Joan Benoit Samuelson: Well, a walk for me is really downtime, and I know that when I go for a walk with friends, I’m sometimes slowing them down because I… I tend to walk slowly. And I don’t know if it’s because I’m taking everything in or because I do so much running that it’s nice to change the speed by a huge measure.
And it’s my opportunity to commune with nature. It’s my opportunity to prioritize the things in my life or my day or my week that are important to me. I like to be one with the environment in which I live and love.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos and songs that have influenced their lives.
As part of a series on world-class athletes, this episode features Olympic gold medalist and marathon legend Joan Benoit Samuelson. She won the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon in 1984 and has won several major marathons. Joan is the only woman to have run a sub-three-hour marathon in five different decades. On this walk, she shares how it felt to make history and what inspires her to keep running.
Joan Benoit Samuelson: Right now we’re walking on a path in Fort Williams, which sits on the proverbial rockbound coast of Maine here in my hometown of Cape Elizabeth. We’re not far from Portland Head Light, which was the first lighthouse commissioned by George Washington. But this is also the road, or what remains of a road that leads to the finish line of the TD Beach to Beacon 10k, which is the race I founded 23 years ago. As a matter of fact, Fort Williams is where I did my first running because I grew up less than a half mile from the gates leading into the fort. So, when I come back to Fort Williams, it’s almost like coming home.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
I grew up here in in a neighborhood full of boys and was a tomboy. Because I was so active as a young girl, I played about every sport that was available to me. Primarily, it was tennis and skiing in the winter. And that was pretty much it outside the games we played in the neighborhood with all the boys.
But, in my sophomore year of high school, I broke my leg and started to run as a form of rehab when the cast came off. I would come here to Fort Williams because they didn’t allow any vehicular traffic, and I found comfort within the gates of Fort Williams where there were very few pedestrians.
You have to remember that, when I was a young teenager, not only weren’t there a lot of girls and women out there doing exercise in public, there certainly weren’t any other female runners that I knew of.
But I didn’t really want to be seen running on the roads. It was okay to run on the high school track, but it wasn’t okay, in my mind, for me to be seen running out on the public roads. So, in order to get from our home to the fort, I would walk, and then when I arrived inside the fort gates, I’d run to my heart’s content because nobody would see me. I was sort of hiding out in the fort and doing what I loved to do. And I guess it was back then that I realized I loved to run, and maybe I had some talent, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities for female runners.
But then, one day when I was exiting the fort, I saw a college student who happened to be a coxswain for a crewing team, and she was out running to keep weight. And to me, that said it’s okay for girls and young women to exercise in public places. And I thought, “Well, if she can get out there and run, so can I.” And that’s when I just forgot about the embarrassment and just listened to my heart and would run outside the gates and challenge myself. And I set my ambitions and goals on longer and faster races.
This running thing just sort of developed organically. I was doing it because I was passionate about about running. And it made me, most importantly, feel good about myself. And, at that time and age, you know, self-esteem becomes an issue, and I was always a very shy person. And I never liked speaking in public. And I started to think, “Well, I’ll let my running do my speaking, and I’ll just run and follow my heart and do what I absolutely love to do.” And then, with the running came a little more self-confidence.
It’s been said that I was a role model for a lot of young girls and women. But full disclosure, I really didn’t care whatever other people thought about my running. My running was what I loved to do. and it made me, most importantly, feel good about myself.
So what I would suggest to young people who are struggling with self-esteem and self-identity, is to find your passion. You need to find your passion if you’re going to have success in life. And a passion could be anything to anybody. There are no two people who are alike, and that’s becoming more and more evident to me as I watch our children grow and now a granddaughter. And I’ve told our kids all during their upbringing that you need to find your passion and you need to chart your own course, and we will support you, and it’s okay to fail, and it’s okay to try something and decide you don’t like it. So that’s why I encourage young people all the time to follow your heart and live your dreams because it can happen as long as you’re passionate.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
Up until the ‘80 Olympics, the longest distance a woman could run was the 1500 meters because it was thought that if a woman ran over a mile, she would do bodily harm and never bear children. But I loved distance. The longer the distance, the longer the training run, the happier I was. And I continued to challenge myself with longer and longer distances. I entered my first marathon in 1979 in Boston, sight unseen. I didn’t really know where I was going. All I knew was there were these fabled Heartbreak Hills.
And I was a newbie to the sport. I was not the pre-race favorite. And a good way through the race, I asked the man running next to me where these so-called Heartbreak Hills were. And he looked at me like I was half-crazed and said, “Lady, you just passed them.” So, at that point, I knew the tough part was over, and I just needed to hold on to the finish line, which I did. So that was a big win for me. It was unexpected. I think I set the American record there at that time at 2:35:00.
So, you know, as I continued to run marathons, it was announced, actually very close to 1984 and definitely after the 1980 boycott when I just happened to be in New Zealand running, that there was going to be the first women’s Olympic marathon in L.A. And that’s all I needed to hear.
So then I really started training in earnest, and I really, really enjoyed the training, but I also felt that there wasn’t anybody training any harder than I was. So, in the lead-up to the 1984 games, I was training really hard, twice a day most days. I’d do my longer runs in the morning, and then I’d either do a track workout or a shorter run in the afternoons.
And then, as the Olympic trials approached in Olympia, Washington, I can remember the exact day… It was March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, and I was finishing up a long run, and I felt something go in my knee. I could literally feel it. And so I thought I was shot. I thought that was it. I wasn’t going to be able to go to the first women’s Olympic marathon.
And after getting some therapy, it was decided that if I wanted to try to run the trials, I’d have to do the arthroscopic surgery. But I actually went into the surgery thinking, “There’s no way I can bounce back in two weeks to run the trials.” I mean, who in their right mind would think somebody could rebound for an Olympic trial two weeks after arthroscopic surgery? But what I kept thinking was that, “I can’t let this go. I cannot let this one moment in time, this one historic moment escape me.”
So I got to the Olympic trials. All my competitors wished me well. And they all said, “It’s too bad you have to be here to do this when you’re just about two weeks out of arthroscopic surgery.” So I had to prove myself on that day, and I ran scared. I just ran from point A to point B like I had to get there. I was on a mission. This was my one chance, and I had, you know, dreams of making it to the first Olympic women’s marathon. I literally ran on a wing and a prayer.
And, you know, I made it, and I was the first one across the line in the trials. I ran a 2:31:00. And had anybody come up on my heels toward the end of the race, I think the whole pack would’ve passed me because I was running on sheer guts and sheer heart. I didn’t have anything left. And I think that should’ve sent a message to all my competitors, not only at the trials, but in the Olympics that, for whatever reason, I really wanted a spot on the starting line in the first women’s Olympic marathon.
Marathon morning comes around, and it’s cloudy and gray. And I like to see the sun on the morning of a race. It just makes me feel a little more up, but it was cloudy and gray, and the air quality wasn’t great. And you have to remember the favorite in the Olympic marathon was the late, great Grete Waitz. She was the one to beat. So, again, I was an underdog.
So the gun went off. We were packed in closely. I wasn’t running very efficiently. I said, “Joanie, you’re not running your own race. You’re running their race. You’ve got to get out of this pack, find your own stride, find your efficiency, and run.”
So, I broke from the pack, and I was taking a big risk and a big chance, but I am a risk-taker.
And unbeknownst to me, the commentators were saying that they thought I’d made a huge error. What was I doing breaking away from the pack so early? You know, it was going to get hot as the morning wore on. “She’s just pretty much nailed her coffin when it comes to this marathon.”
And then we got to the L.A. freeway, and I was still running alone. And, here I am on the L.A. freeway feeling like I’m right at home because there weren’t any spectators along the freeway. And I felt like I was on one of my many backroads of Maine that I traverse often. So I got off the freeway, and I was still in the lead, and, you know, the miles are clicking by. And as I approach the Coliseum, I was wondering, “Is anybody going to be in the Coliseum? Why would people get up so early on a Sunday morning to watch a women’s race?
And, all of a sudden, I heard the crowd get to its feet before I saw the crowd. And I said, “Oh, my goodness. There are people in that stadium.” And I came into the tunnel, and there I was in the lead with no sign of anybody on my heels.
Announcer 1: Here she comes.
Announcer 2: She’ll come through that tunnel, and listen to the crowd as she arrives. She has done it! Joan Benoit, the winner of the first ever Olympic women’s marathon.
[END CBS CLIP]
I never dreamed of winning. I just wanted to get the Olympics, the first women’s Olympic marathon. I thought, if I had a great day, I could possibly medal, and, “If you do, you need to promise yourself that you’ll give back to a sport that had nurtured me and give back in the best way possible.”
I mean, to be part of that historic moment when women could show the world that they could run 26.2 miles was pretty special. And I think it really turned the tide and opened the doors for women from every corner of the globe to live their passions, to lose their embarrassment, and to literally stride out, if you will.
You know, it’s 35-plus years later after the Olympics, and all my records have practically been erased, I think all but maybe some of the age-group records. But the thing that will never be taken away from me for better or worse is that fact that I had the opportunity to run in the first women’s Olympic marathon and actually win the event.
You can’t run anybody else’s race in life. You have to run your own race. You can run alongside with people, but you can’t run their races, nor can they run yours. So, like a marathon, you never know what’s going to be around the next bend in the road. And that’s why I never look at marathon courses before I actually toe the starting line because, when you don’t know what’s out there, you’re apt to be a little more excited to get out there and see what it is and make the most of it.
It may be a challenge. It may be a silver lining, or it may be a gift. And we, don’t know what the next bend is going to bring. And that’s why I think sometimes it’s important to take those risks, to step outside your box and to say, “Okay, I believe so profoundly in what I’m after that I’m going for it, and I’ll just deal with the obstacles or the challenges as they are thrown my way.”
When the Olympic marathon trials came to Boston in 2008, I was just over 50. And I thought long and hard about announcing that this would be my last competitive marathon because it was really the perfect ending. I’d qualified for an Olympic trial in the city that I’d run my first marathon. And so I had the bookends. And I had a goal of running a sub-2:50:00 at the age of 50. And that’s all I wanted to do. And that made me think it’s all about the story. It’s all about motivating yourself by finding a story to tell. And we’re all story writers. We can all tell our own stories and write our own stories.
So I toed the line for the Olympic trials. I did achieve my goal of running a sub-2:50:00 barely, and then I sort of walked off into the sunset. That was going to be it for competitive marathoning. And then the next year, it was the 40th anniversary of the New York City Marathon, which happened to coincide with the 25th anniversary of my Olympic win and I said sure. That tells a story. And then it was Chicago the following year, and the date was 10/10/10. And I said, “I can’t pass up those numbers. I’ve got to go to Chicago.” So that spun another story in trying to run all three major American marathons at the age of 50-plus under sub-2:50:00, which was another goal.
But, in 2013 tragedy hit our sport hard with the bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. So we decided, as a family, that we really wanted to go back in 2014 to run with runners from around the world in a unified way to help heal our sport and to help heal the city of Boston. Now, my daughter and I had run Boston together before the tragedy, but our son had never run a marathon. And because I was a former winner of the Boston Marathon, he was allowed to enter with us. And so the kids, for healing purpose and for historical purposes wanted to run with me. And we were together there as a family to help heal the soul of our sport and the city of Boston.
So that spun another story. You know, goals will be easily accessible if you find your passion and follow that passion and look at the opportunity that authoring your own story presents to you as individuals to have the next aha moment or the next opportunity to inspire others.
There is no finish line if there’s passion, and, you know, I would like to run another marathon in my sixth decade. I would like to run with our granddaughter. But, you know, you have to take it one mile at a time or one step at a time and write those stories as the opportunities arise.
I really think, with ever finish line, there’s a new starting line. And you can take that or interpret that any way you want, but there’re always, always opportunities out there. And whether you take a turn in the road or whether you keep going forward despite challenges that might come your way, that’s up to you because we all have to follow our own paths.
So, if we turn around, we’re looking at the finish line of the Beach to Beacon 10k, and I really think the roads of Cape Elizabeth are some of the most beautiful roads in the world. And that’s why I wanted to bring the world to Cape Elizabeth. I really wanted to showcase our beautiful town and our beautiful place.
You know, the first thing that came to mind when I came into that dark tunnel at the end of the Olympic marathon was how important or incumbent upon me it would be to give back to a community and a sport that had given so much to me. And I thought that, if I could bring a world-class road race to the roads of Cape Elizabeth, where I did so much of my training for so many years, that would be a way of giving back to my hometown and also a way of giving back to the larger running community. And so I came up with the idea of a road race, which is called the Beach to Beacon.
I came up with the course in my head, and I must confess that I took a page from California with its Bay to Breakers. And I said, “If they can have a Bay to Breakers, we can have a Beach to Beacon.” And the Beach to Beacon is much smaller than Bay to Breakers, but it’s a road race, and it’s an iconic event. And so we’ve covered both coasts.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
It sounds cliche to say music really moves my soul, but it does, and certain songs really resonate or strike a chord with me.
The theme song from “Chariots of Fire” is a song that will always be there for me.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
It was there for me as I was going through my knee problems before the Olympic trials and the Olympics in 1984 because to me the music exuded strength and courage and tenacity and belief in one’s endeavor.
[MUSIC - “CHARIOTS OF FIRE” BY VANGELIS]
This next song is Enya’s “Orinoco Flow”. And I feel like I go with the flow. I, I feel like I just try to move with the flow that’s coming my way or going my way. Or… It’s part of life, and there is an ebb and flow to everything in life. And, you know, I see it every day here on the coast of Maine. As a matter of fact, I oftentimes schedule my runs around the tides because I like to swim after a hard training session, but we live on tidal frontage.
[MUSIC FADES IN]
So I can’t get in when the tide is out. So I wait for the flow of the tide to come in, the ebb and flow of life and the ebb and flow of “Orinoco Flow”. It all comes together for me.
[MUSIC - “ORINOCO FLOW” BY ENYA]
Diana Ross’s “Reach Out and Touch Someone’s Hand”, resonates with me in so many different ways. It was played toward the end of the Opening Ceremonies in the ‘84 Olympics. And that was the year most of the Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the Olympics. The one country that did not from that block of nations was Romania, and I just remember all the U.S. athletes wanted to go out and reach into the hands of the Romanian athletes. And that was a prime example of the Olympics transcending the differences in politics.
[MUSIC - “REACH OUT AND TOUCH (SOMEBODY’S HAND)” BY DIANA ROSS]
I want you to understand that you have given me the opportunity to walk in the place that holds so many meanings for me and that, over the many decades of my life, it really hasn’t changed. And whenever I step foot in here, so many wonderful memories come flooding back and not just of me and my time here but of time with friends and family and history. I hope you all find happy places and places of meaning to walk and to enjoy that will spur you on or inspire you.
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.