I have a picture somewhere of Joan Benoit, as she was known then, with her Bowdoin baseball cap on backwards, running Boston Marathon. One of my training buddies ran with Joanie for much of 1979 Boston, and spoke of her, then, as now, with reverence.
Reflections From The Marathon’s Queen
October 19th, 2014
Highly-regarded running commentator Larry Rawson occasionally refers to the legendary and greatly revered runners of our era as “royalty.” These few exceptionally accomplished athletes – most of whom have excelled not only on the track and on the road, but also in the areas of community involvement and sport development – are regularly referred to in reverent tones and accorded the utmost respect. And if there truly would be an exclusive family of road racing “royalty,” Joan Benoit Samuelson would have to be its Queen.
The former global record holder in the marathon who broke onto the world scene with her joyful and apparently effortless victory in the 1979 Boston Marathon has witnessed the sport transform from a narrowly-defined, hard-bitten athletic contest dominated by older white males into a broader-based, more inclusive cultural event accommodating not only singularly-focused world class athletes but also runners – both men and women – with different backgrounds and socio-economic status who are drawn to the sport by a vast array of differing motivations. Samuelson is not surprised to have observed that American women – only scarcely represented in road racing circles in the late 70’s – now comprise nearly 50% of domestic marathon fields. “First of all, women understand the importance of staying healthy. And they’re very good at multi-tasking. And they’re good at socializing. And running affords all of those things so I think that it is a no-brainer for women with tight schedules with family, children, and work,” offers Samuelson. “It is probably one of the most convenient forms of physical activity. With all of the emphasis placed on health and wellness, women certainly get it and they want to be a part of it. And so they engage that way.”
As the influx of women into the running community continues unabated, the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon champion still takes time to track the fortunes of the most talented young women at the top end of sport. Samuelson marvels at 41 year old Deena Kastor and her recent world masters record in the half marathon. “Deena inspires all of us,” Joan exclaims. “The time she ran in Philadelphia [1:09:37] was just incredible.” Samuelson also closely followed Shalane Flanagan’s recent unsuccessful assault on Kastor’s American marathon record in Berlin. And while Shalane couldn’t unseat Kastor as the American record holder, Flanagan’s third place time of 2:21:14 – just 7 seconds better than Samuelson’s former American record – elevated Shalane to the #2 all-time American performer. “I sent her a text and I said, ‘You got me and congratulations,'” explains Joan of her post-Berlin communication with Flanagan. “I knew she wanted that American record. I would hope she was happy with her third place finish and with the second fastest American time. In much the same way when I first started to follow Deena, I felt that she [Deena] would be the next American record holder. And I feel that way about Shalane as well. It’s just a matter of time.”
Samuelson is quick to point out that other well-timed influences have assisted her along the way. “I think I was in the right place at the right time,” Samuelson points out. “The passage of Title IX legislation allowed me the opportunity to compete in a variety of sports at the high school level. I went off to Bowdoin College – a DIII school which didn’t award athletic scholarships to student athletes. By the time my junior year rolled around, I was offered a Title IX scholarship to NC State and I took a year away from Bowdoin,” she explains. “My junior year there helped me improve as an athlete and gave me a wider understanding of the world.”
The 1985 Sullivan Award winner is also immersed in the sport off the road as well. “I serve as a consultant with Nike,” explains Samuelson who has been affiliated with the sports giant for over 30 years. “I help them with the development of product and I can give them excellent feedback on the Nike products that I use or test. And I am also helping to promote the brand and our sport through my performance in road racing and speaking engagements. I cast a wide net in the way I live my life and the way I promote health and wellness in sport.”
The woman more than a few have proclaimed to be the greatest marathoner of all time is still turning in world class performances 35 years after her first Boston victory. Following the simple lifestyle triad of mind / body/ spirit, Samuelson has enjoyed longevity by listening carefully to her body. “I run the way I feel every day. If I feel great, I run hard. If I don’t feel great, I go through the motions,” she explains. “Sometimes I start out not feeling great and then feel better as the run progresses. That’s the way I’ve always trained. I run the way I feel on that specific day and in that specific race.” If it’s not broken, don’t fix it…
After more than three decades at the pinnacle of the sport, Samuelson has been able to observe how achieving goals on the road can translate into positive attitudes and future success in other areas. “I think people can set goals with their sport and achieve those goals. And as long as they’re making progress, they feel good about themselves,” states Samuelson. “And if they can make progress in running and it’s really a tangible result, they probably have a good sense of themselves and are able to achieve other goals – be it in the workplace, the community, or the home.
Joan Benoit Samuelson will freely admit that she, too, thrives on goal-setting; that she has been able to thoughtfully reflect upon and set road racing objectives to fuel her passion and sharpen her focus for each new challenge she sets for herself. But at age 57, what keeps the marathon queen performing at such royal levels? With a career adorned with an Olympic gold medal, two world bests in the marathon, various national titles, and numerous open and age-group records throughout her lengthy career as a world class athlete, what could possibly remain to drive her to achieve even more? Samuelson takes a moment to reflect when asked about any remaining unachieved running goals she harbors. “That’s a good question,” she finally offers. “I am inspired by other runners – the up-and-coming runners, the older runners. I always try to tell a story with my running, especially when I race the marathon. I guess I am just waiting to have that next story dawn on me.” Joanie – who at age 56 ran 2:52:10 in the 2014 Boston Marathon – knows that the world age group marathon record for 60 year old women was set in 2010 by New Zealand’s Bernadine Portenski who clocked 3:01:30. That knowledge alone may be all the current inspiration she needs.