Distant memories won't fade

Samuelson's legacy is intact as she nears competitive finish line

After striking gold, Joan Samuelson vowed 'to give something back to a sport which has given me so much.' After striking gold, Joan Samuelson vowed "to give something back to a sport which has given me so much." (Kevin R. Morris)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 13, 2008

FREEPORT, Maine - "Please excuse the mess," Joan Samuelson is saying as she opens the door to her house overlooking Maquoit Bay. "We're in between seasons." It's April Fools Day and there's still snow on the ground. A table in the living room is crammed with seed trays awaiting spring.

There is a seasonal rhythm to Samuelson's life up here, where sea and shore meet, and a rhythm to her running career, which takes her back to Boston and the place Joan Benoit made her first indelible footprint 29 years ago this week.

"The thought was that I'd end my career where I started my career," says the 50-year-old Samuelson, who'll take the line on Boylston Street a week from today for the Olympic marathon trials for this summer's Games in Beijing.

It will be her last competitive 26-miler after nearly three decades that have produced an Olympic gold medal, an astounding world record, an American mark that stood for 18 years, two extraordinary Boston victories, and the "Joanie Generation" of runners who still bump elbows with her.

All of it began here in 1979 when Samuelson was an unknown face in a Bowdoin singlet, a college senior who had run a marathon in Bermuda as an extended workout and thought it might be fun to take a shot at Boston.

She'd never seen the course and knew nothing about pacing. Samuelson just took off in Hopkinton and ended up outrunning everybody.

"I remember passing Patti Catalano, who was the favorite, and I asked the gentleman next to me where the Heartbreak Hills started," she remembers. "And he looked at me like I was crazy and told me that I'd already passed them."

Samuelson, wearing a Red Sox cap handed her by a spectator, crossed the line at the Pru in 2 hours 35 minutes 15 seconds, chopping 69 seconds off Julie Brown's American standard, and found herself, to her surprise and dismay, an instant celebrity.

"I wasn't ready for the press and public life that all of a sudden became real," she says.

Samuelson had been an accidental runner, taking up the sport after breaking a leg skiing. She'd played field hockey at Bowdoin and ran for North Carolina State as an exchange student until her alma mater started a track team.

Now, one afternoon had changed her life, and she wasn't sure she was ready for what was in store.

"After a while, I realized that I could mature a bit more and handle it," Samuelson says. "So I just ran with reckless abandon after that."

The road to Olympus

That approach was certainly in evidence at Boston 25 years ago, when Samuelson took off on what still is known as "Joanie's Run" - her mad dash that stripped nearly three minutes off the world record of 2:25:29. Allison Roe, who dropped out that day, had set the mark and Grete Waitz had equaled it the day before in London.

All Samuelson wanted to do was get an Olympic qualifying mark, maybe something under 2:24. She hadn't planned on running the first 10 miles in a breathtaking 51:38.

"There are days when you are on and days when you're not, and I've had both," Samuelson observes. "I was on that day."

By Wellesley, she'd left all of the women and many of the low-numbered men behind. "Lady, you better watch it," they cautioned her, convinced she'd blow up before the Newton hills. It wasn't until she neared the finish and heard announcer (now Boston Athletic Association president) Tom Grilk shouting about "a ridiculous time" that Samuelson realized what she'd been up to.

"I thought I heard him correctly, but I wasn't sure," she says. "Then I said, 'Whoa.' "

Her time - 2:22:43, still the fourth fastest on the course - would have won 10 of the Boston men's races since World War II. More pointedly, it made Samuelson the favorite for the inaugural Olympic marathon in Los Angeles the following year and dropped her into a pressure chamber.

"I realized as early as that fall when I went to an event out there and somebody drove me past a big mural that Nike had painted on one of the buildings," Samuelson says. "And I thought, oh, boy, if they're putting this much faith in me, I'd better perform."

Yet until a few days before the May trials in Olympia, Wash., Samuelson wasn't sure she'd even make it to the line. Her right knee had flared up while training during the spring and she'd had microscopic surgery in late April. Could she get back into form in less than three weeks?

"The week before the trials, there was a meet at Hayward Field [at the University of Oregon] and I could barely climb into the stands to watch," Samuelson recalls. "At that point, it wasn't the knee. It was the opposing hamstring, because when I started back, I was favoring it."

She'd called her fiance, Scott, and two of her brothers and told them not to bother coming, "because it was probably not going to happen." Prospects changed, though, after Samuelson went for an extended run with Australian rival Lisa Martin.

"I told her, 'If I can run 17 miles with you, then I'll go,' " she says. "Who in their right mind would run a long run four days before?"

Yet Samuelson didn't want to have the first Olympic women's marathon happen without her.

"I thought if I could be clever enough and get to the trials and qualify, then all my competitors would think I meant business," she says.

So Samuelson went out briskly and was running alone after a dozen miles. With 4 to go, her lead was more than a minute, yet she kept pushing, even as she felt herself running low on gas.

"I felt that if one runner came on me, they'd all come," Samuelson says.

Third place would have been enough to make the team but Samuelson finished first, 37 seconds ahead of Brown - then burst into tears.

"I tell people that the race of my life was the Olympic trials," she says. "The biggest win of my life was the Olympic marathon."

'It was destiny'

All Samuelson wanted to do in Los Angeles was win a medal. There was Waitz, the co-favorite, and Norwegian countrywoman Ingrid Kristiansen. Portugal's Rosa Mota, who would win in Seoul four years later. New Zealand's Lorraine Moller, who'd won Boston that year. Great Britain's Priscilla Welch. Martin.

Who knew anything about this race? There'd never been an Olympic event for women longer than the metric mile. They were competing in 80-degree heat along boulevards and freeways. What would a smart strategy be? A foolish one? The day before, Waitz had complained about back spasms. "Boy, she might be vulnerable," Samuelson thought. "If not physically, psychologically."

So Samuelson did what she always did. She just ran - and had run away from everybody after 6 miles.

"It was destiny," says Bill Rodgers, the former Olympic marathoner who was working for ABC that day. "Joan was on a mission and nothing was going to stop her. It was meant to be. It had to be Joan."

The image, shot from a helicopter, endures: Samuelson, wearing a white painter's cap backward, pounding away by herself along a deserted roadway.

"As I came into the Coliseum tunnel and I realized I was a considerable distance ahead of the pack, I thought, 'Are you ready to come out on the other side?' " Samuelson recalls. "That's when I started to feel the goose bumps. I decided that I was, based on how much I'd matured from the time I'd won my first Boston to that point."

Samuelson's win, by nearly a minute and a half over Waitz in 2:24:52, a world mark for a female-only race, was one of the signature moments of the Games.

"The first thing I said to my family and friends who gathered around me was, 'Don't let this moment in time change the person I am today,' " she recalls. "And they've kept me honest, for the most part."

Samuelson could have cashed in, could have ended up on a Wheaties box like fellow heroine Mary Lou Retton.

"I think I was a bit naive and didn't play my cards exactly right, but I have no regrets," she says. "I didn't want to go after every endorsement that came. I was very careful. If I didn't use the product or believe in it, I wouldn't endorse it."

There was a more immediate, more fulfilling priority - a September marriage to Scott, who was starting graduate school at Babson, and a move to Needham. "It was a crazy time in our lives," she says.

He was studying, she was still running, in the prime of her career at 28. A year later, Samuelson hooked up again with Kristiansen and Mota in Chicago, hoping for another world mark on the city's flat streets.

"That's the one time I wish I'd looked at a marathon course before running," says Samuelson, who still set an American record (2:21:21) and won going away. "I'm kicking myself for that."

That was her best chance, she muses, to break 2:20, which was Samuelson's last big goal. She had set a world record, and no matter how many Olympic gold medals she won, nothing could top the first.

"So it was, 'OK, now what?' " she says. "It took me a while to focus. I was sort of adrift in my own sport for a while."

Once daughter Abigail arrived in 1987, Samuelson found herself searching for balance. Could she be both a mother and an elite runner?

"I refer to my life as 'B.C.' and 'A.D.,' " she jokes. "Before Children and After Diapers." Then son Anders arrived in 1990, and the calculus became more complex. "My running wasn't going well because I was focused on the family," Samuelson says. "It just didn't settle well with me."

One moment in the garden, she says, changed everything. Abby, still a toddler, had asked Samuelson to watch her dolls in their carriage while she took care of errands, mimicking the mothers she'd overheard in play group.

"Abby came back and said, 'Mom, I've decided not to run anymore,' " she recalls. "I had my back to her and I'll never forget this moment, because I knew what she was going to say next. She was going to say, 'All this takes too much time away from my babies.' If she had said that, I would have ended my career right then and there.

"But she said, 'Mom, I don't know if I told you this, but I'm nursing my babies and my boobs are killing me.' I just thought, whew. It was such a sense of relief. It was a watershed moment. That's when I started to make changes. I thought, I can do both of these things."

Special commitment

And so Samuelson has, living a satisfying family life near where she grew up while lacing up both for competition and charity.

"Joan has done a superb job of keeping body and mind and soul together for so many years," says Rodgers. "She picks her races carefully and intelligently."

Most times, she'll also give a talk, conduct a seminar, visit a school. It's part of what Samuelson committed herself to doing when she emerged from the Coliseum tunnel: "To give something back to a sport which has given me so much."

The best thing about the gold medal, she says, is that it helped her establish her dream race, the annual TD Banknorth Beach to Beacon jaunt, which immediately became a favorite on the summer road circuit and which benefits children's charities.

"I used to pound the pavement in Cape Elizabeth and I always thought those were some of the most beautiful roads anywhere," Samuelson says. "I had this idea way back when that someday it would be nice to bring a world-class event here."

These are the roads that led her to Boston, the roads she's using again to prepare for the trials. It has, she says, been a challenge. Niggling compensatory injuries have bollixed training. The bridge that she crosses during training loops was taken down. The winter weather turned the roads into slip-'n'-slide strips.

"It's been more hazardous for me running this year than it has skiing," Samuelson says.

But, just as she was 24 years ago, Samuelson is determined to get to the starting line and have a fourth and final crack at Olympus. She has no illusions about making the three-woman team.

"To run a 2:50 at the age of 50 would be a good goal to shoot for," says Samuelson, who is the second-oldest woman (after 53-year-old Marion "The Flying Nun" Irvine in 1984) to qualify for a trials.

The woman who never has run a marathon in over three hours and never dropped out of a footrace is determined to go the distance one last time. Then, it's back to Maine, where Abby is a sophomore at Bates and Anders will be a freshman at Bowdoin in the fall.

Empty nest looms, and Samuelson is pondering the next season of her life while addressing the present one. If this is April, her rhythms tell her, she has to get the spinach and peas in before she goes to Boston.

John Powers can be reached at

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