Emma Spencer’s Ready to Go Big in Boston!

emma5As the Boston Marathon approaches, we thought it would be fun to learn about some of the runners looking to achieve big marathon dreams there. What better way to kick off our Boston profile series than with a Bostonian! Meet Emma Spencer.

Emma Spencer is not one to shy away from challenges. During her senior year in college, Emma ran her first marathon in an enviable 3:20 two days after a major snowstorm. This early marathon success was a logical progression for Emma, who began competitive running as a high school freshman after realizing “the only part of organized sports I was good at was running up and down the field.” She is very good indeed.

Now a sub-elite runner in the storied Boston Athletic Association Running Club, and coming off a stellar 2015-16 indoor track season, Emma has her sights set on running sub-2:50 at this year’s Boston Marathon, which maybe, just maybe will be a stepping stone on her way to earning a spot in the 2020 Olympic Trials marathon. All of this after some said she’d never run a marathon again.

Emma grew up in Winchester, Massachusetts, where she competed in cross-country and track for her local high school. She went on to run for Columbia University and the Central Park Track Club in New York, but her collegiate career was marred by both injuries and burnout. After that first marathon in 2011, Emma took a break from serious training and racing until 2013, when she had enough success at the half marathon distance to earn a spot on the B.A.A. team.

At the 2014 Boston Marathon, Emma ran an impressive 3:08 on a numb right foot. Thinking she had broken a toe, she sought treatment in the days after the race and learned she had rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that causes painful swelling and, often, deterioration of the joints. Though the diagnosis, and the prediction from a rheumatologist that she’d never run another marathon may have been daunting to some, Emma was undeterred. She scaled back her training, recovered from her arthritis flare-up, and went on to train for and run in both the 2014 B.A.A. Half Marathon and the 2015 Boston Marathon. Her 2:58 at that Boston Marathon was her first sub-3:00, a particularly sweet triumph under the circumstances.

She hasn’t looked back. At the 2015 Hartford Marathon she ran another marathon personal best (2:52), prompting her to return to the track for the indoor season. Her success there is inspiring; personal bests in both the 5K (17:00) and the mile (5:02). She continues to look forward to this year’s Boston Marathon, and when I asked her about how training and life are going, here is what she had to say:

Emma with some of her support network.
Emma with some of her support network.

What keeps you motivated to continue to chase down running dreams?

The group of women I train with makes me look forward to every hard workout and early morning run. We celebrate in each other’s successes as if they were our own and offer support through the tough parts of training. When I get nervous about a race, there’s someone to remind me of the training I’ve put in. On days when I don’t feel like running I’ve got a friend who I’ve committed to meeting for a run. Conversely, I love seeing my friends have a breakthrough race and it inspires me to work hard in my own running!

You’ve faced some significant challenges with injuries and then a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. And yet, you’ve managed to run at a level most people are not able to attain. What do you think is your secret to success?

For me, moving to longer distances helped me get injured less frequently. Doing more workouts off the track and focusing on endurance rather than speed is easier on my body. Another key is consistency. Even in the years when I wasn’t racing I was still running six days a week. Before my RA was in remission, when I couldn’t run, I would ride my bike a lot to stay in shape. Maintaining a base fitness level makes moving into training easier, but the other side of that is making sure to not jump back into high volume training too quickly.

Why did you decide to run indoor track this year? How do you think your fantastic season will play into your performance in this year’s Boston marathon?

I was in good shape coming off of a PR at the Hartford Marathon this fall and wanted to translate that into some PRs at shorter distances. I hadn’t run a track race in six years and I was excited to see what kind of times I could run! Doing 5k-specific speed workouts gave me some good leg turnover. Those workouts made me more comfortable running at faster paces, which has helped me work harder in my marathon workouts.

Emma and one of her biggest fans, her sister.
Emma and one of her biggest fans, her sister.

You have some lofty goals, including qualifying for the 2020 Olympic Trials. Are the people in your life supportive of your big running goals? Have you had to structure your life differently to attain them? What challenges do you have fitting it all in?

People in my life are very supportive! My family comes to a lot of my races, and my boyfriend knows to expect my post long run afternoon nap every weekend. I do have to structure my time around running, but I like having a routine. I’m a software engineer at a small company and I can sometimes get caught up in my work at the end of the day, so I like to run in the morning and then add on a few miles after work if I have time. I can’t always say yes to things like last-minute dinner plans with friends when I have a recovery run planned, but I try to stay flexible because you never know what will come up during the week.

What are your favorite and least favorite marathon prep workouts? Do you follow a plan or have a coach?

I like long repeats- workouts like 3×3 miles or 10 miles at marathon pace are my favorite. And weirdly I love hills, so doing long run workouts on the marathon course is always fun. The BAA organizes a few long runs that start in Hopkinton that always make me nervous for race day, so those aren’t always fun but they are really beneficial. I follow a plan that I’ve put together from a few sources, mainly the BAA training schedule and workouts that my running friends have done over the years. One thing I love about running in Boston is how willing everyone is to share their experiences and go above and beyond to help each other out.

Do you specifically work on mental training?

During workouts I try to stay present and assess how my body is feeling in that moment. That helps me focus and not get distracted thinking about the rest of the workout.

What do you attribute your success: nature or nurture?

That’s a tough question, I don’t know if I know the answer! I think the main factor in my improvement over the past two years has been not having any major injuries. When I was younger I had talent and was willing to work hard, but at least once a year I’d be out for a season with one injury or another. Another factor has been that I’ve found a training group that has led me to doing the right kind of hard work. As a distance runner it’s easy to think more miles and harder workouts are better. Having teammates to remind you that sometimes what you need is a super slow recovery run and holding you accountable to that pace is really helpful.

Emma getting tough on her way to her marathon PR in Hartford. All images courtesy of Emma Spencer.

What is the best piece of running advice you’ve ever received?

My absolute favorite piece of advice came from the boys’ track coach at my high school. He was a man of few words and he would always say the same thing during a hard workout or before a big race: “Get tough.” It works surprisingly well as a mid-race mantra because it doesn’t leave any room for excuses.

If you could give one piece of running advice to our readers what would it be?

My one piece of advice would build off that: know when to get tough and when to ease off. “Get tough” doesn’t mean run through a painfully tight hip flexor or never modify your workout. Being tough means understanding when your mind is trying to convince you that you can’t do something, acknowledging it, and still pushing forward.

Good luck Emma! We at Salty Running will be shaking our cowbells for you!

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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  1. That’s so awesome that she continues to do so well despite RA. She’s definitely on a strong trajectory towards that 2020 OTQ! Goooooo Emma!

  2. I definitely think that 5k/indoor track power and speed will translate well into Boston for the marathon. While I don’t run track (anymore) I have found that the earlier part of the cycle focusing on power makes marathon specific workouts “easier” come peak time- I mean marathon pace feels so much slower than the short stuff! Good luck in Boston and future endeavors! Thanks for inspiring!

  3. Thank you for this wonderful article on Emma! As her mother, I have lived every moment of her running career ( and medical challenges), and I couldn’t be prouder of her! The whole family is excited for the upcoming Boston Marathon and plan to cheer her on both in Wellesley at the halfway mark and in Boston at the end.

  4. Terrific article about Emma. With so many ups and downs in her running career, she really stuck with it. Now the wind is at her back. GO Emma! We will be watching the splits and cheering from Utah!