Stephanie Bruce traveled a long, arduous road to return to running at a high level after becoming a mother of two boys.
The miles of training, time in the weight room and devotion to family and career are now paying off. Competing in the most races for NAZ Elite in the new year and recording top-three finishes at all four events, Bruce is reclaiming her runs.
“I felt like every time I pushed the envelope I got a little injury or I had a setback," Bruce said of the early stages of her return. "That was frustrating mentally because I tried to view myself as on par with other women I had beaten before, and I just wasn’t there. I think over the last six to nine months, I’ve finally been able to do the training that is required of me to get to that next level, and starting at the end of last year and the start of this year, it’s clicking, it’s now allowing me to make those shifts mentally in places and have the physical backing to do it.”
The veteran pro, whose highlights include a 15th-place finish at the 2013 Boston Marathon, started 2018 with a cold, windy run in New York to bring in the new year. Despite not feeling 100 percent physically, she dug deep and took third place at the NYRR Midnight Run 4 Mile in 21:26 on New Year's. Considering the tough field in New York that day, she was inspired by how the race unfolded.
“It happened to be pretty competitive on the women’s side," Bruce said.
Nearly two weeks later, she finished first at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Arizona Half Marathon in the Valley, clocking a 1:12:30 to edge Elvin Kibet for the victory. Bruce thought she would take a conservative approach to the half marathon, but the runners in the field were pacing for the win, so Bruce let her competitive nature kick in and pushed hard.
On the course isn't the only place where she's been pushing the limits. For the last couple of years, Bruce, along with her teammates, have been spending time working on strength and conditioning at Hypo2 Sport. The addition to working out in the gym to her time on the trails and roads has played a role in her recovery, allowing her to be more explosive during her runs when she needs to hit the gas.
“It’s weird, I feel it in the race, like, ‘Wow, I am popping off the ground,’ and I never used to do that with my strides," Bruce said. "I had a very low, shuffle of a stride, and I could feel that in races, but now I actually feel like I have a bouncier stride, or at least it feels like bounce to me, and I think that comes from the strength and conditioning.”
She's lifting more weight and running more miles, making the most out of her fitness level by scheduling two races a month in both January and February.
After winning the Rock ‘n’ Roll in mid-January, Bruce started February with a third-place finish at the USATF Cross Country Championships in Tallahassee, Florida, where she posted a 33:34 time in the 10K. On Feb. 25, she took second place at the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic half marathon, crossing the line in 1:12:02 in Tampa, Florida.
“She’s just now finding out how good she can really be," HOKA ONE ONE NAZ Elite head coach Ben Rosario said of 34-year-old Bruce. "I don’t think she is surprising herself per say, but she is enjoying this process of being as good as she can be. She can step to the line and not worry about splits and about being conservative, now she can get to the line, go to the front and battle.”
Bruce returned to racing in 2016 as a mother. At first, the "mom" years of her career did not sit well with her; she felt like there was an asterisk placed with her achievements that marked the post-children years. Now she's come to embrace the new era, to feed of the many sacrifices she has to make in order to be a professional runner.
“If I am going to leave my kids and go race, when it gets really painful on in the race, it’s like, ‘Well, you left your kids,’ so there is this part of me that is able to change my thinking, and I am able to go to like a deeper, darker place than maybe before I had kids,” Bruce said.
It's how she's always been. No time for "BS," is her motto, especially now that she is a parent. Now, Bruce, who Rosario said is someone who's "always been dedicated to the sport," is finding that the more she takes on, the more focused and efficient she can be.
The steady build back up started taking shape last year, when she PRed in the 10,000m at 31:59.88 at the Stanford Invitational. In fact, she returned to running in 2016 with a statement run that said she's never really left, getting a runner-up finish at the USATF 15k Championships.
Even with the success she had upon lacing up for competitive races after her hiatus from 2014-16, her last two races have her feeling good about the future, in which awaits the London Marathon in April.
“Those two were the ones that I felt like I was finally very fit for them, and yeah, I was trying to win both of them, but I also knew the competition was very high-level at both, so to come away with the effort and compete as good as could be expected with where my fitness level was at,” Bruce said.
According to Rosario, Bruce is at "new level."
She said she wouldn't be there if it were not for her coach taking "a leap of faith on her." Rosario never rushed her, never pushed too hard and always believed she had much more in the tank. She added that her family, husband and teammate Ben Bruce, and other teammates have also played a large role in her recent success.
“He’s so spot-on with what we are capable of, so I’ve been grateful to have that,” she said of Rosario.
Leading the team to start 2018 and garnering results that show she's back on the right track, the two have been spot-on with Bruce's 2018 schedule. Now, she wants to make sure to stay on the road she's paved that could end up with her to the 2020 Olympics.