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?
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 at home between her sophomore and junior year at the University of Iowa. 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 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 and do 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.
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