What Stephanie Bruce is referring to as the GRIT Finale is going just about as magically as one could have hoped for at the start. The 38-year-old mother of two has always been one of the most transparent and inspiring athletes on the circuit, and this year, the stakes were kicked up a notch. At the start of the year, Bruce shared that 2022 would be the final of her long career. She was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition called Bicuspid Aortic Valve disease (BAVD) and as a health precaution, made the decision to retire at its conclusion.
With strong runs in Boston (12th) and the Gold Coast Marathon (4th), and a NACAC 10,000m victory, things are trending well into the big one circled on her calendar: The New York City Marathon. In her tune-up at the Cow Harbor 10K, Steph etched her name in the record books as she won the race in 31:52, breaking Erika Kemp’s course record time of 32:18.
With just a few more months left to savor her pro career and knock one final marathon out of the park, I caught up with Steph to try putting this weekend and her career into perspective.
The Lap Count: Congratulations on winning Cow Harbor! I know that that was something you’ve been wanting to do for a really long time. Breaking the course record is one hell of a way to do it. But this one seemed like it was a little bit more special than just an average U.S. title. Why did this mean so much?
Stephanie Bruce: It’s almost like part of my early professional running career began at Cow Harbor. I ran in 2010 and I remember being second place to Magdalena Boulet. And I think Magda was actually the age I am now or maybe a little younger. I was probably that punk kid coming on the scene, chilling like ‘Who’s this?’ I got a taste of “Oh, wow, I love this road racing thing.” New York is always special to me, having been born there. My family lived on Long Island and the course is just so hard and relentless and I felt like it kind of mirrored like who I am as an athlete. I know I have never been the most talented athlete or won an NCAA title or anything but I just always find a way to get the most out of myself.
It all came together on the day. Those are just the days you train for. You stay in the sport to be like ‘Maybe, just maybe it will all click in one moment.’ That was what it was like for me on Saturday. I think anyone who has been in the sport for a long time has had those moments deciding whether they should keep going – if they’re either not winning races, injured, coming back from pregnancy or whatever it is. There’s a multitude of reasons to hang it up. But then when you have a day like I did Saturday, that’s the reason it’s worth it to kind of keep going and keep fighting through.
The Lap Count: The Grit Finale has been really emotional with everything being so definitively your last. Not everyone makes it so clear to the entire world when it’s coming to an end, but you have. What’s the response behind that transparency, which has become a trademark of yours?
Stephanie Bruce: That’s what it is. The trademark. This felt really fitting for me. Most people go throughout their day and have a thought like they should do this. And when I have a thought, I’m like, I’m just going to put it out there because I feel I kind of want to normalize people going through life, making decisions and not knowing if they’re the right one or the wrong ones. I just kind of wear everything on the outside. The reception has been amazing.
From when I told people about the diagnosis of my heart condition, I had so many people write and they were like, ‘I have this.’ They were almost like, ‘You’re fine. You can keep going.’ After months went by and I went to see that first cardiologist at MedStar, he did give me the green light. He was like, ‘If you want to retire, you need to not do it because of your heart.’ So I had everything clear with them. People were trying to be like, ‘Hey, you don’t have to retire because of your heart.’ And I knew that. But last year was a difficult year just because of all the things I went through.
I was looking at the direction my life was going and I thought, ‘Oh, I should make a decision on my running career. And it feels great to end it this year.’ But I definitely have moments questioning whether this is the right decision or is it not? So it’s up in the air on some days.
I think what’s cool about it is that the transparency is not hard. It doesn’t feel forced or like promoting. It’s ‘Hey, this is me. This is what I’m thinking.’ And guess what? If something happened and I was like, ‘Okay, I changed my mind’ for some reason I don’t think people would be like ‘That’s lame! You said you were retiring!’ That’s maybe what people are afraid of to say their truth in case they change their mind. I think it’s fine to live my life one day at a time. And if something feels right or certain, I’ll go through with it. I’m pulled in a different direction and then I’ll go in that direction.
The Lap Count: So is New York going to be the last race on the Grit Tour finale? I mean, you said the end of the year. Is it New York or is it like are we leaving the door open for more?
Stephanie Bruce: It should be New York. But, of course, NAZ Elite has never sent a women’s team to Club Cross and I told the women, ‘Everyone has to be on that line and we have the women to win a women’s title before I leave because that’s just kind of a fun bragging thing. So I’m hoping we can put a squad together to run Club Cross in December as a team. That would be just more like a fun, short, hard effort.
The Lap Count: How has the buildup gone? You’ve run really well over 10K with Cow Harbor and NACAC.
Stephanie Bruce: That’s what’s encouraging. After the 10K, I wanted to be like, ‘Guys, I haven’t even done speedwork!’ Because truthfully, we haven’t done 10K-specific work. We’ve really just been doing big long runs on the weekends. I’ve been doing a lot of double threshold days, which is new for me.
The week of the race on Tuesday morning, I did like 2 x 3-mile and that was at a low end threshold – meaning easier – and I ran like a 5:38 to 5:40 average for that in Flagstaff. Then, I came back in the evening and did 12 x 1000m with 90 seconds rest. That was at half marathon pace but like marathon effort up here. I’ve had a lot of those days.
The Lap Count: Were there a lot of changes in training now with Alan Culpepper as the coach? How has that transition been?
Stephanie Bruce: They’re minor changes. I think we were all pretty weary with me having been with coach Ben Rosario for eight years and we know what works for me. But Alan has a wealth of knowledge. When he came in, Jenna Wreiden, Alan and I sat down and we were like, ‘How can we collab on this last year for Stephanie?’. It’s just been little incremental changes where Alan said, ‘Hey, if we do something, we would know after like a week or two whether that’s digging you in the hole. So let’s pull back.’ Everything has just worked really well. The three of them have collaborated and I just feel lucky that everyone is on the same page on what’s going on week-by-week. I feel very, very positive and encouraged for the build.
The Lap Count: What do you hope your impact is at the end of it all? What do you want to best be remembered for in the way that you competed?
Stephanie Bruce: Sometimes I feel like when I’m talking about this it’s like my eulogy. It’s your running death so what do you want people to say at your funeral? But it is an interesting question, right? In general with this sport, I hope I left it better than when I got here. I think that’s happened in many ways. From the beginning, me and our team have always been about sharing the journey. I wanted to bridge the gap between professionals and the masses because they’re the ones that are on the sidelines. They’re cheering. Why is a shoe company going to sponsor you? Sure you can think it’s all about winning medals and winning races, but there’s something beyond the track and beyond the road. I think I’ve just been able to make a real human connection. At the end of the day, regardless of how fast we are, we’re all just people. You can kind of humanize yourself a little more through the process.
Like at the Chicago Marathon, I was like, ‘Hey, How many people poop their pants in the marathon and how many people PR? I got to do it in the same day.’ Those things that were just real life, people could identify with me a little better.
On the other side of it with pros and up-and-comers, I just want to show young athletes that this is your career. You need to take ownership of it. It doesn’t have to be the same as everyone else. If you want to stay on the track but you’re losing money by doing so, go to the roads or do both. You don’t have to put yourself in a box. I hope that people realize, ‘I could do it my way’ or women can realize ‘I can take a break and have kids and come back and it’s not the end of my career.’
I never wanted to be like, ‘Oh, I put my life in the sport.’ But I hope what I did was respected and people could find something in my journey. I think that grit is just getting the most out of yourself on the day. Say you’re not having a good day, every second can still count. I hope that I brought people along with me and I wasn’t riding this solo selfish pursuit by myself. I hope I brought everyone along in the same car or same boat along with me.
The Lap Count:. What do you want to do next when you hang up your shoes and you’re not competing anymore? Are you still going to be in the sport? You’re not disappearing, right?
Stephanie Bruce: To be honest, this is actually the first time I don’t have a plan. And I kind of like it. What I’ve done in the last ten years of my career is I’ve made big plans. I started my own energy bar business with Lauren Fleshman and Jesse Thomas. I started a coaching business in 2013 and then we started a women’s retreat. So I’ve always done all the things I was competing. So I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I can kind of do whatever I’ve wanted or whatever avenue I want to go down.
But what’s been really nice about this year is I’m kind of saying, ‘Hey, I have the rest of my life to figure that out.’ Let’s just enjoy everything I’m doing within running right now and those things can wait. I think I’ll be called to whatever it is that makes sense for my life and my passion.
But yes, I will definitely be involved in the sport. It’s impossible for me not to have input on different things. I want to call someone everyday and be like, ‘Hey, you should do this.’ Or ‘Do you ever think of this?’ I kind of just want to give myself a little chill pill for a while until I figure out what that means.
The Lap Count: Well, maybe we’ll get you in a booth at a CITIUS MAG meet or something because I feel like you’d be a good commentator.
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