U.S. record, Olympic gold just part of what defines Joan Benoit Samuelson
Editor's note: Since this writing, Joan Benoit Samuelson has announced that illness will prevent her from attempting to come within 30 minutes of her American women's marathon record at this year's Chicago Marathon and might prevent her from running the race at all.
On Oct. 20, 1985, Joan Benoit Samuelson outpaced a terrific field at the Chicago Marathon to run the best time of her life.
The 1984 Olympic champion set an American record of 2 hours, 21 minutes, 21 seconds that day to beat reigning world-record holder Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway and Rosa Mota of Portugal, who would go on to win Olympic gold in 1988.
Now, 30 years later, Samuelson will run the race again with a new goal. In the Bank of America Chicago Marathon on Oct. 11, the 58-year-old Samuelson will try to come within 30 minutes of that '85 mark.
It would be just one more accomplishment for the United States' most acclaimed female distance runner. The two-time Boston Marathon champion, former world-record holder, and winner of the first Olympic marathon for women, in Los Angeles in 1984, keeps finding new and creative ways to motivate herself.
In April at Boston, she ran 2:54:03, so she's certainly capable of reaching her goal in a race that will feature another icon of American running, Deena Kastor. Kastor, 42, holds the current women's U.S. marathon record of 2:19:36 and will try to break the American masters marathon best of 2:28:40.
These days, Samuelson enjoys gardening, kayaking, cycling, hiking and cross-country skiing in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where she lives with her husband, Scott. She strives to live a balanced life, focusing on healthy food, her family and causes such as the environment and fitness for better health. Their two children (also marathoners) are grown, and as she approaches 60 she can reflect on a career that began with her Boston Marathon victory of 1979.
Some times it seems as if it was light-years away, she says of that era. Other times it seems as if it was just yesterday.
Recently, Samuelson talked about her goal in Chicago this year, her 1985 race, her achievements and how long she plans to continue running marathons.
How did this upcoming attempt in Chicago come about?
Well, for me it's all about the story. I use storytelling to motivate myself to get out there and train, and that seemed like the logical story this year for Chicago. You know, in my last Chicago outing, it was 2010, so it was the 25th anniversary of my fastest time, and I wanted to run under three hours and I did so. I think I ran a 2:49 in heat (actually 2:47:50) and the date was 10/10/10, so I couldn't pass up those numbers. And then last year in Boston, 2014, it was the 30th anniversary of the Olympics, so I said to our children, "How about we try to run within 30 minutes of each other?"
Boston in 2008 was going to be my last competitive marathon. I'd started my career with the Boston Marathon in 1979 and I thought it appropriate to end it with an Olympic trial, but then the storytelling came about. I guess I'll blame Mary Wittenberg (former president and CEO of the New York Road Runners), or give Mary the credit, because she asked me the year after the 2008 trials if I would come to New York to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the New York City Marathon, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of my Olympic win, so that's how this all came about. If there's a story to tell, I try to go out and tell it.
You can always come up with new stories, right?
That's right. You know, it was Nike that put the carrot out there when they ran a campaign, "There is no finish line," with me almost, well, 25 years ago, when our son was an infant. I didn't understand truly what "There is no finish line" meant, but now I'm living that adage.
What do you remember about the 1985 Chicago Marathon?
Well, Ingrid Kristiansen and Rosa Mota were both in the race. Ingrid was fourth in the Olympic Marathon in L.A. and Rosa was third, so it was a highly competitive field, and Ingrid had set the new world mark that spring in London. She'd run a 2:21:06. I usually run for time, but that particular year and that particular race I wanted to beat Ingrid and I was thinking more about Ingrid than I was about Rosa. But in hindsight, I probably should have been worried as much about Rosa if not more so because, as you know, she came on and won the gold in Seoul.
And we ran stride for stride through the halfway mark and then she [Kristiansen] fell off the pace and I continued to run on my own and ran with a little bit in reserve, thinking that Ingrid would come back or Rosa would come up from behind. Then, all of a sudden, there was the finish line. And I'm notorious for not looking at marathon courses, especially before I run the actual course. That's the one time I wish I had seen the course, because if I ever was going to run a sub-2:20, that would have been the time, and that eluded me during my career.
To run within 30 minutes of that time would be awesome, but I would like to keep it under three hours if I can.
Is your training going well? Are you confident you can come within 30 minutes of your 1985 time?
My training's going well, but I've got a few little issues going on. One is with the piriformis [a condition in which the piriformis, a muscle near the top of the hip, irritates the sciatic nerve). As I said, I've been training really hard, so hopefully I can pull back now a little bit and keep everything in check and stay healthy. You never know in a marathon until the gun goes off.
When you were winning and setting records in the 1980s, did you have any idea you would still be running races in 2015?
No, no, I really didn't. We have two children; my husband, Scott, has been very supportive of all of us. He runs recreationally, but he really supports our running, and the children (both marathoners) are out of the nest now. It's just really a neat thing to be able to run with the kids. They played a variety of sports and still do, but they both enjoy marathoning, and I never thought I'd be in the game long enough, I never thought I'd have two children who were passionate about running, and I never thought I'd be in the game long enough to run with them.
Why do you keep running these big events? What's the draw?
I'm very close to the marathon community. I mean, I keep tabs on the young up-and-coming American runners and, you know, they inspire me. It's a two-way road. They tell me they were inspired by me when they were younger, and now I'm able to tell them that they keep me inspired as I age. That's really what's so great about our sport. We can set goals throughout the ages, whether you're going after age-group records or whether you're just trying to run your first marathon at the age of 50. Whatever it is, we all have different goals but we all share similar passions. In a way, we all want to tell our stories.
What's the reason for your health and longevity in running?
Well, a lot of people ask me that question, and I think it's living as balanced a life as I possibly can. Obviously, running is very much a part of my life, but it's not my only life. And so I transition from running to my community endeavors or travel, and I founded the TD Beach to Beacon 10K in my hometown of Cape Elizabeth, and that brings some of the best runners in the world to some of my favorite training grounds. So, I'm just very, very involved.
I guess my mission now is building awareness for the fact that fitness is [important]. I guess the best way to say it is, prevention is to health what conservation is to the environment. The two are inextricably linked, and I'm very concerned about environmental issues, especially as runner. I'm very much like a human barometer when it comes to climate change, and I can detect different levels of ozone in the air and I see what effects erosion and nitrogen have on our oceans and our lakes. So it's a passion of mine.
Did you have a chance to savor all those successes in the 1980s, or were you too busy going from event to event?
I guess I was very much going from event to event. I never rested on my laurels, so to speak. I always had a goal. I always had a mission. I always had a desire. There was no finish line. I kept moving from the finish line to the next starting line.
Does the Olympic gold medal in 1984 rank above all other accomplishments, or is there something else you cherish more?
Well, certainly the Olympics was my biggest win. My first Boston was very special. I wore a Bowdoin [College] singlet in that  race. And you know I think the  Olympic trials was the race of my life because on paper I never should have been able to make the Olympic team having had the arthroscopic knee surgery 17 days before. That's the one time when I really questioned myself, but I believed that there wasn't anybody out there training any harder than I was ... and I ran with true heart.
So the first Boston and the Olympics and the trials, and certainly Chicago in '85 was a big win with Ingrid and Rosa in the field. And then in 2012, the year before the tragedy in Boston, I ran step for step with our daughter [Abby], and that was pretty cool. I've got four or five that rank right up there, all for different reasons. All for very special reasons.
You say age 60 might be your finish line. Do you have things you want to accomplish between now and then?
Well I'm not that far away! I'm 58-plus. In my 60th year, I'd love to run a sub-three-hour marathon and then I'll see what's next, if anything, in road racing. I'll always be involved with marathoning, just because it's been sort of a defining part of my life.
Are you excited about trying to achieve your goal in Chicago, or are you starting to worry about it as the race approaches?
Yeah, I must confess I'm starting to worry about it because I've been training really, really hard, and, as I said earlier, it's a fine line and I'm just hoping I haven't stepped over it. I'm not very good at tapering, but I really need to pull back and rest more than I normally rest. So we'll see. You never know.