NORTHPORT, N.Y. (16-Sep) -- Running in her sixteenth and final season as a pro, 38 year-old Stephanie Bruce will be competing in Saturday's Great Cow Harbor 10-K here, trying for her second USA Track & Field 10-K road running title. Bruce, who lives and trains in Flagstaff, Ariz., with Hoka Northern Arizona Elite, will enjoy a homecoming of sorts: she was born in nearby Manhattan and this will be her fifth time taking on the notoriously hilly Cow Harbor course. She's finished second three times --in 2010, 2012 and 2021-- and was fourth once, in 2011.
PHOTO: Steph Bruce after finishing second at the 2019 USATF 10-K Championships hosted by the NYRR New York Mini 10-K (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
Bruce got involved with the race near the beginning of her professional career when she was still unsponsored. She was still trying to figure out how professional road running worked.
"When I started running professionally, like early-on when I didn't have a contract, I was like, OK, how do people... make a living out of this sport?" Bruce told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview yesterday from an Arizona airport where she was waiting to begin her travel to New York. "That's when I started to research road races (and) the prize money. I just kind of always felt like once I got to the roads, I was a really scrappy and savvy road racer. I was like, oh, if I can pick up $500 to $1500 at a handful of races then all of a sudden I'm starting to make a little supplemental income."
Indeed, Bruce picked up $1500 in prize money at Cow Harbor that first year, finishing behind only 2008 Olympic marathoner Magdalena Lewy Boulet. She really enjoyed the challenging course and immediately felt a connection with both the event and the area, even though she had been raised in Phoenix and went to college at the University of California Santa Barbara.
"My family lived in North Carolina when my mom was pregnant with me," Bruce explained. "The night before I was born she decided --this is crazy-- to get on a plane and fly out because she wanted me to be delivered by the OB/GYN that delivered my brothers in New York. So she flew up to New York nine months pregnant and I was born in Lenox Hill Hospital which is, like, less than a mile from the New York City Marathon course. Then I lived in Manhattan for a week, the first week of my life."
After finishing fourth in 2011 34:03, Bruce came back in 2012 and finished second again. Remarkably, her time fell by exactly one minute from the first time she ran the race, from 34:12 to 33:12. By then, Bruce had become a completely different athlete and was solidly national-class. At the 2012 USA Olympic Trials she finished eighth in the 10,000m, and later that year would lower her half-marathon personal best to 1:12:19.
But winning Cow Harbor had still eluded her.
"After the first time I was like, I have to come back and try to win this race one year," Bruce said. "I kept coming back but, obviously, have not pulled off the 'W.'"
But could that be in the cards for Saturday? Looking at the start list, defending race champion Erika Kemp looks to be Bruce's key rival. Kemp, who runs for the Boston Athletic Association High Performance team, ran a course record 32:18 at last year's race (Bruce finished in 32:37, her best time ever at Cow Harbor). Other contenders include Anne-Marie Blaney (Hansons-Brooks), Ednah Kurgat (U.S. Army), Molly Grabill (RISE Athletics Boulder), Katie Izzo (adidas), and Annie Frisbie (Puma/Minnesota Distance Elite). Bruce, who has been logging high mileage ahead of November's TCS New York City Marathon, said she is ready for Saturday.
"I feel good," she said. "I'm in the thick of marathon training for the New York City Marathon, but the way I've always trained... we always say we're just a few weeks from any distance. The way I train is, like, I'm in marathon training but I feel really strong. I can pop out a good 5-K or 10-K on the roads. My block has been super consistent and I felt really strong. I'm just ready to go out and test my fitness."
Of course, Bruce's experience with the course will be a huge advantage. The race features a very fast, downhill first mile. But the second mile includes the super-steep climb up James Street. The course profile shows a net difference of 177 feet between the course's high and low points. The rolling terrain is perfect for a strength runner like Bruce who has twice represented the United States at the World Athletics Cross Country Championships.
"People ask me, like, how is Cow Harbor?" Bruce said. "Hands down, it is one of the most difficult 10-K's on the road I've ever run. It surprises you how difficult it is. That can be, like, really jarring in the race (but) I'm really relishing how hard it is. You have to ride out each mile; each mile presents its own challenges. It tests you mentally instead of physically."
For the USATF Championships version of this year's race, the prize money has been increased. The first place finishers will receive $7500, up from $5000 last year, and there is also a $2500 course record bonus (28:22 for men/32:18 for women). There's even a $500 prime for the halfway leader.
Although Bruce has competed in literally dozens of national championships, from 5000m on the track up to the marathon, she still finds a special thrill when she laces up her Hokas to compete, even in her retirement season, and feels like she has more to give the sport. She won the national 10-K title in 2018 and was second in 2019.
"Like I said before, it probably comes back to why running started for me," Bruce said. "After I lost my dad when I was in high school, like, how the idea of running changed. And then it's almost like I keep having things in my life that just remind me, like, this is just so awesome what you're doing. Just when I thought that late in my career, like, maybe I was starting to wind down. Then when I lost my mom last year, maybe it's not?"
She continued: "But like now I'm trying to look at signs from them. My mom used to say, 'you have a lot more in you than you think.' When it comes to whatever training cycle is next, maybe I have a lot more in me than I think."