed of being, even now at 11. You're dreaming it right now.

Someday, you'll become a high school national champion, a USA national junior champion, an eight-time collegiate NCAA champion, and you'll have the opportunity to represent your country not once but five times!

These moments will be very special to you, but you will learn: It's not the races that will shape who you are, but it will be the days, months, and years of the beautiful "grind" that will make you into the woman you will become. 

Never forget that.

It will be unglamorous, gritty, sweaty, and definitely muddy, but you wouldn't have it any other way. You're an adventurer, aren't you?

Some day, you'll know the incredible feeling of accomplishment after a solid day's work chasing your goals.

Without the journey, the destination will hold no value.

So remember to embrace each stride.

Remember that nothing is guaranteed.

And at the end of the day, smile because eventually one day you'll be proud of the life you created.

Now keep riding that pony and never stop dreaming.

- Neely