Either for Real or Stupid
Thirteen years after she set the American Junior Record in the Marathon, could Jenny Spangler live up to the hype at the 1996 Olympic Marathon Trials?
Either for Real or Stupid
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 016, January 2020
By Liam Boylan-Pett
Illustrations by Ashley Higginson
In the summer of 1983, Jenny Spangler worked the overnight shift at the Green Giant pea fields near Rockford, Illinois. She was back home between her sophomore and junior year at the University of Iowa, and Spangler liked the work—she made a whopping $5 per hour, managing the tractor drivers and workers counting peas. But the hours were difficult, especially for someone on the cross-country and track and field teams at Iowa. The schedule left time to run only in the heat-soaked afternoons.
And Spangler needed to run. She was one of the team’s best distance runners. That June, she had earned All-American honors in the 10,000 meters, taking seventh place at the N.C.A.A. Championships. Ten days after that, she was running along Lake Superior in Duluth at Grandma’s Marathon. She had gone in with the goal of running sub-2 hours, 50 minutes, a time that would qualify her for the 1984 Olympic Trials. Running “by feel,” she clicked off one sub-6 mile after another and ran 2 hours, 33 minutes, 51 seconds to set the Junior World Record. She immediately became a favorite in the race to qualify for Team USA at the first Olympic Trials marathon for women.
Not much changed for Spangler, though. A few weeks after her marathon debut, she was working the overnight shift and getting ready for cross-country. Each day, she would finish her shift around 6 or 7 a.m., go home, and get some sleep. Then, she would wake up in the afternoon, go for a run in the heat, and head to work before doing it all over again. It worked—she took third at the Big 10 Championships that fall and was All-American at N.C.A.A.s. Then, she started prepping for the Olympic Marathon Trials. As the race approached, Spangler was a popular face on campus in Iowa City. “That’s the Olympian,” students would say as she walked by. But Spangler would stop to correct them: “Not yet, but hopefully someday.”
Finishing in the top three at the Olympic Trials in May in Olympia, Washington, was going to be difficult. Training was not going as well as she would have hoped. Spangler missed six weeks of running in mid-February thanks to a stress fracture, and she estimated she was only at 80-percent fitness before the race. Plus, she was going up against a world-class field that included the world record holder, Joan Benoit.
It would not be the end of the world if she did not make the team, Spangler knew. She was only 20 years old, after all. “The Olympics are a goal now,” Spangler told the Chicago Tribune before the Olympic Trials, “but I should have two more chances after this.”
So, when she finished 33rd at the 1984 Olympic Trials, well back of a qualifying spot, Spangler was hopeful.
And while she was right that she would get two more shots, they would not go as the 20-year-old Spangler would have predicted.
In 1988, Spangler finished 49th at the Olympic Trials Marathon. After that, she took six years off from the sport.
Jenny Spangler was on pace through 20 miles of the 1994 Chicago Marathon. It had been six years since her last marathon, but she was fit, and running 2 hours, 35 minutes was a goal that seemed within reach. Through over 2 hours of running, she was doing it. Then, as they often do in a marathon, things began to fall apart. Her left calf started seizing. Her stride crumbled. Pulling her feet forward with each step became more and more of a task. The last six miles were a crawl.
At least she was running the marathon again. It had been a long journey back.
She was in fifth place through the 18 miles of the 1984 Olympic Trials before her left foot broke. She finished the race—fading to 33rd place—but the injury was just one in a string of ailments that would keep Spangler from reaching what she felt was her potential. While Spangler was hopeful that 1988 would be different, the next four years were the opposite of what she had in mind.
Not only was she injured often, Spangler was not enjoying herself. Prior to the 1984 Trials race, Spangler finished second in the Houston Marathon. She did not accept the $10,000 of prize money because she wanted to preserve her N.C.A.A. eligibility. The way she saw it, she would be able to make money through running eventually. By the end of her 1985 N.C.A.A. track season, however, Spangler was wondering if she should have taken the cash the year before.
Her injuries did not keep Spangler from running at a high level, however. She still qualified for the N.C.A.A. indoor championships in 1986 and finished 15th in the N.C.A.A. 10,000 meters outdoors despite struggling with Anemia. And her dream of making the Olympic marathon team remained, even if the real world beckoned.
Spangler married Tom Gesell in the fall of 1986 after both graduated from Iowa, and they stayed in Iowa City, where Spangler trained by herself and continued to face one injury after another.
In 1987, she returned to Duluth and Grandma’s Marathon, the site of the magic from her first marathon, but the magic was no longer there—she ran an uninspired 2 hours, 45 minutes, 22 seconds. No matter what she did, Spangler could not get back to the level she raced at as a junior athlete. At least the time qualified her for the Olympic Trials. It was the second of three chances she predicted she would have.
This time, there were no expectations. Spangler, who had moved to Chicago later in 1987, was ranked No. 91 of the 249 runners who qualified.
It was a great day for U.S. women marathoners in Pittsburgh in 1988, as three American women finished in under 2 hours, 31 minutes in the same race for the first time, but it was another sub-par result for Spangler, who finished in 49th place in 2 hours, 44 minutes, 59 seconds.
Then, she didn’t race again for years.
After the 1988 Olympic Trials, Spangler decided that pouring her heart into something that continued to disappoint her was not worth it. It wasn’t long after the race that she looked at herself and thought, “You know, if you’re not enjoying this, then why are you doing it?”
So, Spangler stopped running. She got her M.B.A., and by 1991 landed a job in I.T. at Trustmark Insurance Company. Spangler entered the world of “adulting.” She went through the motions at school and prepared for her career. She would run every once in a while, but never anything she would consider training.
She had been so burned out from running, but, it turned out, this new life was not fulfilling, either.
She missed running. So, around the time she got that job in 1991, she started jogging again. It was slow going at first. Spangler was running unstructured mileage as her schedule allowed.
Then she watched the 1992 Olympic Trials Marathon on television.
As she saw friends and runners she used to race mixing it up at the front of the field on her screen, there was a pit in her stomach. She really missed being there. This was supposed to be her third chance at making an Olympic team, and she knew in her gut that she had some better marathons in her.
It was also a complicated time in her life. She was going through a divorce, and while she didn’t hate her job, watching the Trials had really made her contemplate whether she could do it again. So, it was not a very tough decision. “You know what?” Spangler decided. “Now’s the time.” Looking back on it today, she told me how motivated she was and how easy it was to rip the band-aid off from the life she was living. “I’m like, ‘I’m just going for it, and I’m going to see what I can do,’” she said.
She moved back to Iowa City to work with her college coach, Jerry Hassard, and began training with some local running clubs. Running workouts, she found she missed the competitive side of the sport the most. She wouldn’t give anyone an inch. Spangler entered local road 5Ks and 10Ks along with still-famous races like the Bix 7—her talent had not disappeared. After about a year of training—and a 1 hour, 13 minute, 48 second win in half-marathon in Chicago in September 1994—Spangler decided it was time to run a marathon again, lining up in Chicago in the fall of 1994.
She made it through the first 20 miles without much trouble, then the wheels came off. The years away from the sport likely caught up to her as her calf tightened and the little things like the cramps in every part of her body and doubts in her mind became more and more noticeable. Still, she held some semblance of control over the final six miles and finished in 2 hours, 43 minutes, 2 seconds.
The time was fast enough to qualify her for her third Olympic Trials.
Spangler’s Chicago time got her into the 1996 Olympic Trials, but it was not an “A” Standard. This meant she would have to pay her way to the race, which was taking place in Columbia, South Carolina, despite Atlanta hosting the Olympic Games in 1996. But it was only 1994, so she had time to run fast enough for a free trip.
Spangler’s inclination towards injury made her change plans again, however. In early 1995, she broke her foot again, this time during a half-marathon in Kansas City. Spangler was distraught. The sport was doing it to her again, wasn’t it? She was loving training, but her body would not cooperate. Spangler thought about calling it quits.
Without training to keep her busy, Spangler moved again, back to Chicago, where she could find some work at the insurance company she left. When she started getting healthy again, she got a call from Willie Rios, a defense lawyer who coached runners on the side. Rios was a 1968 Olympian for Puerto Rico, running the 1,500 meters.
“I heard you’re back in the area,” Rios said. “I got this group. You should join us for a run and a workout sometime.” Spangler lived in the northern suburbs, and Rios trained his runners in Glen Ellyn, west of Chicago. She was hesitant to join, but Rios kept calling. Finally, she agreed to show up.
But after telling Rios she would be at practice one day, she chickened out and stayed home. Spangler’s phone rang later that night. “Where were you?” Rios asked. Spangler couldn’t believe his persistence.
So, she showed up at the next practice. Rios told the runners to go for a 7-mile tempo run. It was one of her first workouts since recovering from her stress fracture, but Spangler toughed her way through it and finished with the group. After the tempo, she was sipping on some water and preparing for her cool-down when Rios spoke. “Okay,” he said. “Now let’s get ready for 10 by mile.”
Spangler laughed. She thought, “Oh, funny joke on the new girl in the group.” But no one else laughed. Rios was serious.
Spangler, who did not make it through the mile repeats, fell in love with the group. She worked out a deal with her old employer that allowed her to work part time while training under Rios. The training plan, as her first workout with the group showed, was simple: Run a lot and run hard.
Spangler had been running closer to 50 miles per week, but Rios prescribed 100. They would run workouts like 8 x 1 mile with short rest alternating between 5 minutes, 45 seconds and 5 minutes, 5 seconds. Then, Spangler would come back the next day for another hard effort like a progressive long run.
The training was working, and Spangler was staying healthy. Plus, Rios helped make Spangler believe. “He really started to give me confidence that I was actually going to make a proven marathoner,” she said. They decided to skip out on another attempt at 26.2 miles—an “A” standard wasn’t necessary.
Rios knew Spangler was getting fit. In December 1995, he pulled her aside at a practice and told her about a potential opportunity. “I don’t want to say you’re going to make the Olympic Team,” he said, “but I think you can do something special.” Rios explained that he had spoken with Joe Douglas, coach of Carl Lewis and the Santa Monica Track Club, and they arranged for some athletes to go live in Southern California during the winter to train for the Olympic Trials. Lewis was even going to pay for their housing.
Spangler jumped at the opportunity. Rios had built up Spangler’s strength work, Douglas’ training sharpened her skill set. Training along stretches that made up the 1984 Olympic Marathon course in Los Angeles, Spangler would run 18 to 20 miles at 6-minute pace in the morning, then come back for a 6-mile jog later that day. She felt stronger and stronger as February and the Olympic Trials marathon approached, even running 4 x 3 mile at 5-minute-20-second pace and remembering it feeling easy.
Still, she had not run a marathon since Chicago in 1994, so Spangler and her coaches spoke a lot about race strategy. The three knew she was in phenomenal shape, and they came up with a mantra of sorts: “Don’t be afraid to assert yourself.”
For Spangler, the 1996 Olympic Trials were a much different experience. She arrived in Columbia with no fanfare. She was ranked No. 61 in the field, and many had likely forgotten she was still the American junior record holder in the event. She was not invited to the press conference and wasn’t on any expert’s list of contenders.
For Spangler, that was just fine. She had never loved the limelight anyway and worrying solely about herself meant she could focus on her goal: Running the marathon of her life.
* * *
* * *
Sixteen miles into the 1996 Women’s Olympic Trials Marathon in Columbia, South Carolina, Anne Marie Lauck watched a runner in a white Santa Monica Track Club singlet and swishy blue shorts—a runner she did not know—make a break from the lead pack and thought to herself, “She’s either for real or stupid.”
Spangler was having a similar thought.
Less than two hours earlier, she had looked around at the start line, noting her competitors and how fast they had run. Then she shook herself out of it and focused on the idea of asserting herself if the time came.
The first few miles went by in a blur. Spangler felt easy. Some of the women in the front pack were chatting with one another, discussing the pace and how the race might play out. “How are you people talking?” Spangler thought. “This the Olympic Trials!”
She stayed with the lead pack and was surprised how quickly the half-marathon mark came. The 5 minute, 40 second miles they were clicking off simply were not hard for Spangler. Rios was watching with Mike Tosic, Spangler’s then boyfriend who eventually became her husband, at the halfway mark. Tosic thought she was in over her head, but Rios could see how relaxed she was and assured Tosic that Spangler was having a good one.
Around Mile 14, Spangler still felt great. She remembered Douglas and Rios telling her to pick up the pace if it felt too easy, so, after she hit the 15-mile mark she decided to press the gas. She expected everyone to go with her, but no one did. She ran the 16th mile in 5 minutes, 22 seconds and put 30 meters on the lead pack, which was beginning to thin out behind her. At the time she didn’t even realize how much she had picked it up. Instead, she was worried she had gone too soon.
She thought of the other marathons she had run and how often she had hit the wall. “Okay,” she thought. “What did I just do?”
The wall never came on that February day in Columbia, though. Running scared, Spangler clocked the 19th mile in 5:29 and Mile 20 in 5:26. With four miles to go, no one had come back up on her. Her thought process went from, “Did I go to soon?” to “Damn it, Jenny, you’ve been in the lead for too long now, and you’re gonna stay here.”
Stay there, she did. Rios had taught Spangler to run by feel, and throughout the marathon that day, she felt good. She had not worried about pace—she had worried about remaining in control, which she did as she led the final 11 miles of the race.
Thirteen years after she set a Junior World Record; 12 years after she broke her foot in the Olympic Trials; eight years after she ran her second Olympic Trials and gave up the sport for good; and two years after she decided she wanted to compete again; Spangler finally had the Olympic Trials she dreamed of.
She finished out the final few miles and, for the first time in 13 years, set a personal best in the marathon, running 2 hours, 29 minutes, 54 seconds to win the 1996 Women’s Olympic Trials Marathon and the $45,000 top prize that came with it (perhaps making up for that $10,000 she turned down in 1984).
Linda Somers finished second. Lauck finished third. After the race, she found out who Spangler was and noted that yes, in fact, Spangler was for real.
Shortly after the Trials, Spangler showed up to Santa Monica Track Club practice and there was a slew of photographers there. That usually meant Carl Lewis was there. But Spangler looked around and Lewis was nowhere to be found. “Hey,” Spangler said to a teammate, gesturing at the press, “what are they doing here?”
“They’re here to see you,” the teammate said.
The Atlanta Olympics did not go as well as Spangler hoped. Her achilles was sore after the hilly Columbia course, and it never fully healed in her buildup to the Games. She would end up dropping out of the race. Still, she cherishes her opportunity to wear the U.S.A. singlet in 1996. The Trials win still means the world to Spangler.
“It changed my life a lot,” Spangler says today. “I just am so grateful because it really opened up a whole new world for me with this coaching and counseling other runners.”
Spangler lives in Chicago now with Tosic. For a brief period, Spangler wanted nothing to do with running. Today, it remains a vital part of her life. She is still involved in the sport, coaching and mentoring, and still putting in miles when she has the time.
Back in 1984, when Spangler predicted she would have two more chances at making an Olympic Team, she ended up being wrong. In fact, after she made the Olympic Team in 1996, Spangler would keep on running. A stress fracture in her pelvis kept her out of the 2000 Olympic Trials and in 2001, she had a daughter with Tosic.
Still, in 2003 at the age of 40 she ran the second fastest marathon of her life, setting the American master’s record of 2 hours, 32 minutes, 38 seconds (it is no longer the record). So, she ran the 2004 Olympic Trials, too, finishing ninth.
Spangler will be in Atlanta for the 2020 Olympic Trials, as well. At 56, she is not racing—she is coaching two athletes who qualified for this year’s marathon.
Kate DeProsperis and Amanda Macuiba are ranked 295 and 442, respectively. With over 500 women qualifying for the trials, both are unlikely to make the team. On the hilly Atlanta course on February 29, if they follow their coach’s plan and aren’t afraid to be assertive, however, they can run by feel and race the marathon of their life. And who knows, maybe they’ll get another chance in the future.