by Dave McGillivray, Race Director
Joan Benoit Samuelson, a native of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, is founder and chair of the TD Beach to Beacon 10K.
I have known Joanie for about 25 years now. I have run with her many times, she came to my wedding, she wrote the forward to my book, she greeted me at home plate in Fenway Park at the conclusion of one of my cross country runs, she even asked me to be the race director of her very own road race, and on numerous occasions, she has given me her famous bear hug that I swear will break my back someday.
So, I guess you could say I know Joanie pretty well! But interestingly, I know her more for her wonderful and unselfish personality and for the kindness she has always bestowed on so many, and not as much for her swiftness of foot.
As such, it was a privilege to conduct this interview with her on the occasion of NER’s 25th anniversary and the fact that she graced the 2nd cover of the magazine.
Q: Most of us who ran back in the early 70s, ran because we wanted to play other sports and perhaps didn’t make the cut. Is that how you got started in this business?
No. I grew up with three brothers so I was always running to keep up or get away. I loved to play anything. I remember wanting to play LL baseball in the spring and early summer but couldn’t because I was a girl. They wouldn’t even let me play when nine players didn’t show up to field a team. The coaches would play with fewer players before they would think of putting a girl in the game.
Ski racing in the Olympics was my dream. Just when I started to place in some of the Maine races I broke my leg. I ran after the cast was removed to get back in shape and found that I loved to run. I didn’t need special equipment, snow or a ride to the mountains. I could do it anywhere at any time. I was sold on the sport and started to challenge myself with longer and longer distances the more I ran.
No guts no glory in ski racing .
Q: In high school and college, did you excel as a runner?
I didn’t start with distance events until after I broke my leg my sophomore year in high school. Ran the sprints, relays and did the long jump my freshman year. The mile didn’t become a Maine HS event until my sophomore year. I won the State mile my senior year in high school. I Played field hockey in the fall all four years in high school and the first two years at Bowdoin College. I ran outside of high school and college with Country Runners and then Liberty AC.
I won the AIAW (pre-NCAA) Runner of the Year Award my senior year at Bowdoin after spending my junior year at NC State on a scholarship. I called it my junior year abroad.
Q: Do you recall some of your times and performance?
I won the AIAW DIII my senior year. I also won the 10000m title at Michigan State. I think I won another race or two but can remember. Ran my first sub-5-minute mile at URI the winter of my freshman year at Bowdoin running for Liberty AC at an AAU meet because Bowdoin didn’t have a women’s track team. Would need to check my training logs or check with John Babington or Bob Sevene to confirm times during high school, college, and post-graduation.
Q: What was your first marathon and what was the time?
The first marathon I ran was in Bermuda. I with Craig Virgin, Ellison Goodall and a few other people as a training run the day after the Bemuda 10K. We stopped at the halfway mark and waited to get a ride to the finish. When we found out that no vehicles would be allowed on the course until the last runner passed we decided to run to the finish line knowing that we would get there faster. I think I ran a 2:56 or 2:57
Then Came Boston
Q: What made you decide to run Boston your very first time?
Curiosity, challenge, and tradition. I had never seen a Boston Marathon before I ran in 1979. I had run the Portland Boy’s Club 5-mile Road Race on Patriots Day for several years in a row before heading to Boston for the first time.
Q: In 1983, you set a world record at Boston – was it your goal going in to do to this or did it just happen?
I wanted to run a PR. I remember looking at a pace chart the night before the race in my room at the Copley Plaza and thinking that it would be tough and that I would never be able to run a sub 2:25.
It just happened. I knew I was in shape and I had a very high finish (I think 4th) at the World XC Champs a couple of weeks prior to the Marathon. I had no idea I was on world-record pace until I heard Tom Grilk screaming over the PA system at the finish line
Q: Do you recall what changes in your life occurred as a result of this particular victory?
I remember more changes in my life after my first win in 1979.
I had no idea how many eyes around the world followed the Boston Marathon. All of a sudden my life seemed to become public. It took me a while to become used to the idea of being a public figure. At first, I thought I would never run a marathon again in my life.
The Trials and the Olympics
Q: In 1984, just 17 days before the Olympic Trials, the biggest race of your life, you underwent arthroscopic surgery on your knee. Did you really think you could recover in time to run 26.2 miles, let alone qualify for the team?
I knew I would have to ask for a miracle. After getting through the surgery and the Trials, I’ve never asked for any more favors in the sport. I knew there wasn’t any other woman out there training harder than I was at the time and I must confess this is what was driving me because I was loving the training and the fact that I was feeling stronger and faster with each long run and track workout. I really wanted to run the marathon but I knew if the recovery went slowly I also had a chance to qualify in the 3000 m trials which were being held a month later
Q: Was there any sense of relief when the decision was made, or was it just continued anxiety?
Continued anxiety but I was relieved to be having the surgery. The anti-inflammatories weren’t working and I was running out of time. I knew this was my only option if I had a chance of getting to the starting line.
Q: How long after the surgery was it before you took your first running step?
Dr. Stan James kept me in bed in the hospital in Eugene for 24 hours. I think I tried to test my knee the following afternoon with a couple of jogging steps.
Q: On the eve of the trials, did you have a game plan in mind or was the idea to just monitor the leg and see how things developed?
No plan. I just wanted to get from the start to the finish.
Q: During the trials race itself, were there any residual twinges, were there moments of doubt or did everything go smoothly?
No real twinges but I kept thinking that I might have a twinge or even worse. I had absolutely nothing left after 20 miles and if anyone had passed me at this point I think the entire field would have left me in their dust.
Q: At the 1984 Olympics, did you know going in that you would take it out and not look back?
All I knew is that I was going to run my own race and not pay attention to what my competitors were doing.
Q: You had Ingrid and Grete in the race, what were you thinking??
I was thinking that I had an outside chance at a medal. I think Grete was the odds on favorite before the race but I also knew Ingrid was running very well and would give Grete a run. I knew nothing about Rosa except that I saw her out on a training run a few days before the marathon and I had no idea who she was at the time but knew she would be a solid contender if she was running the marathon just by the way she was running that day.
Q: How did you actually feel throughout the race?
Smooth and strong, almost effortless. Never again.
Q: Did you ever think during the race you made a mistake?
No, because I had vowed to run my own race regardless of what the rest of the field was doing.
Q: How did winning the gold change your life, or did it?
I told my family and friends who assembled around me shortly after the race that I didn’t want them to let this moment in time change me as a person. As far as my life is concerned…it became very busy and full. I got married a month after the Olympics and nothing has slowed down. Now we have teenagers who set the pace.
Q: People think what your victory did for women’s running in the US is what Frank Shorter winning in 1972 did for the US running boom. Do you ever think about that?
Not really. I’m just glad that Title IX passed and now women have a chance to pursue their dreams through additional opportunities.
Q: Most people would assume that the most memorable race in your career was the ‘84 Olympics. Is that indeed the case or was there another race that actually stands out more?
The biggest win in my career was the 1984 Olympic Marathon. The race of my life was the Trials in Olympia. Still can’t explain how that all came together for me outside of prayer and not asking for any additional favors in the sport. Boston wins in1979 and 1983 were very big, too. As was a photo finish with Patti-Sue Plummer at the Meadowlands in the 3000m.
B2B And Giving Back
Q: You have now entered the world of race management with the TD Beach to Beacon 10K. What key things have you learned about this side of the road racing?
Make sure Dave McGillivray is your race director. The DMSE team helps, too! The energy expended on the other side is far greater than the energy expended running the event several times over. (Editor’s note: I paid her to say this.)
Q: It is well known that you like to give back a lot. Why is that so?
The first thing I promised myself if I was able to make it through the Trials and on to the Olympics was that I would give back to the sport that had given me so much and that I would also give back to the Maine community which has always inspired me and kept me buoyant…something about the pride that Maine people share and their appreciation for hard and passionate work. Didn’t hurt to have parents who taught us the importance of living a good and full life.
Q: How do you balance your growing family civic duties, hobbies, and running?
No rest for the weary but I know you sleep less than I do these days. Life is a constant balancing act.
Q: Who in particular do you like to help?
Youth and the Environment.
Q: What do you get out of it?
Not a lot of rest.
Finals Trials and Beyond
Q: You have qualified for your 7th Olympic Trials. What are your goals for the 2008 trials? I would think the trials being in Boston must be extra special for you?
I have always had goals in the sport. The only goal left in the sport for me at this time is to run a 2:50 something or maybe even to sneak in just under 2:50 if I am very lucky at the Trials in Boston when I’m 50, almost 51. I think it is pretty cool that I will most likely end my competitive marathoning career where I started my competitive marathoning career almost 30 years earlier. Really what I am hoping is that I can get to the starting line without any injuries and with joints that still function.
Q: You and I once agreed when doing a run together that you would consider doing the Ironman Triathlon when you turned 50. Well, you turn 50 in May. How do you feel now about what you said to me about 5-6 years ago now?
We will talk again after the Trials. The marathon will probably be the toughest part of the triathlon for me if and when I ever do the Ironman.
Q: I know you like gardening. What is that all about?
Therapy and feeling grounded. I went through the Master Gardening program and enjoy growing anything that I can in amended marine clay. Totally organic. It’s all about locally grown and organic. Also, I have been involved with the Plant-A-Row project and harvest vegetables for our local food pantry.
Q: You are passionate about the environment. What is your vision for the future?
Tidal power, wind turbines, solar panels, hybrids, more bicycles and alternative transportation routes. Health insurance breaks for people who bike, run, paddle, row or walk to work.
Q: So, how was it running with Lance anyway…can the dude really run?
He can really run but he drinks a lot of water and consumes a lot of energy gels. No problem with his c-v system, however, he needs to spend more time pounding the pavement on his feet.
Q: You seem to have participated in just about every sport known to man (and woman). Can you name them all?
Nordic and alpine skiing, hiking, tennis, kayaking, cycling, to name a few.
Q: What do you see in the future for yourself?
One step at a time
Q: Tell me something about your husband, Scott. He must be pretty special, huh?
You’ve got that right.
Q: Anything else you want to add?
It’s past my bedtime.
Q: You asleep? Hello, hello Joanie?? You still there?