Here are two stories from our 2019 Race Beneficiary, The Telling Room.
Joan Benoit Samuleson and the Beach to Beacon
By Wilson Haims
If you’ve lived in Maine for the past twenty years, chances are you’ve heard of the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race. The meaning of the race varies for the thousands participating and spectating. For locals it’s a conversation point, for some it’s an annual excuse to escape to Vacationland, and for just a few others it is a chance to win a substantial monetary prize along with a distinguished title. But only one person has the satisfaction of knowing that the race she created is not only benefitting runners, but also the community where she grew up.
The TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race was founded for runners to have the chance to race along Maine’s idyllic coastline, but it was also established with the belief that bettering the community is possible when you bring together a group of dedicated people. Joan Benoit Samuleson, the winner of the first Olympic Women’s Marathon held in the summer of 1984, saw potential for a 10K race to take place in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Since the inaugural year in 1998, a portion of the proceeds from the race has gone toward benefiting youth-based organizations throughout the state. Among a few of the fortunate beneficiaries are: Seeds of Peace (2003), The Boys and Girls Club of Southern Maine (2005), Center for Grieving Children (2012) and Rippleffect (2014). This year, The Telling Room, a Portland-based non-profit that empowers youth through writing and shares their voices with the world, is honored to be the recipient of the TD Beach to Beacon proceeds.
As an alumna of the Telling Room, I feel honored to have had the chance to learn more about the founder’s career before heading out on a training run with her. When asked why The Telling Room was chosen this year, Joan’s answer was simple: “You love to write, I love to run… [The Telling Room] allows kids to follow their hearts, live their dreams, and share their passions and talents with other people… It involves youth in such a positive way.”
Joan Benoit Samuleson grew up running on the roads of Cape Elizabeth, so when she decided to create the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race, she already knew exactly what route the course would cover. “[Growing up] my normal loop was a 10K… I never thought of using the same course because I wanted the scenic venues of Portland Headlight and Pond Cove…” We owe it to Joan for taking our breath away, both in witnessing some of Maine’s most stunning views and in running 6.2 miles. “I wanted [the race] to be a serious, world-class event that would bring runners from all over the world [together] with everyday runners.”
How did she draw the most decorated distance runners and establish a race that was an instant success with 3,000 participants? She started by reaching out to her connections in the elite running world. A natural connecter, Joan’s favorite way to celebrate at the end of any race is by talking to the other runners and hearing their stories. When she founded the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race, she did not have a lack of elite runner friends who were ready to race on her home course. But a runner from Maine doesn’t gain a friend group of the fastest distance runners in the world just by talking with them post-race. After winning the world’s first Olympic Women’s Marathon, placing first in more marathons than you can count on one hand, and breaking records left and right, over the years Joan has grown a network of top-tier runners who are ready to support her.
“[The high point of my career] was obviously the Olympics, but it was also getting there and being able to have the longevity I’ve enjoyed…” But what propels an Olympic athlete forward during the toughest sections of the race? What is happening in their minds? When asked if she had a mantra or saying that kept her motivated during the historic race, one succinct, yet poignant phase came to mind: Last shall come first and first shall come last. “I remember during the parade of athletes before the marathon [the spectators] kept reciting ‘Last shall come first and first shall come last,’ because I was at the end of the line of athletes as the shortest member of the U.S. delegation and the U.S. being the host nation.” Joan went on to beat the second place finisher, Norway’s Grete Waitz, who finished hundreds of meters behind her.
“I just really love to run.” Joan’s inspiration that has kept her coming back for more is as simple as that. “I started running as a form of rehab after suffering a broken leg from ski racing in high school…. I love to challenge myself with longer and longer distances at a faster and faster pace.… It just became something I loved to do and became very passionate about.” Even though skiing got put on the back burner after she began experiencing success on the national and international level, to this day Joan still credits her upper body strength to Nordic skiing. As she pointed out, many runners have much stronger legs than arms, but she enjoys the balance she gained from skiing, thanks to hardy Maine winters.
Joan’s advice to any young person is to find a passion. Whether a runner, a writer, or both, Joan’s message rings true: “Without passion you can’t have fire and without fire you can’t ignite anything. It really comes from within… If you have that passion then anything is possible.” As an athlete and author herself, Joan shared the connections she’s made among her passions. “They take a lot of focus, both writing and running.” Focus and grit seem to follow Joan in her undertakings and she greets them with open arms. Founding the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race, a race of such prominence and scale that it is not for everyone, but neither is winning marathons and writing books.
“[The race] has far transcended what we originally thought it would be.” Selling out in a matter of minutes to over 6,000 runners, the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race has more than doubled in size since the first race in 1998 and has been known to draw runners from more than 10 countries and nearly every U.S. state. But what really makes the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race stand out, for its founder, is not the impressive statistics or its popularity, but rather how it shapes the Maine community. “We don’t just benefit a youth charity each year, but we pull runners off the sidelines who are inspired by what they see passing in front of them… I love standing at the finish line to welcome in not only the elite athletes, but also the athletes who never thought they could go the distance.”
Joan Benoit Samuleson truly takes her own advice. Her passion has sparked a flame in her state that now draws an international community of runners and she uses her platform to benefit the youth of Maine. Whether running, walking, watching, or writing, everyone can profit from Joan’s initiative to create a positive change by following one’s own passions.
Henry Spritz is an eighteen-year-old writer, filmmaker, and student from Portland, Maine. Henry first began writing in middle school and was involved with The Telling Room in seventh grade when he was a part of the first class of the Young Emerging Authors fellowship program, and published his novel The Road to Terrencefield. Since then Henry has been a part of several other Telling Room programs and has been published in two “best of” Telling Room anthologies: When the Sea Spoke and Beyond the Picket Fence. Henry has been running since middle school as well, and is a two-time Maine Class C State Champion in cross-country.
There was a dream-like beauty to the summer after my freshman year. It was a summer full of warm days caught in amber light, and dark velvet nights when sirens echoed and cicadas hummed. It was the summer after my freshman year, which I had spent at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, a school representing the dream of a world-class education that I had held on to since elementary school. It was a dream that had inspired years of hard work and sacrifices, during which I had taken advanced classes and earned a full scholarship, and when I had been admitted to Andover it felt like confirmation that it had all been worth it.
Over the course of the year I became friends with some of the most genuine, stimulating people I had ever met, took challenging courses, and grew into myself. Because so much about my experience was positive, it’s hard to explain why I decided to leave. In part, it was my increasing inability to pursue my creative passions and find the time to think and explore by myself beyond the boundaries of campus. Ultimately, it came down to some pull in my chest I couldn’t ignore, telling me to return home. So after just one year at the kind of school I had dreamed about for most of my life, I left.
I felt like I was in limbo that summer after my freshman year, uncertain of what I knew and what I was doing. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I felt like a little kid again, like the world a daunting and uncertain place. It was the first time in my life when I didn’t know how to begin, so I began as all children do: I began to walk.
First, I ventured out along the streets that veined through my town, walking, and then running, further each day, seeing the houses and trees and parks and neighborhoods in a new light. Behind the houses were hidden rivers that wound to the sea, and in the woods were unmarked trails and rusting cars. There were snakes by the train tracks and fields of flowers beneath the freeway. As the summer progressed I ran to new streets, other neighborhoods and neighboring towns, feeling a connection with my home becoming firmer with each footfall on cracked cement and uprooted earth.
I had always loved running, and had been on the varsity team at Andover, but running’s importance had always begun and ended with daily practices. Something changed that summer, though; every run became a time of reflection and creative inspiration, and the feeling that I got as I improved was a reaffirmation of my identity, a declaration of my willpower.
That fall, I ran varsity cross country for Waynflete School in Portland, and despite being the second fastest runner on the team, I didn’t run a single race faster than I had at Andover. However, running that summer had taught me about more than just racing or winning: it was therapy, it was meditation, and it was competition with myself, testing my endurance and dedication.
Then, during the endless Maine winter of my sophomore year, I slowly stopped running and walking altogether, and my inspiration and willpower faded. It wasn’t until the spring came that I remembered what had guided me almost a year before, and I began to run again.
As the days of summer spun by and the Maine earth began to cool in the fall of my junior year, I found myself the lead runner for Waynflete in a division of strong teams and even stronger individual runners. Although running still wasn’t just about racing to me, I felt as though I almost owed it to the sport to win, to do it justice for the gifts it had given me. It was that feeling, and my growing belief in myself, that pushed me to win the State Championship later that fall. Even though I felt honored, the title wasn’t what inspired me; instead, it was the knowledge that I could find my footing even after being lost, and that there are many paths through the woods to reach fulfillment and meaning.