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Atlanta 1996 / 14 Days To The Games

Star Spanglered : No Longer Down and Out, Marathoner Hopes Her Star Reaches Its Zenith With Banner Run

July 05, 1996|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

She was running south along Lakeshore Drive in Chicago on an autumn Sunday when she ran into the wall, invisible but every bit as real as that built by the Chinese to keep out the Vandals or the one in Boston built to keep baseballs in Fenway Park.

It was the 20th mile of the 1994 Chicago Marathon, and tears welled in Jenny Spangler's eyes as she slowed to a walk, then stopped, sat down and quit.

For about two minutes.

"Then I said to myself, 'No, you've never quit on a race before, so get going,' " Spangler says.

She slowly made her way along the last six miles, finishing in 2 hours 43 minutes 2 seconds, pedestrian enough for 14th place but fast enough to qualify her for a back-in-the-pack spot in the U.S. Olympic women's marathon trials.

Sixteen months later, she won the trials in 2:29:54 and finished a three-year quest that had turned a 26-mile 385-yard event into a personal hurdles race.

"Who is that?" Linda Somers, the second-place finisher, asked Ann Marie Lauck, who was third, at the 18th mile during the trials at Columbia, S.C., on Feb. 10.

Who indeed?

She was No. 61, wearing a Santa Monica Track Club singlet and running with a ponytail swaying.

And she wouldn't go away.

"I know what they were saying," says Spangler, laughing as she sits in the sun in Santa Monica. "I've done that before when I've been a seeded runner and seen a No. 61. I'll say, 'What are you doing here? Go back where you belong.' And I remember in the latter stages of the race, when you are trying to think of other things besides how you feel, I was thinking NBC must be going crazy, trying to figure who this was."

She is a 32-year-old former junior marathon champion from Gurnee, Ill., who had run 2:33:52 in Duluth, Minn., in her first try at the distance and wondered why everybody thought it was so tough. She spent the next 13 years finding out.

It was 13 years of college success at Iowa, racing failure in Chicago and Houston and Pittsburgh, loneliness, injuries, a marriage and divorce, personal burnout and finally victory built on the ashes with a foundation laid in Chicago and Santa Monica.

"Sometimes I still have to pinch myself," she says.

It's easy to see why. She had been the fastest runner in high school and the kid with the best grades, and she carried the baggage of self-imposed pressure as a perfectionist in an imperfect sport in an imperfect world. First place or no place, she races the field and the course, not the watch.

College mixed well with running, but marriage to college boyfriend Tom Gesell didn't. A master's degree in business offered a future, but without the passion she felt from running.

"I think I tried too hard," she says. "My husband understood my running, but he didn't really understand what it took to get to the level where I wanted to be. He didn't run, so it was me, wanting to run all the time, and it was him, wanting to sit home and watch TV. It didn't work too well."

The running part didn't work at all after the Olympic trials of 1988 in Pittsburgh, a personal disaster that made her a full-time housewife in search of a career that didn't involve sneakers and singlets.

By 1993, the rest didn't work. The marriage was over and divorce left her at loose ends. Time in front of the television watching the Barcelona Games tied them up.

"I remember in '92, watching the Olympic marathon on TV, when I was hardly even running, and it just seemed so impossible," she says. "I was working full time and, well, I don't know. It just seems crazy."

The burnout of '88 nagged at her because, if she was finished with marathon running, she wanted it to be on her terms, with at least one good race to prove to herself that she hadn't peaked at 19.

"I had reached a point where things couldn't get any worse," she says. "I'd been through a divorce and I thought, 'Why not just give it a shot? You want to do it. You're not married any more. You don't have any children. You have no responsibilities. Go for it. At least you can say you gave it a shot and you can get on with your life.' "

She retreated to Iowa, where memories were better, to begin a program and then came to Chicago for the marathon disaster. And then suffered yet another in a series of stress fractures to her foot that made her wonder if it was all worthwhile.

She was lonely and broke when she put Iowa behind her a year ago, going back to Chicago for a job as a computer programmer. Then she met Willie Rios.

He was a lawyer in the Cook County public defender's office and, on the side, he coached four women who had qualified for the Olympic marathon trials, working with them on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays in an atmosphere that included pasta with his secret sauce.

He heard about Spangler from his best runner, Ann Shaefers, who would finish 27th at the trials. Rios called Spangler with an invitation.

Spangler didn't respond for a week. She was still licking her wounds.

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