COLUMBIA — With the lead pack of 20 women marathoners in front of her, Columbia resident Angie Turner saw a string of racing bibs stamped "U.S. Olympic Trials."
“It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that I’m included in that group,” she said. “I can’t put into words what that felt like, knowing I was there.”
But of the 152 finishers, Turner was not among them. She’d stepped off the course after three miles.
That was her plan all along.
A muscle tear in her leg had prevented adequate training before the Jan. 14 event. Turner didn’t finish, but she stood at the starting line. She raced.
Although she’s achieved success in multiple definitions of the word — raising a child, owning a business, quitting a smoking habit — the return to competitive running holds significance at a personal level, she said, a matter of self-satisfaction.
Her story began years ago.
A 15-year-old Turner watched in awe as Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural women’s marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Two years later, Turner became a champion herself, winning the Missouri high school class 3A state title in the mile.
But then the stress of success mounted, her passion faded, and three semesters into college, the running stopped. For 20 years.
She raised her son, Ryan, who will turn 21 in August, while working 80-hour weeks in the construction business she owned. Fast-food meals and tobacco carcinogens from smoking a pack and a half each day buried her athletic talent.
But when a friend challenged her five years ago, Turner jumped back into the familiar but forgotten race mode.
She became the oldest winner of the GO! St. Louis Marathon in April 2011, a week after her 42nd birthday, and claimed Columbia's Roots ‘N’ Blues half marathon title last September.
Coach Joe Company urged her to think of a lofty aspiration. Turner said the Olympic Trials came to mind. Goals shifted from winning to qualifying, a much scarier word.
Winning stays finite, straightforward. Qualifying is a shape-shifting devil with meticulous pacing, exactness and expectations — hers and others. In short, she had to overcome the same factors that drove her from the sport in college.
Company said years of not exercising actually saved Turner from the typical wear and tear of elite training, and she needed fresh legs after dropping out of her first qualifying attempt in Chicago last fall. Diarrhea forced her out after 15 miles, but her second chance came six days later in Ohio.
Two hours and 46 minutes was the trials qualifying cutoff, Company said, so “2:47 would have been a failure.”
Her time of 2:45:01 at the Columbus Marathon secured second place in the women’s race and her Olympic Trials bid. Race Director Darris Blackford draped her in an American flag.
“I think Angie was more excited than the person who won,” Company said.
The path back to the podium has contained more obstacles than any race.
She’d vomit from exertion when she first started running again. “My brain and heart and mind remembered one pace, but my body said, ‘You’re a bitch.’”
She joined long-time friend Beth Wilson, who encouraged Turner to run with the Columbia Multisport Club and members such as Betsy Farris.
“She’s the big sister I never had,” Turner said of Farris. “She kept pushing me. She included me in the group.”
Farris had recently quit smoking when she met Turner, and the women shared the switch from cigarettes to sports.
But in the midst of regaining her edge, she hit a roadway expansion gap while riding down a Columbia hill. The 2009 wreck broke her collarbone, and surgery left her with a plate and eight screws. She continued riding a stationary bike to train for an upcoming half Ironman triathlon.
Doctors cleared her two weeks before the triathlon. She placed fourth in her age group.
She’s always carried the cerebral grit needed to overcome external difficulties on the path to success, from injuries to nasty weather. Still, every runner eventually realizes something important: Of competitors or course, a runner conquers neither. She wins only against herself.
Turner, now on her symbolic second lap, has learned to diffuse the inevitable race anxieties with Company’s help. She also admits to workaholic tendencies in the time between her running careers, but no more.
“Having a relationship with my son or a quality relationship with people is by far a much bigger deal,” she said.
Running Times magazine highlighted Turner in February as an honorable mention top performer for the women’s 40-to-44 age group in 2011.
One year had elapsed since she placed sixth at the Austin Half Marathon and finished two and a half minutes behind her inspiration, Joan Benoit Samuelson.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.