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Interviews, marathon

Joan Benoit Samuelson: A Marathon Legend Speaks

By Alix J. Shutello       

immediately recognized Joan Benoit Samuelson when she walked through the door at the Potomac River  Running Store in Reston, VA yesterday. A small crowd of 20 or so came to the running store on a Friday evening to see this epic runner speak about her life, the Olympics that made her famous, family life, and how she trains now that she’s getting older.       

Samuelson spoke quietly but as someone who’s spoken a thousand times before. Seasoned by giving regular addresses to corporations, civic groups, schools, and athletes, she was humbled that people took the time to see her.     

Joan wins gold in 1984, Courtesy of IAAF


She broke the ice by talking about the Beach to Beacon (now the TD Banknorth 10K), race she founded when she noticed a woman in the crowd last night who was wearing a race t-shirt. She went from that to talking about the race that would make her famous; referring to the infamous tunnel she had to run through on her way to women’s Olympic gold in Los Angeles in 1984.       

“I didn’t think there’d be anyone on the other side of the tunnel,” she reminisced. “It wasn’t until I neared the other side that I could hear the roar of the crowd.”   
 This small, petit, runner who cannot weigh more than 100 pounds is amazing in her own right. Even in her 50’s Samuelson still maintains a racing record to be envied.  Samuelson sprung into the limelight right before Title Nine[1] went into effect and showed women that we can be contenders in the marathon. She started her career by mistake really; sidelined by a skiing accident Samuelson took to running for rehabilitation. Soon she joined the track and field team in high school and then right before graduating from college in 1979, she won the Boston Marathon. The rest, they say, is history. 

 Environmental Sustainability/Obesity      

Joan signs autographs


Wearing her Nike Pegasus sneakers as her environmental statement, Samuelson expressed an appreciation for the environment. “I understand how the whole thing works now,” she mused as she explained how the only thing between the environment is a runner and their shoes. Recently, Samuelson has taken on the cause of childhood obesity but ties how we eat to the environmental impact it causes. Over the years, Samuelson has preferred to train outside and, coming from a state as beautiful as Maine, she has an appreciation for the great outdoors and what it provides for us. Now, Samuelson is speaking out to keep the natural environment and hopes that by making children more fit they are enhancing their lives; appreciating the outdoors, and not eating up so many resources.       

Training Now   

When asked about whether she’s changed her training regimen as she’s gotten older, Samuelson is quick to state that age doesn’t really have much to do with curbing her exercise habits. Having her two children, Abby and Anders, is what changed her life. “I just didn’t have the energy,” she said when describing her life B.C. and A.D. (before children and after diapers). She went from an habitual two runs a day down to one after her kids came along.  After that point she changed her schedule and worked her runs around her day instead of the other way around.       

Samuelson doesn’t weight train or use treadmills. “I’d rather be out in nature,” she said .”I gave my treadmill to the neighbor,” she mentioned, when asked about where and how she trains. Samuelson has always preferred to run outside on the roads. Only recently has she incorporated a little yoga but stretching has never been a big thing for her and neither has weights or any other traditional weight exercises. “I really need to work on my core,” she said. “I see my son out there working on his core.”  Joan pats her left hamstring claiming it,s been a little sore as of late and that maybe the core work would help. In a 2009 interview with Runner’s World, Samuelson mentioned the hamstring issue happened after she gave birth; so in essence, she’s had this problem for over 20 years.       

“My daughter is my coach,” Samuelson mentioned. But in reality Samuelson doesn’t use a coach. She trains according to how she feels and prefers to run alone. Samuelson claims she isn’t fast; but worries that training on a track could cause an injury. “I should go on the track,” she said, “but I’m probably not going to.”       

It brought a smile to my face to see someone so at peace at going at it alone. While she incorporates some mental work into her training she never checks out a course she going to run beforehand, claiming she’ll run faster if she doesn’t know what to expect. That has back fired for her, however, and she’s lost opportunities to PR in her age group because she was unsure where the finish line was. All in all though, Samuelson doesn’t care. She’s got her method of doing things and after 30 years of running at the top of her field, it’s doubtful she’ll change her habits now.       

Current Goals       

“You always have to have goals,” she said. And Samuelson does.   

Last year, at 52, Samuelson finished  the NYC Marathon in 2 hours, 49 minutes, 9 seconds  smashing the record in the 50-plus division of 2:53:53 set by S. Rae Baymiller in 1993.  When she turned 50 she hiked to the top of Kilimanjaro and has continued to set her sites on other things (she’s a master gardener) and other races; like the Ironman.       

Samuelson mentioned that with the recent downturn of the economy road race registration is through the roof and more and more people are out there running. “It’s a true testament to the sport,” she said.     And she is hopeful that through her training and mentoring programs she will help quell obesity through the sport of running.   

Tomorrow Samuelson toes the line of the Cherry Blossom 10-miler and hopes to acheive another goal; to win in the 50-plus age group. Then, she’s off to run a series of races for the next four weekends. In the middle of all the traveling she will come back down to D.C. for Earth Day.    She wants to break the half marathon record in the 50-plus category. She only needs to improve her time by about a minute.   


[1]Title Nine, signed into law on June 23, 1972, allowed women to take part in sport; The law states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”       

Samuelson has also authored two books, her autobiography Running Tide (Knopf, 1987), and Joan Samuelson’s Running for Women (Rodale Press, 1995).   



4 thoughts on “Joan Benoit Samuelson: A Marathon Legend Speaks

  1. What an inspiration. Thank you for taking the time to share Joan’s story.

    Posted by Alison @ finnyfinds | April 11, 2010, 1:33 am
  2. What an awesome post! Maybe I love it so much because much of my attitude towards training is similar. I hope I’m so spry at 50!

    Posted by Katie | April 13, 2010, 6:57 pm
  3. This is amazing! I was 12 years old in 1984 and remember watching as Joan won the Olympic marathon. I’ve never forgotten that moment! I’m running my first marathon this year and think of Joan’s Olympic win all the time!

    Posted by Karen | September 10, 2010, 5:18 pm

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