In the two years since she moved to Sacramento, Kate Grace has gone from a relative unknown within the running community to a national force in middle distances.
She made a name for herself when she qualified for the 2016 Olympic finals in the 800-meter, and on Saturday at the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships, she earned a chance to win more acclaim on an international stage in a new event.
With the 1,500-meter final minutes away, Grace paced around the starting line wearing a cooling vest. Though the official temperature was 95 degrees, the Sacramento State track was even hotter in the blazing late-afternoon sun. Competitors doused themselves with water – anything to cool off. Grace hopped and stretched before her biggest race yet since increasing distance.
At 5-foot-8, Grace is a bit taller and lankier than the competition, but her compact, efficient stride stood out as smooth and unwavering. With a lap to go, 10 runners were separated by less than a second before Grace and Olympic medalist Jenny Simpson pulled away in a dueling sprint to the finish. Grace finished just 0.62 seconds behind, qualifying for August’s IAAF World Championships in London with a time of 4 minutes, 6.95 seconds.
For Grace, this was more than an individual achievement. It was a victory for the NorCal Distance Project – a seven-woman team led by former UC Davis coach Drew Wartenburg.
“This group is everything. It turned around my career,” Grace said. “I just want to continue to represent and show the country and the world that we’re a world-class training group.”
Her teammates who competed, Kim Conley and Lianne Farber, fell short in their bids to qualify for worlds. Conley, a former national champion in the 10,000, did not complete the event and finished 13th in the 5,000. Farber failed to make the 1,500 final. Leah O’Connor, one of the top American steeplechasers, was unable to compete due to injury.
Grace stressed how much being a part of the team meant to her.
“Team is huge. Kim and Leah have helped me so much this year. I wish that they were going,” to the world championships, said Grace, failing to hold back some tears. “I don’t know if they’ll ever know how much inspiration they give me. People fight their battles and I know they’ll always be out there. I’m happy to be able to represent our club.”
Wartenburg said it “stings” for Conley, his wife, to miss qualification, but he was proud Grace will represent the team on a world stage.
“Coming to a meet like this, the endgame is to be represented on Team USA,” he said. “This is a meet where we had a couple good shots of making the team. We’d love to have more folks going to London this summer, but we’ll take what we can get. It’s nice to be represented.”