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Marathon’s Queen 40 Years Later

04/24/2019

~ Joan Benoit Samuelson Still Inspires ~

By David Hunter for RRCA

Well into the 21st century, running in America continues to thrive as a broad-based activity embraced by men and women of various ages, differing economic strata, and various social classes.  But it wasn’t always this way.  In America 50+ years ago, the sport of road racing in general – and marathoning in particular – was a rather odd pursuit often reserved almost exclusively for post-collegiate, aging white males.

So how did this once eclectic pastime evolve in this country into the all-encompassing healthy activity it is today?  While the marathon of course goes back to Ancient Grecian times, America as a whole was first reawakened to this sport by a few important early pioneers.  But the country’s interest in the 26.2 mile event really gained widespread domestic attention in the 1970’s when America’s Frank Shorter won marathon gold at the ’72 Olympic Games and countryman Bill Rodgers later launched his road racing tear which ultimately resulted in 4 marathon victories in both the Boston and New York City marathons. The country was hooked.

If Shorter and Rodgers are the Kings of America’s running boom, then Joan Benoit Samuelson is the Queen.  Just as Shorter and Rodgers demonstrated to American men that they could compete successfully against the world’s best, Joan Benoit Samuelson continues to inspire American women through her own performances and to show women that they, too, can race effectively and win medals at the highest global levels.  On the 40th anniversary of her life-changing 1979 Boston Marathon victory, a look back now can reveal the tremendous influence she has had in transforming running from a lonely ritual for a few into an uplifting activity for many.

A native of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, the young Joan Benoit first began attracting wide-spread attention as a skilled athlete at Bowdoin College.  Before concluding her collegiate career, Benoit without fanfare entered the ’79 Boston Marathon.  Although she had run 2:50 in her first marathon the year before, she appeared to be just another college kid seeing how she might do on the road over a longer distance.  On Patriots’ Day, a smiling Benoit, clad in Bowdoin colors, and sporting a Red Sox baseball cap, moved smoothly through the hills, a picture of innocence and ease, as if she was unaware of her record-setting pace – all in all, an image that marveled the TV commentators.  Her winning time of 2:35:15 broke the women’s course record by over 7 minutes and set a new American record.  Joan’s victory that day was a road success that would change the trajectory of her life – and over time would be recognized as a performance that inspired and motivated women to recalibrate their view of running and fitness. Benoit returned to Boston to race in 1983. 

It had been a roller coaster 4 years since her ’79 Boston triumph.  She set the world marathon record in New Zealand in 1980, lost it later on, and then regained the record the prior fall, all the while dealing with a pesky Achilles injury that was ultimately healed by surgery.   When race day dawned and perfect weather conditions prevailed, Benoit went for it, and went for it hard.  Setting record clockings at every course checkpoint, Benoit demolished the field posting a winning time of 2:22:43 to better the women’s field by over 6 minutes   Benoit’s world record performance capped a wild 36 hours in  marathon history. On the day before Patriots’ Day, Norway’s Greta Waitz won the London Marathon in 2:25:28 to take down Benoit’s then world record of 2:26:12 set the previous fall.  Waitz’s new global best would be short-lived: eclipsed by over 2½ minutes by Benoit’s winning time in Boston the following day.

1984 posed its own special challenges for Benoit.  After entering the year as unquestionably USA’s best female marathoner, the two-time Boston champion sustained a knee injury on a long training run which resulted in arthroscopic surgery just 17 days before the USA Olympic marathon trials.  With uncertainty on her ability to even complete the course, Benoit ran a determined race and won in 2:31:04.  Three months later at the L.A. Olympics, great suspense surrounded the first women’s Olympic marathon – a much-anticipated competition at long last pitting Benoit against multiple-time New York City champion Waitz and a star-studded field that included Waitz’s countrywoman Ingrid Kristiansen and Portugal’s Rosa Mota.  After a cautious group start, the American slowly pulled away from the field in the early stages – a surreptitious move that amazingly no others sought to cover – and raced on to an easy victory in 2:24:52 to win by over 400 meters.

After winning the inaugural running of the women’s Olympic marathon, an emotional letdown by the victorious athlete would not be unexpected.  But the gold medalist – now Joan Benoit Samuelson after her post-Olympic Games marriage to Scott – stayed after it. In 1985, the then-28 year old Samuelson won the Chicago Marathon in 2:21:21 to set a new American record.  It would be a record that would last for 18 years until Deena Kastor – the only other American female Olympic marathon medalist – eclipsed the mark in 2003.  Kastor still holds the AR [2:19:36] to this day.  Toward the conclusion of her record-breaking year, Samuelson was awarded the prestigious Sullivan Award, a coveted honor given annually to the United States top amateur athlete.

Along the way, Samuelson did more – much more – than simply compete in global championships and World Marathon Majors.  A tried and true New Englander, Samuelson was a regular competitor in Cape Cod’s 7.1 mile Falmouth Road Race, a summertime event she won six times, four times breaking the course record.  Later Samuelson would found the Beach To Beacon 10K Road Race, a top flight road event held in her home town of Cape Elizabeth and often intentionally calendared to take place before the Falmouth event so as to attract a number of world class athletes to compete in both New England races.

Father Time eventually slows all athletes.  But in addition to continuing her on-going love affair with running, Samuelson has tried her hand at writing, has coached cross country and long distance athletes, and has served as a motivational speaker and sports commentator, and Samuelson has found continued inspiration as a highly competitive age group athlete as she continues to re-write the record book.  Joan has qualified to compete in 7 USA Olympic Marathon Trials over a span of 24 years.   In the 2008 USA Olympic Marathon Trials, Samuelson – then 50 – finished in 2:49:08 to set a new USA 50+ record.  On the Boston list of the top Veteran women’s performances on Patriots’ Day, Joan has the top 3 clockings, with a best of 2:50:29.

Motivation is an essential ingredient for success in all sports – especially for older athletes who sooner or later must address the sobering reality of waning performance.  And Samuelson has developed her own unique method of self-motivation. And she utilized it in inspiring her training in preparation for this year’s Patriots’ Day race.
"I challenge myself through ‘story telling’, trying to come up with a ‘story’ that would motivate me to get out and train.” While some might call it a “dream” or a “goal”, Samuelson conjures up a “story” – a visualization of what she targets as a future successful performance – as inspiration for the training she must undertake to allow her to make the “story” come true.
At this year’s 123rd running of the B.A.A. Marathon, Samuelson celebrated her ’79 Boston victory and challenged herself at the same time – seeking to achieve her self-imposed story line.  Clearly a goal-oriented athlete, Joan sought more than a trot down memory lane.  “My goal is to run within 40 minutes of my time 40 years ago, which would be sub-3:15:35,” states the two-time Boston champion.  “I might as well celebrate during an anniversary year while I’m still able!”

The 61-year old Samuelson – who days before the race pronounced herself to be “strong, but fragile” – ran a brilliant race and posted a record-breaking time on Patriots’ Day.  Samuelson, who knows the course like the back of her hand, knew when to push and when to back off.  Averaging 7:01 per mile she crossed the finish line in 3:04:00.  Her clocking obliterated the Boston age group course record by nearly 8 minutes and is now listed #3 on the women’s 60-64 all-time world list.  “I ran with patience today.  I didn’t know what the weather was going to do.  I’m not used to the warmer temperatures.  I haven’t run in shorts all winter in Maine,” reveals Samuelson after the race.  “And when I got ready to really push, I pulled my right calf a little going down into Newton Lower Falls.  Knowing the course as I do, I knew what was ahead.  So rather than gamble by pushing and pulling [my calf] beyond repair I became patient again and got up over the hills and then started to push again.”

Once again, by creating the challenging story, Samuelson was inspired to work hard to make the envisioned story a reality.  “The logical goal for this race seemed to be to try to run within 40 minutes of my time 40 years ago when I ran my first Boston,” Joan explains.  “Mind you, I was supposed to leave the sport of marathoning in 2008 when the Olympic Trials were here in Boston.  The story then was to try to run a sub-2:50 at the age of 50 which I barely did.  I thought that was pretty much it.”

But wily race directors soon learned they could entice Samuelson to enter their race by laying out a tantalizing “story to tell.”  New York lured her to its 2009 race by reminding her that it was the 25th anniversary of her gold medal performance in the first Olympic women’s marathon.  The next year Chicago’s siren song was the reminder that it was the 25th anniversary of Samuelson’s fastest ever marathon clocking which she ran on the Chicago course in ’85.  “And the date for that race was 10-10-10 so I couldn’t pass up those dates,” offers Samuelson with a smile. 
"It's all about the story.  It has been and it continues to be about the story.  And to be here 40 years later being able to run, let alone run a marathon, I feel blessed.”

Barely recovered from her unmatched Patriots’ Day performance, Samuelson is already thinking about other stories to tell.  “I would love to complete the other big stories [the World Marathon Majors].  I’ve run Chicago, Boston, and New York numerous times.  But I haven’t run London, Tokyo, and Berlin.  Our 35th wedding anniversary coincides with the Berlin Marathon,” hints Samuelson on a possible next adventure.  “I love life so much.  I love every sport.  I’ve got some more mountains I’d like to summit and I want to be able to do those things with our family and friends.”

Joan Benoit Samuelson knows she is in the gloaming of her running career.  And because of that understanding she savors every run, every workout, every race.  When asked how she would like to be remembered by the sport she loves, she takes her time and chooses her words carefully.  “I would just say that I am somebody who is as passionate about the sport today as she was the day she started,” states Samuelson, who despite her modesty is destined to be revered as a genuine road racing pioneer and one of the most decorated and durable marathoners of all time.

“That’s what keeps me going.  It’s just what I love to do,” adds the 1984 Olympic champion.  Given Samuelson’s record-breaking performance in this year’s Boston Marathon and her stated future plans, it’s not yet time to write her remembrance.  There are more stories yet to be told.

Dave Hunter is a U.S. Correspondent for Track & Field News, writes a weekly column and serves as Senior Writer for www.RunBlogRun.com, and covers championship track & field competition domestically and in such global capitals as Moscow, Birmingham, Zurich, Brussels, Beijing,  Rio de Janeiro, Zagreb, and Ostrava.  Hunter frequently serves as the arena or stadium announcer for championship track & field gatherings, including the Ivy League, the Big East, the Mid-American Conference, the NAIA, the Big Ten, and the Millrose Games.  Hunter has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments.  He ran his marathon P.R. of 2:31:40 on the Boston Marathon course back in the Paleozoic Era.  To find out more about Dave, visit his website:    www.trackandfieldhunter.com  He can be reached at: dave@trackandfieldhunter.com
  • boston marathon

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