Out of past, Spangler wins marathon trial Former junior champ stuns strong field

February 11, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Marathoners aren't supposed to peak before their 20th birthdays. Those who do often break down physically or burn out mentally, then fade away permanently.

Jenny Spangler seemingly had done all of that. A U.S. junior marathon champion at 19, an Olympic contender at 20, Spangler had left the sport by the time she was 26.

"When you're young and a little immature, you think, 'OK, you're going to have years and years of great success,' " said Spangler, now 32. "But then you realize you don't."

Spangler's best year is certainly ahead of her. In winning the women's 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials here yesterday, Spangler went from unknown to unnerving to merely unbelievable.

Not only did Spangler debunk several popular theories, she destroyed what many had considered the strongest field and the toughest course in the short history of the event.

Spangler's stunning victory in 2 hours, 29 minutes, 54 seconds ++ was 12 seconds ahead of Linda Somers and 84 seconds better than Anne Marie Lauck, who were among the favorites after top-ranked Olga Appell pulled out at the start when her recently fractured foot had not responded to treatment.

All three qualified for this summer's Olympics in Atlanta.

"To be honest, I didn't expect to win," said Spangler, who had run just one marathon since the 1988 Olympic Trials, where she finished in the top 20 despite breaking her left foot midway through the race. "When I finally took over the lead, I got really scared. It was like, 'What am I doing up here?' "

A lot of people were asking themselves the same question, particularly those running close behind Spangler. All they knew of her was that the number on her singlet -- 61 -- probably meant she would come back to the pack.

"I completely disregarded her until the 25K mark," said Somers.

"Past the 18-mile mark, Linda said to me, 'Who is that?' " recalled Lauck, 26, after finishing only her second marathon. "I said, 'I don't know who she is, but she looks really good.' I asked my husband at the finish line, 'Who won the race?' "

Spangler, whose best time (2:33:52) had come nearly 13 years ago and who qualified for yesterday's race with a mediocre time (2:43.02) in Chicago two years ago, figured her anonymity was to her advantage.

"I know they were thinking, 'No. 61, who the heck is that?' " said Spangler, who also won a $45,000 first prize. "I knew that if I did take off [into the lead], they'd probably let me, figuring that I'd come back."

She never did. Spangler made her move during the 15th mile of the race, and eventually built a 42-second lead on Somers through 22 miles. Though Somers closed the gap toward the end, the final margin of victory was fairly deceptive. It was a blowout.

"It [Spangler's performance] surprised me until the halfway point," said Somers, a 34-year-old attorney who had given up her Oakland, Calif., practice in order to qualify. "After that, it didn't. There was no chink in the armor."

Spangler did have her share of ghosts, not to mention butterflies . For years, she had carried the disappointments of never fulfilling a once-promising past. After a number of stress fractures and a failed marriage, Spangler gave up.

Not only did she stop racing competitively, Spangler nearly stopped running, period. She had finished her MBA at Samford University in Alabama and returned home to Illinois, taking a job as a computer systems analyst at an insurance company in Gurnee. There she met Miki Tosic, a systems programmer. It was love at first byte.

"She's one of the most tenacious people I've ever known," said Tosic, a fellow runner who has qualified for the 100th Boston Marathon. "She's in touch with her feelings. She knows what she has to do. She knew that this was probably the last time she could qualify."

Tosic wasn't the only man to become part of Spangler's life. Willie Rios, a criminal attorney and supervisor in the Cook County public defender's office, had been coaching a local road running club outside Chicago for the past decade. Most of them were women and one was a former teammate of Spangler's at Iowa.

Spangler, coming off another stress fracture, joined the club 15 months ago. But it wasn't until she won a couple of half-marathons last year that Rios thought this former prodigy could make a full-fledged comeback. "After she ran 1:13 in the Chicago Lakes, it was like she just finished a light workout," said Rios, who had run the mile in the 1968 Olympics for Puerto Rico.

With the frigid Midwest winter making training difficult, Rios called his former coach, Joe Douglas, at the Santa Monica Track Club. With financial help from the club's most famous member, Carl Lewis, Spangler and four other marathoners headed for California. They trained on the site of the first women's Olympic marathon, with the hilly course and temperate climate similar to what they experienced yesterday.

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