Nancy Grace doesn’t mean to sound down headed into Saturday’s Woodstock 5K. She insists she’s remained upbeat since breaking her jaw at the final turn of last year’s race, and who would doubt her?
The then-74-year-old Oxford woman finished the race, after all.
Never mind the pain and blood. Never mind her disappointment that time lost in a fall cost her a chance to break her own state record, which she so wanted.
Never mind any of that. She’s a serious runner. Her legs were still working, and a finish line was ahead. Walk across it she would not.
Now 75, she knows what’s coming Saturday. She knows the turn from Rocky Hollow Road onto Woodstock Avenue is coming, and that turn has triggered memories at every Woodstock training run she’s attended since June.
She knows the Anniston High football players that enthusiastically cheer runners will be asked to stay at the roadside this year, but she also knows Woodstock is expected to draw about 1,300 runners. She’ll have to run in a crowd, and her strong spirit lives in a 95-pound body.
“I still have that eerie feeling when we’re in a lineup,” Grace said. “I’m constantly watching people to make sure that I’m not getting too close and they’re not getting too close to me.
“I still get that little bit of fear, I guess, until I get out of these braces and I feel like I’m whole again.”
Grace expects to lose her Invisalign braces some time later this month.
As for running, many years of it helped her to recover her distance capacity relatively quickly. She set a state record for her birth year in the Tuscaloosa Half-Marathon in March.
Still, she said she hasn’t fully recovered the “excellent” conditioning she had this time a year ago, before surgery, six weeks with her mouth wired shut and a shake diet that trimmed her to 88 pounds. Maybe by next year’s Woodstock, she said, she can again chase the record she was so tantalizingly close to breaking in 2013.
She was at the final turn. She was on pace to finish the 3.1-mile course in under 30 minutes, which would have broken her own state age-record time of 30:13, which she set in the Anniston Lions Run For Sight 5K at McClellan in May.
“I felt extremely good,” she said. “I was running down Rocky Hollow. I had already gotten my second wind, and I was just heading for home.”
As they do each year, Anniston High football players were greeting runners near the left turn up Woodstock Avenue. Clad in their game jerseys, the exuberant teens were in the street, high-fiving runners.
“I can understand,” Grace said. “They got a little taken away with it.”
Just as Grace reached the turn and was about to set foot on Woodstock, one of the larger football players unknowingly moved across her. She jerked back and missed contact, but the player’s foot came back.
“My foot was hanging back, and it tripped me,” Grace said. “When it did, I just took a high dive. I went straight up in the air. It just flipped me up.
“There was no way I could catch myself. I tried, but I landed on my chin.”
Stunned, she stayed down with “my face in Woodstock” for a time. Two players offered to help, but she wanted to gather herself.
“Finally, I thought, ‘I can’t just lay here. I have to get up,’” she said.
She got up, walked and kept looking up at Woodstock. The former Anniston Runners Club president who gave the Woodstock its name nearly 30 years before felt the call. She made a declaration to the people around her.
“I’m not going to cross that finish line walking,” she said. “I will finish it running.”
With blood trickling from a cut, she strode home. She finished 540th overall, 174th among females. Her time of 32:24 won her first place in the female great-great grandmasters age group (70-98).
And then she went straight to her car, pausing long enough for paramedics to look her over. They recommended she go in for stitches.
“They had no Earthly idea that my jaw was broken, and neither did I,” she said.
Grace drove herself to C.A.R.E.S., where X-rays revealed that she had broken her jaw in two places on the left side. The ball of her jaw would have to grow back, but she would require a surgically implanted screw in her lower jaw.
“The trauma nurse said, ‘Mrs. Grace, you need to go to the emergency room,’” Grace said. “She said, ‘You have two significant breaks in your jaw, and we cannot take care of that.’”
After two hours at C.A.R.E.S., she spent another two hours in the ER as staff attempted to contact surgeons in Birmingham. No one was on call. Staff couldn’t think of anyone in the Anniston area that did the type of surgery she needed.
The next day, her dentist found Hoover-based Dr. Christopher Kahn. He admitted her to Brookwood Medical Center on Monday, and she came home Tuesday, her mouth wired shut.
She used straws and nourished herself on milkshakes for six weeks. Her favorite flavor?
“Vanilla,” she said. “Well, actually, I put bananas in there, too.”
Her two daughters, Donna and Karen, came home from Atlanta and Charleston, S.C., respectively, each weekend. Karen knew how to make juice from vegetables.
“I basically lived off carrot juice and a few broth soups that they made for me in the milkshakes and still lost eight pounds,” Grace said. “I don’t know what I would have done without my husband (Gene) and my two daughters.”
In January, Grace’s oral surgeon recommended braces to straighten her teeth.
She had resumed exercising again in October, about two weeks after having her wires removed. She started walking at Golden Springs Park and worked back up to her regimen of three runs a week — two 5Ks and one run of at least 10K.
“I don’t stay down long,” she said.
She set a state record for birth year at the Tuscaloosa Half-Marathon, finishing in two hours and 32 minutes. The previous mark was 3:14.
Still, Grace doesn’t feel all the way back, in terms of her speed. There’s also a fear element, which she noticed while in a pack for the first time during a 5K in Jacksonville, shortly before the Tuscaloosa race.
Large numbers haven’t been an issue so much in the Woodstock training runs, which have drawn as many as 150 runners, but there’s no avoiding that turn at Rocky Hollow and Woodstock.
“It has been scary,” Grace said. “I’ve gone to the training runs, and every time I get to that turn, I can’t help it. I can almost see where I landed every time I get there.”
Grace will not retreat, however. She won’t line up in the back of the pack Saturday. She’ll line up with runners of her speed level and go for the best time she can.
She still wants the record she was so close to breaking a year ago. She most wants to break it during Woodstock, but her natural competitiveness has a competing urge this year.
It’s hard to forget such a scary fall.
“I will be thinking about it, probably until I start running up Woodstock, and then I’m home-free,” she said.
Still, it’s the 34th annual Woodstock, and we’re talking about Nancy Grace.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” she said.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.