“When I have a good race, I feel like I take my heart and I put it onto the track. It’s like when you watch a dancer and it moves you to tears. That’s what I try to do when I race.”
To UNB MA student Grace Annear, running is art – and it is an art that she excels at.
The middle-distance runner is a NB record holder of the 600 and 800 metre races, a two-time silver medalist in the CIS nationals 600 metre race and a 9-time All Canadian. She was named the 2016 AUS Female Athlete of the Year and, last July, competed in the Olympic trials. Just to name a few.
“Accomplished” is certainly one way to describe the 24-year-old NB resident. “Passionate,” “determined” and “resilient” might be better. In 2014, Grace walked away from track, going so far as to throw out her running shoes. But by July 2016, she had left retirement well behind her and ran in the Olympic trials as the strongest she’d ever been – both as an athlete and in her identity outside of the sport she loves.
It took a long journey for the middle-distance runner to get to this place.
Then: Befriending Olympians
Grace’s running career took off in high school where she won Atlantic and provincial titles, but she needed more than New Brunswick could offer to achieve her goals.
“The pond isn’t very big on the East Coast. Just like a smaller population, track isn’t as big a deal back east so the competition wasn’t very stiff,” she said.
Grace knew that she wanted to go further and run faster in university so she chose to do her undergrad at the University of Victoria, a campus known for its strong track program. Soon the athlete from small-town NB, who’d never seen a foam roller before, found herself in a whole new world of sport.
“Being a part of that really glamourous world showed a side of track that I didn’t know existed until I went out [west],” Grace said. “We attended high performance training camps at altitude, went to all these international meets up and down North America, raced against people who are a little bit faster than me and met and befriended Olympian and national team members.”
However, the training was rigorous as well – Grace describes often running twice a day on top of her full course load – and when she fell short of her goal to make the NACAC Under 23 national team, burn-out set in.
“I was also young and in that sense I guess I maybe needed to grow up a little bit more before I could handle the pressure I put on myself,” Grace said. “There were times when I would work way harder than I should have … but I had this mentality of wanting to be tough when I should have been wanting to be smart. And I obviously got worn down by that.”
Grace also had some pretty big injuries, including a torn right hip and a herniated disk in her lower back. Mentally and physically exhausted, she retired from the sport. In 2014, Grace threw out her running shoes and tried to put track behind her.
She lasted 18 months.
Run one minute, walk four
“I spent about 18 months away from the sport and was completely sedentary. Like I didn’t go for hikes or walks or anything. My roommates still joke about how I just didn’t move for a year and a half,” Grace recollects of her brief retirement.
During this time, Grace finished her undergrad at the University of Victoria. She then decided to return home to New Brunswick and do an MA in creative writing at UNB. Back at her roots, it soon became obvious that her track career wasn’t over.
“My thesis changed,” she said. “The protagonist was a former athlete who retired and then the ending changed and she came out of retirement … so I think subconsciously l knew.”
It was another four months before Grace started running again. She started walk-jogging – jogging for one minute and then walking for four. A slow start, perhaps, but a start nonetheless.
“So, so simple, so easy, but it felt so hard and I remember very clearly the day I tried to run for two minutes and it was so painful,” Grace said. “I felt like a completely different person.”
Grace then contacted local coach Greg Allan of the Fredericton Fast Tracks and slowly eased her way back into training. By Christmas 2015, she decided that she was going to run for UNB and start preparing for championship racing again.
Back on track
Although UNB didn’t offer the high-performance environment that she’d been accustomed to in Victoria, her experience with the V-Reds ended up being just what Grace needed to make her comeback.
“It was easier to come back because the only pressure that existed was pressure I put on myself and I was learning how to negate that. And no one was really expecting me to be anything but my best and since I was simultaneously learning how to do that, it just made it easier,” Grace said.
She ended up having a stellar season, finishing with a silver medal in the 600 metre race in CIS nationals – the first medal ever for UNB in track. But it was the support Grace received from the university community that allowed her to make a personal breakthrough.
“I think it was the amount of people that just seemed to believe in me from the get-go … Like professors in my department stopping me in the hallway and asking me how my races went or telling me that they thought what I was doing was amazing just went so far in helping me to believe in myself.”
Going into Olympic trials in Edmonton last July, Grace was able to take from her experience at UNB.
“I was so much more relaxed about things than I used to be. I had this perspective that I chose to be here. I fought to come back and I’m going to enjoy every single second of this,” she said. “I knew what it was like to not have [track] and I knew what it was like to be ok and happy without this, so my identity wasn’t dependent on performance anymore. Performing was just something I could enjoy.”
Grace qualified for the finals in the Olympic trials. Surrounded by high-caliber athletes at the peak of their careers, Grace found the experience thrilling and intense, and entirely unlike anything she’d experienced before.
“Walking into that track, I knew I was lining up against the best and there was almost like this intense artistry to it – how fine tuned and perfectly calibrated everyone was and how ready they were to perform at their best. And so I walked onto the track feeling like not only the best athlete I’d ever been, but the strongest person I’d ever been.”
Although the Olympic trials didn’t go as she had hoped – she finished seventh in the finals – Grace had a new maturity and perspective that helped her come out on the other side with her identity still intact. Talking about it months later still makes her emotional.
“And there was this point on the back stretch where I was watching these very talented, strong women pull away from me and it was gray and rainy and I crossed the finish line feeling a lot of grief that not only my season was over and that I hadn’t accomplished my dream but that I had reached an end.”
“But I think one of the most valuable things I took away from having walked away from sport, and from having gone back to it in the way that I did, was that I could walk away from such a big disappointment with relative ease … Even though I was in pain, and I had a sense of loss, I still knew who I was without it.”
Currently Grace is working on her thesis off-campus. This past January, she joined Athletics Canada Next Gen, training out of the Athletics Canada West Hub. She’s back in Victoria, undergoing intense preparations for the upcoming outdoor season.
This year Grace is working toward three goals: making Team Canada for the World Championships in London, competing in the World University Games and competing in the World Francophone games on the Ivory Coast, in which she already qualifies for Team New Brunswick.
“I didn’t feel done with the sport,” Grace said of her decision to move back west.
To many who know about her, Grace is an accomplished athlete; but in her own words, she is an artist.
“When people ask me about athletics and track, I just find people start to look at me like a jock or like this super intense athlete who chugs protein powder and lifts. And yes, I drink protein powder; and yes, I work out at the gym, but I don’t really feel like I’m an athlete a lot of the time. I actually feel like an artist first. I find art in training and art in racing, and this athletic career just happens to be a sport. And it just happens to be something that I’m very passionate about.”
Editor’s note: Grace is recording her journey as a Next Gen athlete along with fellow-New Brunswicker, Sarah MacPherson, at TASG.ca.