At the 2019 Boston Marathon, 62-year-old Joan Benoit Samuelson—affectionately called Joanie—ran a time of 3:05.18, thus fulfilling her ambitious pursuit of finishing within 40 minutes of the 1979 race that she won. With a Boston Red Sox hat turned backwards and a Bowdoin College singlet, she ran a then-course record of 2:35.15.
Of course, the legend of Joan Benoit Samuelson was most mythically established at her all-conquering victory at the 1984 Women’s Olympic Marathon. In that race, she had made an audacious early move to the front and held on to win ahead of Norway’s Greta Waiz and Portugal’s Rosa Mota to become the first women’s Olympic Marathon champion.
Despite this, Samuelson has inevitably followed the ebb and flow career of a long distance runner, and with the highest highs, she has also struggled with the lowest lows of injury and, much less heralded periods of competition between her storied victories.
“I do less mileage,” said Samuelson, speaking on how the narrative of her training has changed with age, “I make the mileage count, cross- train, and make sure I live a balanced life.”
Perhaps the allure of Joan Benoit Samuelson is in the willing humility with which she approaches getting older. She’s cognizant indeed of changes physiologically and psychologically over time, but most importantly, of just adapting to changes in one’s life. The enumeration of joy and burden that inevitably happens as one ages.
“I refer to it as BC and AD,” Samuelson said, looking back at the phases of her career. She chuckles. “Before children and after diapers.”
“BC meant I planned my day around running. AD means I plan running around my day.”
The BC to the AD.
“Everything in moderation,” said Samuelson.
“There’s a change in character. Running, and then there’s family and a balance of mind, body, and spirit.”
“It’s very difficult, but I do the workouts without fail. I do what I can fit in. I don’t do speedwork on the track because the turns aggravate any injuries of the aging athlete. Instead, I try to beat cars to certain points.”
There’s an inherent rebellion in the way Samuelson runs. She’s not going to call it as such as she speaks on life and success from the perspective of a reluctant hero. Being in the Olympic Trials conversation into your 50s and talking about running a marathon in under three hours at 60 years old, however, does read off as acts of defiance against accepting one’s age—leveraging age as an excuse.
“I know I’m racing against myself now,” said Samuelson on her changing perspective on competition. “I just create storytelling around the race, and that’s what keeps me going.”
After injuring her knee on a long run 20 days ahead of the 1984 United States Olympic Trials, Samuelson had to get arthroscopic knee surgery. Despite the proximity of surgery to the race, Samuelson was able to recover and bounce back faster than planned to win the trials overall and earn her spot on that historic women’s marathon team.
Samuelson approaches her running and training with a distinct flow, which isn’t necessarily according to any specific plan. She talks about listening to her body as the only gauge of how the run will be that day.
“I believe in strength, character, and fitness, but also being comfortable. An athlete, or anybody in any sector, needs to be comfortable,” said Samuelson. That environment for me is in Maine.”
She has maintained a proud connection to her home state of Maine and to her community. In 1998, she founded the Beach to Beacon 10K in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth.; Iit’s a race rooted in tradition as school buses take you to the start of the race at Crescent Beach State Park to Fort Williams Park and the famous Portland Head Light. Over the years, the race has attracted elite runners from all over the world.
Perennially in service to the sport that has given her so much, Samuelson wants people to run regardless of the distance.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on the marathon,” said Samuelson.”You don’t have to run a marathon to be a marathoner. You can run a 10k, 15k, or half-marathon.”
With the Boston Marathon planned for 2020, Joan Benoit Samuelson will start her sixth decade of running the marathon. She has eschewed the trappings of the aging elite athlete to continue pushing herself and the sport forward.
Instead of yielding to getting older, she embraced it and found ways to keep flourishing.
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