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Central’s Culbertson helped start a movement

Tanner Cook • May 17, 2020 at 12:30 PM

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part of an ongoing series, “BackTrack: Exploring Lost Track and Field Legends,” looking at past outstanding performers from Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Northeast Tennessee has a long and storied history of high school girls distance running, especially in Sullivan County.

One of the early catalysts behind the dynasty was Sullivan Central’s Angie Culbertson Long, who torched cross country courses and tracks in Tennessee during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The 1992 Central graduate captured back-to-back individual state cross country championships in 1989 and 1990, winning in the same time each year (18:39 for 3 miles).

She was the state runner-up in cross country her freshman campaign and was fifth her sophomore season. She was also part of back-to-back team championships in 1988-89 and 1997-98, still the only state team titles in any sport at Central.

Long’s résumé on the track isn’t too shabby, either. She won the 1,600 meters three times and the 3,200 twice.

“Being a part of two team state titles was incredible,” said Long, who continued her academic and running careers on the collegiate level at Indiana. “I think those teams were so special because everyone knew their role going into every race and we expected that of each other.”

UNCONVENTIONAL START

Long began her eighth-grade year running the 400 and didn’t really have a desire to compete in distance races.

“One of my teammates got sick one day at a track meet when I was in middle school and they stuck me in the mile,” she said. “I ended up winning the race and found out that I might be pretty good at distance running.”

She went on to earn runner-up honors at the state meet as a freshman, losing only to three-time individual state champion Beth Tallent of David Lipscomb.

“To say that I was surprised my freshman year at state when I got second would be an understatement,” Long said. “I had just started running distance and really didn’t know what I was doing, training-wise.”

During her junior and senior years, Long blossomed both on the track and the cross country course even though she considered herself more of a middle-distance runner.

“I never really trained more than 30 miles a week and that was partially because I had no one to train with,” she said. “My boyfriend at the time (Danny Sexton) and Kevin Odiorne were running way faster than I was, so I was kind of stuck in the middle. But my dad really helped me out with training and he was a great motivator for me and the team.”

HUGE INFLUENCER

“My dad tells me all the time that I helped him turn his life around,” Long said. “He always says that he was going down the road to a heart attack and when he started eating healthy and buying in to running, that’s when things changed.”

Long recalled that a group of three or four fathers — including her own — would drive the girls to meets in big Suburbans, even all the way to Nashville for the state meet. They were heavily invested in their kids and that’s the way it was in those days.

“My dad was a great educator for me and he even turned down a job so we could stay in the area because he saw something in me,” Long said. “We were some of the first people to start a low-fat diet and eat organic foods. It was a complete lifestyle change for us and it turned out to be a family thing.”

Long remembers her dad subscribing to Runner’s World magazine and getting training ideas from reading the endless pages of what was one of the biggest and most trusted running publications in the world at the time.

RIVALRY WITH SPANNUTH

Around the time that Long was entering her senior year at Central, a new opponent was emerging at Science Hill. That runner’s name was Whitney Spannuth, and she was gunning for the crown.

“I never really had much competition in the area or in the state until Whitney started getting really good,” Long said. “I was always a little bit more nervous when we raced each other because I knew that if I had even a slightly bad day that she might beat me. I always had to be on my toes when I raced her and I never liked to lose.”

Spannuth gave Long one of the best races in the 1990 TSSAA Class AAA cross country championship, pushing her to the brink. The senior outdistanced the sophomore in the end, but Spannuth had made an impression.

“I was never one of those girls that wanted to lead from the start. I had some leadership qualities, but that’s not my personality,” Long said. “I was more one to sit back and kick at the very end.”

Spannuth finished as runner-up that year before going on to win the next two individual titles, starting an eight-year run in which at least one girl from Northeast Tennessee placed inside the top five individually.

“I feel like if Whitney and I had been teammates that we could have pushed each other to some really good times,” Long said.

A DREAM AT STATE

Long’s state championship run in the 1,600 her senior year was a memorable one. She blew away the field in 5:01.83, the second-fastest time ever at the state meet — which stayed that way until 2005.

The time ranked her 10th in the country at the time.

“I remember my dad brought in that edition of Runner’s World the next week and showed me my name on the high school leaderboard at 10th,” she said. “That was certainly a proud moment. It was always my dream to break five minutes at state, but I came up just short.

“Looking back now, I realized that I never really trained to my full potential and probably could’ve run a few more miles.”

That championship performance helped earn her a scholarship to run for the Hoosiers, who fielded one of the most successful women’s programs at the time.

FRUSTRATION IN BLOOMINGTON

Long never quite broke out of her shell in college like she would’ve liked, but she had some good races and was a four-time letter-winner in both cross country and track.

“It was frustrating because I had gone from high school where I never had injuries to having stress fractures and being injured all the time,” she said. “I even had stress fractures in my femur. I think that was partly due to going from max of 30 miles in high school to running like 75 miles a week in my first six weeks at IU. The coach was all about keeping everyone on the same page and I think I would’ve been better suited to stay on low mileage.”

Long did break the five-minute barrier in the metric mile (1,500 meters) and improve upon some of the shorter distance races, but in her eyes she never reached her full potential.

FAMILY OF ATHLETES

Married and the mother of twin boys in college, Long is still involved in sports and runs to this day.

“Running keeps me in shape and I do it mainly to stay healthy,” she said. “My two boys play college basketball and I had to keep up with them while they’re doing sports. My husband played college basketball, too, and even played overseas some. We’re a whole family full of athletic people and we love the outdoors.”

Her sons, Parker and Owen, attended Maryville of St. Louis — a Division II college — but both plan to transfer to an NCAA Division I school for the 2020-21 season.

“Parker is already committing to Southeast Missouri State (SEMO) and Owen hasn’t decided yet, but he’s still in the transfer portal,” Long said.

CARRYING ON THE LEGACY

Although not in the area much anymore, Long is proud of her roots and remembers where she got her start.

“Northeast Tennessee is so beautiful and I always felt like with all the parks and the wide-open fields that it was a hub for distance running,” she said. “I was very blessed and I felt like we all played a unique role in forming that distance running culture for the area.

“Those were different times back then. We didn’t have all these cellphones and social media. We had only our running shoes and others to talk to. I am always grateful for that, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

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