An Ode to Kelly Jo
Guest blog by Haute Volée, Christine Babcock
Rewind to Olympia, Washington on May 12th, 1984. It was the first Olympic Trials for women, a monumental event in the history of women’s running. Women were out to prove to the running world that they could not only handle the marathon distance, but even more, that they could succeed in the event. Kelly Jo Spatz was standing on the starting line, wearing her Converse jersey, about to embark on her 3rd marathon ever. It was a whirlwind of a journey to get to that point.
Her first marathon in November of 1983 had been unplanned. She hadn’t really been training, so she was going to run half of the marathon and then drop out. She reached the halfway mark and didn’t know how she was supposed to get back, so she just kept running, crossing the finish line in about 3 hours. Kelly and her running club teammates were surprised by her ability to run so close to the Olympic Trials qualifying time. Her teammates encouraged her to compete in another marathon with the hopes of achieving the Olympic Trials standard. The trials were in May, so that left her with 5 months to get in another race. Kelly ran a marathon in Dayton, Ohio in January 1984, hoping to get under the 2:52 time qualifier. With pacing help from one of her Cleveland Running Club teammates, and future husband, Kelly crossed the line in 2:48, earning herself a spot in the first ever Women’s Marathon Olympic Trials.
The competitors were flown to Olympia and put up in the dorms at Evergreen College. As she stood on the starting line, she remembers how good her legs felt, both from tapering her mileage from 70 miles per week to 25 and from the hype surrounding the race. Kelly stood on the line excited, with little outside expectations on her and the simple goal of bettering her PR. The race felt amazing, like everything aligned perfectly on that exact day. There are so many variables that go into the marathon, but Kelly felt like everything came together. She finished 24th in 2:38.45, a 10 minute personal best. After the perfect day and a great result, Kelly decided to retire from the marathon distance. She believed that there would never be another day when everything would come together so perfectly over that distance.
For Kelly, the road to the Olympic trials started in 9th grade. She tried out for cheerleading but was cut, so she went out for track with a friend. At the time, there was no girl’s cross country team, so her senior year she ran on the boy’s team. At one cross country meet in particular, she was her boy’s team’s 7th man. Kelly won the mile at the girl’s state meet in Michigan her senior year and was recruited by several Division I colleges. During her collegiate career at Michigan State, she won multiple Big 10 conference titles and set their mile school record of 4:49.56, which still remains today. She graduated in 1981 with 12 varsity letters. After graduation, she got a job and joined the local running club as a way to meet people. It was through the connections she made at the running club and the races she ran with them that brought her to that fateful marathon in November of 1983, sparking a 6 ½ month marathon journey.
To her teammates, Kelly was known for her competitiveness and willingness to put in the hard work. To her competitors, she was known for her fierce kick. But to me, she is mom. She never talked about her running career as my sisters and I grew up, and she never forced running upon us. Instead she stood on the sidelines, cheering us on in whatever endeavors we chose to pursue. She empowered our dreams, no matter how big or small, and challenged us to be the best version of ourselves that we could be. And for that, I am eternally grateful. She allowed me to forge my own path, one that may not have been exactly what she would have chosen, but has been beautiful nonetheless. So to you mom, I say “thank you” for who you are; for putting your dreams aside to give me the best opportunity to carve my own path and chase after my dreams. You are truly amazing!