Interview with Jenny Spangler
By Scott Douglas

Jenny Spangler sets an American master record at the 2003 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon.
(Photo by Victah/PhotoRun)

April 3's U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Women's Marathon, in St. Louis, will be Jenny Spangler's fourth Trials appearance. She is best known for her surprise victory at the 1996 Trials in a PR of 2:29:54, but the stat geeks love her for a different reason — she holds both the American junior (2:33:52) and masters (2:32:39) records in the marathon. As far as anyone can tell, no one else has simultaneously held junior and masters American records in an Olympic event. Spangler set the masters mark last October at the LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, more than 20 years after setting the junior record at the 1983 Grandma's Marathon.

Spangler's stellar marathons in 1983, 1996, and 2003 are by far the highlights of her running career. After a disappointing 49th-place finish at the 1988 Trials, she retired from high-level racing for several years. Her 1996 Trials victory was followed by a DNF at the Olympics in Atlanta and a second retirement from competition in 1999. After giving birth in December 2001, she began to think about qualifying for the 2004 Trials.

Spangler and her husband, Miki Tosic, and their daughter, Kelli, live in Lake Villa, Illinois, where Spangler coaches runners of a wide range of age and ability. Let's start with what you've been doing since running Chicago last fall.
Jenny Spangler:
I took a little bit of time off, and moved into a new home in November, so I was kinda busy there right after. At the same time, after Chicago, my husband and I immediately came up with a plan for what to do between October and April. When I say I took a break, I don't mean off, not running for a long time, but easy running the rest of October and into November to allow my body to recover, especially now that I'm 40. One thing I know is that after the '96 Trials, I never really recovered for Atlanta. This time I wanted to be sure I was ready to start training again full bore. I started my hard training in early December.

FW: So basically you have six months between Chicago and the Trials, which is what you had in '96 between the Trials and the Olympics.
Yes, but then it was, 'I'm going to the Olympics!' I took a week off, then started right back in with hard training.

FW: This time around, you must be at about your peak mileage now.
Correct. I'm at around 85 a week right now. Given the weather and chasing my daughter around, that's about what my body can handle.

FW: How does that compare to what you planned for now in October?
It's pretty much what I planned. Before Chicago, I was mostly in the 70s. This time, we mapped out some 80+ mile weeks for the Trials. I'm in my final four-week cycle of 80-90; I'm in my second week of that. I had 82 last week, I'll have about 85 this week. Two more weeks like that, and then I do a two-week taper. Two-week tapers seem to work best for me.

FW: How does this training compare to what you did before the '96 Trials?
There were a lot more 90-100-mile weeks then, some even higher. I could take a lot of naps then! Before the Trials, I was out in Santa Monica, the weather was great, running and sleeping was about all I did. Things are different now — this is what I can do.

FW: Is that because you sense that doing more would lead to injury, or you would just be too tired to train well, or what?
Eighty miles a week now feels the same as 100 did then. But it also…now I'm healthy and enjoying it. It's more important to me to feel good and enjoy the running than try to duplicate exactly what I did then. I know lots of others in the Trials are doing more than me.

FW: The recent article on you in Running Times talked about the great support network you had before Chicago. With your move in November, have you had the same thing while getting ready for the Trials?
Yes. Our new home is in the same town. I run with others Tuesday nights on the track and Saturday morning for a tempo run. There are some people to run with on Sunday, but this time of year, not a lot of people are gearing up for a spring marathon. So maybe they'll be doing 12, while I'm doing 20.

FW: Some people tell masters runners they need to alter the components of their training compared to what they did back in the day — include more frequent short, fast stuff to address loss of muscle mass, etc. Other than mileage, have you made adjustments, or are your basics the same as a decade ago?
It's really the same. I'm definitely doing the same quantity of speed. Compared to before Chicago, for the Trials I'm doing mostly strength-type workouts, but my training in general is the same as it used to be. The intensity is the same. The quality is there because, like I said, I'm not doing as much mileage as I used to — 10 years ago, a doubles day might be 7 and 16; now, it's more like 4 and 12. So I'm able to hit the intensity level I want because of the lesser mileage.

FW: Does running feel different than it used to?
Believe it or not, I feel a little more focused. I have a more balanced life now, with my family. I have other things going on in my life.

Physically, I have to pay a lot more attention to stretching and weight training. Back then, I did just a little stretching, and would go through periods of no weight training. Now if I start to slack off on those, I can feel it, my knees and quads start hurting.
I do weights twice a week. I'll stop that in another week because of the Trials. Stretching, I just do basic stretching, nothing fancy.

FW: You haven't raced since Chicago, right?
No, I haven't. My husband and I went back and forth on that one. I feel the training is more important than getting a race in. For a race, you have to travel, taper, and recover from it. I just felt like I didn't have the energy to spare for that. I will run the LaSalle Bank Shamrock Shuffle, an 8K, the week before the Trials. By then I'll already be tapering anyway.

FW: It seems like even when you do race, your shorter races aren't in line with your marathon times. Before Chicago, you ran 57:07 for 10 miles the month before. Was that all out?
Yes, that was as hard as I could run that day. I didn't really taper for it. I was still in my hard training mode.

FW: But it's not like before you won the Trials in '96 you had put up times that would make you think, "Yeah, she's set to break 2:30." In Chicago, if you're running 2:32, you would have had to go through 10 close to what you ran in a 10-mile race the month before.
Yeah, my 10-mile split at Chicago was almost exactly what I ran at Park Forest. At first, it kinda freaked me out a little bit — "Uh oh, can I keep this up?" But I did a little body check — "Yup, I still feel good."

I guess the way to put it is, I love to race, but I'm not the type who needs to race. If my training is going well, that gives me as much confidence as if I run a good race.

FW: Do you do time trials to let you know where you're at?
No. I can tell from my times on the track. Or last week, I did a 20-miler on an extremely hilly course and was just over 6:00 pace for it. Those sorts of runs tell me what kind of shape I'm in.

FW: So are you fitter than before Chicago?
As far as strength, yes. Speedwise, it's hard to gauge. It's winter, I've not done the quantity of speed workouts on the track as I did before Chicago. I've been doing more things like mile repeats, two-mile repeats, hard 10-mile tempo runs. My long runs have definitely been better than before Chicago.

FW: At the other end of the intensity spectrum, you said after Chicago that one of the things that helped your training then was pushing the baby jogger, because it made you go slower on recovery days. Can you do that in the winter?
No, I haven't been running with the baby jogger. I have to consciously think about it to make sure I go slow on those days.

FW: Let's shift gears a bit. For better or worse, you're kinda known as this person who runs a great marathon seemingly out of nowhere, then disappears for a long time. You've had a lot of pretty big injuries, and have retired from racing a couple of times. Why do you think you have the propensity for these pretty major shifts?
To be honest with you, for so long running was my life. If my running that day was good, then that was a good day. If my running went bad that day, then that was a bad day. Now there's my baby and family life. If the baby is sick and I go for a run…there's something else in my life — if the run is bad, well, the baby is sick. There's something besides the running. I love to run and am very competitive, but I'm not as intense about it now.

Psychologically, I've learned to adjust to a little lower mileage. It's okay for me to take a day off now. I just think overall I'm more balanced, I've learned to listen to my body more. Of course, I may wake up injured tomorrow. [Laughs]

FW: Are the days off planned or more intuitive?
More intuitive. If it's supposed to be a real easy day and I feel awful, I'm not afraid anymore to say, "I'll be okay if I take the day off." As I get closer to the Trials, I'll plan some days off in the two-week taper.

FW: Do you try to impart that way of thinking to everyone you coach, or just the older ones who might need more rest?
Everyone. As runners, we're obsessive and can easily get in that rut, where you do the same run every day, you have to do X number of miles every day. I'm trying when I coach to get people to just enjoy it more. Don't be so focused on your watch, I tell them, just go run, or don't run, as the case may be. Of course, some people feel like they have to do something every day, so I'll try to get them to go bike or swim on those days.

FW: How do you go about consciously retiring from competition and then returning to such a high level, not once, but twice?
I've been running since I was 14. I've always had, I guess a good word is a passion for it. Both times when I decided to 'retire,' I was just burnt out. I wasn't enjoying it. And I thought, I shouldn't be feeling like this about running and not enjoying it, for something that I love. So I stopped.

Both times, during my time off, I would start to get remotivated. I would start to come out of it, run a little more, maybe run with some people, just start to enjoy it again. Then run some little road races and just…not on purpose, but I would just kind of get enthusiastic again and build little by little. This last time, before Chicago, as I started to get back into it and it was going well, I thought, "It would kinda nice if I qualify for the Trials. Maybe I can run 2:40."

FW: So what's it like starting from scratch?
It's kinda fun. I actually enjoy it — you're just out there running with people and having fun. And then seeing progress motivates you, and you keep building on that.
What I'm nervous about now, I have to admit, is that my history is I have a good marathon and then fall apart. Although my training is going well, my past shows that's no guarantee. But I do feel different this time. I really want to go there and run well.

If Deena [Kastor], Marla [Runyan], and Colleen [De Reuck] are there on fire, it's gonna be hard to make the team. [Note: Marla Runyan had not entered the race as of this posting.] And there's a lot of youngsters with a good debut marathon. Since they relaxed the Olympic "A" standard, now a lot of people have it. I would like to think I'll be in shape to break 2:32 [the earlier "A" standard], but I'm more concerned about my place. With more people already having the "A" standard, that might change the race and make it a more competitive race for place, not time.

FW: How do you think the race will unfold?
Oh, I'm not sure. Whatever I think, it will probably be different. Deena will dictate it to a large extent. If she decides to go out fast, or decides to hang back… I'll try to worry about my own race — it's hard to dictate what others will do. I was in St. Louis four weeks ago. The first few miles are fast. It's going to be hard for some people to control their adrenaline.

FW: More big-picture stuff: Not to put words in your mouth, but is one way of thinking about your retirements, injuries, and so on is that it's allowed you to be running as well as you are now?
I've definitely thought about that. People ask me, 'How can you be running the same times at 19 and 40?' The thing is, I've not run many marathons. I've had to take breaks, where I've had to let everything heal. So when I do come back, I'm fresh and motivated. If I had been doing three marathons a year all this time, no, I don't think I'd be running like I am now.

FW: So then what happens after the Trials?
I'll see how things go. I'd like to keep competing at a national-class masters level for awhile and just see how far I can go. I'm going to run Chicago in the fall if I don't make the team, and after that, take a break from the marathon, work on my speed, and see what happens.

(Interview conducted March 4, 2004, and posted March 10, 2004.)

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