The trailblazing Olympic gold medallist still breaking boundaries in her 60s

Joan Benoit wins the 1984 Olympic marathon
Joan Benoit wins the 1984 Olympic marathon
London Marathon TV programmes
Sat 25 April: BBC One 13: 15-13: 45 BST – Kipchoge: My sub two-hour marathon
Sun 26 April: BBC One 14: 00-14: 45 BST – 1981 London Marathon: Historical first
Sun 26 April: BBC Sport website 10: 00-13: 00 – Your marathon day stories live text

You can’t be what you can’t see, and Joan Benoit Samuelson was determined she wouldn’t be seen.

Fort Williams was the perfect hideout. A decade before its guns had stared out into the shining Atlantic, protecting Maine and the north-east US coast from unknown foe.

Now, in the early 1970s, it was where the 15-year-old went to push her own boundaries, running faster and further around the abandoned army base, undetected and undeterred.

“This was a time when there really weren’t a lot of runners period, let alone a lot of woman runners,” Benoit Samuelson told BBC Sport.

“Back then sport was seen as more of a male-dominated sector of society. I would hide out there and do my running alone because I was trying to shed my tomboy image I had.”

As she jogged back home, Benoit Samuelson would self-consciously slow to a walk if a car appeared on the quiet coastal roads around her home town of Cape Elizabeth.

Her love of sport came from more than 3,000 miles away in the Italian Alps. Her father had been part of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division during the Second World War – a specialist unit trained for combat in Arctic and high-altitude theatres and deployed in 1944 to help end German occupation.

He brought home a love of skiing and Joan’s dreams were initially of racing downhill rather than on a road or track. It was only when she broke her leg as a teenager that she took up running as part of her rehabilitation.

The simplicity of pulling on trainers and heading out the door immediately appealed to her. The lower cost appealed to her parents. And, after a childhood spent knocking around as an only daughter with three sporty brothers, she was good at it.

What she lacked was the final nudge of confidence to take on the world.

“All of a sudden one day, I saw another woman running – she was a coxswain for Princeton – and I thought to myself, ‘well, if she can get out there and run so can I’ and then I just sort of threw it all to the wind and started running on public roads,” remembers Benoit Samuelson.

“I am still out there today.”

Now 62, she estimates that she has done 150,000 miles in that time. On her way she has passed plenty of landmarks; the first woman to win Olympic marathon gold, a former world record holder, a three-time Boston champion. This Sunday, had the London Marathon taken place, would have been another – running a marathon in a sixth consecutive decade.

Her first was in Boston in 1979, aged 22. Twelve years previously Kathrine Switzer had famously resisted organisers’ attemptsexternal-link to physically throw her out of the race and become the first woman to officially complete it.

But Benoit Samuelson was only vaguely aware of the episode. She had been focused on skiing and then shorter distances after switching to running.

At the time running a marathon was something of a curiosity. Opposition on misguided medical grounds and the claim that female distance running was too much of a niche interest had kept the longest race for women at Olympic level to only 1500m.

So why step up to 26.2 miles?

“Well it was out there,” said Benoit Samuelson.

“Even though I was still in college it seemed like the next logical step, even though it probably wasn’t!”

Joan Benoit after winning the 1979 Boston Marathon,
Joan Benoit after winning the 1979 Boston Marathon

She ran Boston “sight unseen” and with “reckless abandon”. Wearing a college vest and a Boston Red Sox cap, she won by a distance, setting a new American record.

As she zeroed in on the Los Angeles 1984 and the first women’s Olympic marathon she was almost derailed by injury, only to win the US trials just 17 days after undergoing keyhole knee surgery.

“I took every step not knowing if there would be another,” she remembers.

Finally on 5 August, she arrived safely on the Olympic startline. From Fort Williams, hidden from even a casual passer-by, she now was the focus of a nation’s hopes.

Twenty-six miles up the road, adjacent to the Coliseum and the finish line, a mural had been painted of her world-record setting Boston Marathon win the previous year.

If she was to claim another victory, she would have to beat Norway’s Grete Waitz, who had won five of the previous six New York marathons.

Benoit Samuelson didn’t just beat Waitz, she trounced her with a daring, devastating display of solo front-running, taking the pace on after just three miles and leaving the field behind. The expected duel on the baking concrete of LA’s streets never really emerged.

“I was approaching the first water station and realised I was not running efficiently,” she remembers. “I was doing everything I tell myself not to do and I just said, it may be the Olympic marathon but I have got to run my own race.

“The commentators were apparently astounded by what I had done as I broke away and thought I had made a big mistake.”

Instead she reached the Coliseum in glorious isolation, crossing the line almost a minute and a half ahead of Waitz, with Switzer calling her home as a commentator on ABC’s television coverage.

“I don’t say this in a cocky way, but I have run much more difficult marathons. I felt pretty good the entire way. It was hard for me to comprehend that this is the Olympic marathon and you are not being challenged by it,” said Benoit Samuelson.

As she went on her victory lap of the Coliseum, Benoit Samuelson’s mother was in the one of the foremost rows.

“The first thing she said to me was ‘now can you quit?’,” remembers Benoit Samuelson.

“I just looked at her like ‘what do you mean?’ I still had goals.”

It was not just her mother who seemed to think sport was something that Benoit, then 27, might consign to her past.

The final line of the New York Times report on her winexternal-link notes that “in the near future her challenge will be marriage”, referencing her wedding planned for the following month.

Neither her mother’s wishes nor her own nuptials have interrupted Benoit Samuelson’s running.

The goals have kept coming. She chased, in vain, a sub two hours 20 minutes marathon in her prime. Now, in her later years, she runs to satisfy the narrative arcs her previous achievements have set in motion.

She was going to run her last marathon in Boston in 2008, after achieving a sub 2: 50 time at 50 plus. But then the 25th anniversary of her Olympic win coincided with the 40th running of the New York Marathon, so she was persuaded to run the Big Apple in 2009.

Then in 2010, Chicago was a chance to mark the 25th anniversary of her fastest time in the city. Of course, she couldn’t turn down a opportunity to mark the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon in Athens in that year either…

Whenever one race ends there is always another landmark on the horizon.

“If I can tell a story by running an event, a marathon especially, then that’s enough excitement for me to gear up,” she says.

Benoit Samuelson (left) greets a runner at the finish of the 2018 Beach to Beacon 10km in Maine
Benoit Samuelson (left) greets a runner at the finish of the 2018 Beach to Beacon 10km in Maine

And the single strand that runs through Benoit Samuelson’s lifetime is of another long distance covered, as women, once barred from marathon, make 26.2 their own.

“Oh, I mean, there’s so many more women out there running. You know, the marathon is really a metaphor for life. And I think people understand that even more so once they experience it,” she said.

“You never know what’s around the next bend. Are you gonna hit the wall? Are you gonna feel good the entire way? Are you gonna have, you know, miles that are really taxing and challenging?

“Either way, each runner dictates their own course of action among a much larger population all seeking the same goal. It is such an individual, but collective event.”

What is Benoit’s own course of action?

Her mother died last October in her 90s having heard Benoit promise that outings in Tokyo and London would be her last marathons. She was unable to race the first because of coronavirus, but still plans to line up for London’s revised date of 4 October.

“I don’t know what I am going to do,” she concludes. “I want to be able to run 5km and 10kms for years into the future. I don’t want to run my last mile training for or running a marathon.”

Benoit Samuelson now has her own 10km. Each August, more than 6,000 runners compete in the Beach to Beacon 10kmexternal-link that she has organised each year since 1998. The finish is at Fort Williams, bringing masses to the same roads she trained on alone as a teenager in the 1970s.

When that final mile does come, it would be difficult to find a more fitting setting for it.

Benoit Samuelson was speaking before the postponement of the London Marathon. She is currently training in Maine and is hopeful of attending the rearranged race on Sunday, 4 October.

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