Joan Benoit-Samuelson, With her Tribe..


Joan Benoit-Samuelson, dressed with a beautiful dress and pearls around her neck, was perfectly dressed for the Breakfast at Tiffany's this Saturday morning. When she was introduced, everything stopped, because of the women knew she loved the event as much as they did, because she was one of them. Benoit-Samuelson is a wife, a mother of two who also happens to have won the first Olympic womens' marathon. To truly appreciate Joan Benoit-Samuelson and how she has changed, one has to understand her beginnings in the sport....

The enthusiasm this weekend around San Francisco is infectious. Everywhere I went, from walking around Union Square, to walking over to the Piers, there were
women runner's everywhere.....

Saturday started out with Breakfast at Tiffany's, where the VP of Sales of Tiffany's welcomed the press, sponsors, runners and volunteers to the Nike Women's 26.2 and the Nike plus Half marathon. John Walter, the COO of The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society spoke for a few minutes, thanking all for being in San Francisco, and for raising over $18 million for Leukemia Research. The stories from the top three fundraisers showed why the cause running clubs allow runners to focus on something larger than themselves. In many cases, it is this cause that gets many of these first time runners to lace up their running shoes!

I spent much of the day observing women runners of all ages and abilities getting their race packets, lining up for the pedicures and manicures, and massages. By three in the afternoon, there was a thirty minute wait for massages!

While I was speaking to different runners about their motivation, and their involvement in the sport, I kept coming back to Joan Benoit-Samuelson. Joan was
at the Breakfast at Tiffany's event this morning, and she was resplendent, as not only the spokesman for the event, but truly a leader in the movement for women's running-she let her feet do her talking for many years. Today, as a mother of two, a six time Olympic Trials qualifier, Joan is much more relaxed in public than when she came onto the sports scene in 1979. It is something that needs to be understood and appreciated--like the sport, Joan Benoit-Samuelson is comfortable with her place in the sun.

In a short meeting with running media on Friday, Benoit-Samuelson related how she started running in an old fort near her home, because no one could see her and she liked that privacy. That fort has become part of her finish area on the Beacon to Beacon 10k, a road race that Joan champions in her hometown each year.

Joan Benoit-Samuelson, the spokesperson, the strong, but gently confident leader of a movement, is not the person I met twenty plus years ago. The Joan Benoit-Samuelson that I knew, and that her would betraining partners knew, was the toughest athlete, male or female, in her era. Greg Meyer, the 1983 male champion at Boston, and one of the best American distance runners of his generation told me once that Joannie would wear out most of the guys who tried to train with her. Hence she trained by herself much of the time. Samuelson was notorious for her tough, hard training and the miles she ran. She was relentless.

In 1979, Benoit won her first Boston, in 2:35.12, eight minutes better than any other women had ever run at Boston! After her 1979 win, Benoit needed achilles surgery, and in 1982, came back and won the Nike OTC Marathon, one of the best marathon courses ever developed, around Eugene and Springfield, Oregon. In 1983, when she broke the world record for the marathon, a record that was ONE DAY old, having been set by Grete Waitz in London the day before!

Her first victory at the Olympic Trials in Olympia, Washington in 1984 almost did not happen. Joan had knee surgery seventeen days before the trials! Benoit-Samuelson took the lead early, and did not let up. When she crossed the line, she was in tears, the stress of the surgery, of trying to run against the best runners in the country had taken its toll.

Her coach at the time was the one and only Bob Sevene. Sevene, a fine runner himself, is one of the best marathon coaches in the world, period. Sevene did not need to motivate Joan Benoit-Samuelson, he needed to keep her from training too hard. But, Benoit-Samuelson developed her race confidence from her hard training and Bob Sevene gave her the sessions and the fine tuning to put her in great shape less than twelve weeks after the Olympic Trials.

The Los Angeles course was not an exciting marathon course. Most Olympic marathon courses are not that exciting, and neither are they fast. Championship courses require the athlete to remember why they are there, which is to place as high as possible. Time means nothing in an championship marathon race.

Samuelson faced the greatest runners of her time-Grete Waitz, seven time New York City Marathon champ, 1983 World Champ, Ingrid Kristiansen, former world record holder at marathon, 10,000 meter record holder, Rosa Mota, European medalist, third fastest in the world, Lorraine Moller of New Zealand, Avon marathon winner and the U.S.'s Julie Brown, a distance runner who could break 2:04 at 800 meters and 32 minutes for 10k. It was a stacked field.

A few days before the race, Bob Sevene had Joan relaxing by picking berries outside of Eugene, Oregon. Joan had trained well, was healthy and most of all, she was ready for the LA Olympic marathon.

Much like Frank Shorter's early move in Munich, Benoit-Samuelson took off early in the race, moving to the front after six kilometers and starting to push before five miles. By the half marathon, Benoit-Samuelson had nearly one minute of lead on the pack. The pack was Grete Waitz, Rosa Mota, Ingrid Kristensen-all of the world's top marathoners were waiting for Joan to fall apart.

Joan Benoit-Samuelson is deceptive. Small of stature, her body could handle high mileage and the stress of elite marathon racing. She was a gambler and liked to lead and challenge her competititon to come after her. Seldom did Benoit-Samuelson falter when she took the lead.

The entire field miscalculated, because, by the time Waitz and company went after her, it was too late-Joan Benoit-Samuelson would become the first women to win the Olympic marathon. Now, twenty-three years later, six Olympic Trials later, married and with two nearly grown children, Samuelson has found her place in the sun, and her tribe, women runners, respect her and listen to her every word.

Joan Benoit-Samuelson has transcended her competitive days, but she has one real competitive goal-she wants to run the sixth Olympic Trials marathon for women in April. If she stays healthy, she should have no problems with that!

The Nike Women's marathon started four years ago as a way to pay homage to the first women of the marathon, and it has come to mean much, much more. For 20,000 women in San Francisco on Sunday, October 21, 2007, the marathon and half marathon will be the culmination of six months of training, and a weekend of
celebration. For the 3,500 who will run from somewhere else in the world, tied in by their Nike plus pod in their Nike running shoes. The tribe of running women, for six to eight hours tommorow, will own the streets of the City of San Francisco. And that,
for Joan and her tribe, is a good thing....

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