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Interview: Joan Benoit Samuelson

1984 Olympic Marathon Gold Medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson runs in the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
(Victah@Photo Run)

Joan Benoit Samuelson links:

Bio from Maine Women's Hall of Fame
High School Scrapbook from Running Times
Samuelson remembers her first Boston Marathon
Feature from 100th running of Boston
Brief Chats with Joan Benoit Samuelson: October 1997 | November 1998 | February 2000 | November 2000

By Gordon Bakoulis

Joan Benoit Samuelson won the inaugural women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles in 1984 in 2:24:52. She is the American record holder in the marathon (her 2:21:21 dates from 1985 in Chicago) and half-marathon (1:08:34). The 9th-place finisher at in the 2000 U.S. Women's Olympic Marathon Trials, Samuelson, who will turn 44 on May 16, has been the top masters finisher at the Bix 7-Mile Road Race, the Carlsbad 5000, and the Falmouth Road Race. A Maine native, Samuelson lives in Freeport, Maine, where she is active in many community and civic organizations. She recently traveled to New York City for the Niketown Run for the Parks 4-Mile (in which she placed 32nd in 25:39), accompanied by her husband, Scott Samuelson, and their children Abby, 13, and Anders, 11. We reached her back in Maine a couple weeks after her New York visit.

How did your trip to New York come about?
I came down to support the Niketown Run for the Parks. It's an even to support using the parks for running, it included children's runs, and Nike puts it on, so it was a natural for me to come in and run the race and help out.

You've been with Nike a long time-your whole career, pretty much. What has the relationship been like?
They've been my sponsor since 1980, so more than 20 years. It's been great. My career has had its ups and downs, and they've always stood by me. It's a good, solid symbiotic relationship.

What else do you do for them? Is it mostly events like this?
I do events like this, where I go in and run the race, sometimes competitively, sometimes in the middle of the pack, and do some announcing and help with the awards ceremony. I did the launching of a new women's line earlier this year, out in Oregon, and I'm going to a Mother's Day race in Washington, D.C., this weekend, the Fleet Feet Metro Run.

Do you do these races competitively, or in a more low-key way?
It depends. The whole family came to New York and we kind of raced around for a couple days-it was the middle of the kids' spring vacation. We saw a show, and went to the Natural History Museum, and a baseball game. It was fun, and I'd been in Boston the previous weekend with the [Boston] Marathon, and then we'd skied a couple days. I came down and gave it what I had that day, but it's not something like what I'll try to do at, say, Freihofer's [Run for Women 5K, the national championship], when I'll train a little more specifically for the event and try and rest up going into it.

Where are you with your running these days?
Who knows? [laughs] I'm really not sure. I ran a little race memorial race for Todd Miller in Summit, New Jersey, a couple weeks ago. But as you know we had a lot of snow this past winter and it was a long ski season, and that seems to be the sport of choice for our family now. So we went skiing, both downhill and cross-country, just about every weekend. We usually downhill in the morning and cross-country in the afternoon. The skate-skiing is what I enjoy (click here to see a photo), and that uses totally different muscles from running. When I tried to turn it over down at the Run for the Parks it was obvious that my mechanics needed some work. That was sort of a rude awakening for me, so I've been trying to do a little more speed.

Do you ski exclusively during the winter-no running at all?
No, I run during the week. Scott says, Why is it that one run a day will suffice when you're at home, but you get up to the mountains you've got to run, downhill ski and cross-country ski before you consider it a complete day.

So you run every day in the winter, even with all that skiing?
Well, it depends. Sometimes if I've done a long, hard cross-country ski then I won't run. But if I'm just fooling around with friends or the kids then I will.

Do you ski right from your home or do you have a place where you go?
We have a small place, a condo up in the mountains, so we head up every Friday night and come back Sunday night. We love it. The whole family skis, both downhill and cross-country. And our son "shreds," which means he snowboards. He's gone to the dark side.

How do you feel about that?
If it gets him out there and he loves it and he's breathing fresh air, you know, I can't criticize that. And none of us had that terrible flu this winter, and I think it's partly because we're not in a hot, stuffy gymnasium.

Have you ever tried snowboarding?
I tried it once at Olympic fundraiser, and that was enough. I'd like to do it sometime but I never want to take the time to learn because I always want to ski instead. That's what I love.

So you don't sound very enthusiastic about getting back into speedwork.
Oh, it's hard, and how I'm into my gardening, so that's opposing muscle groups again. So I'm back to feeling sore when I get into bed at night, because it's a lot of bending and leaning over. Gardening started for me as a form of therapy to sort of air it out after the running successes earlier in my career-after the Olympics it was one place where I could get away from the phone. Now it's become my obsession and my running is my hobby [laughs].

So would you say that the way you garden is a real workout?
Well, I don't have Lawn-Boys, let's put it that way. I do it all myself.

What are your specialties in the garden?
I have a big vegetable garden, I've got an herb garden, I've got perennial gardens, and I've got a cutting garden. Scott loves it because it's less lawn to mow.

Do the kids garden with you?
They're better at going out to the garden to find me something. Except that today I told Scott to go and cover up a batch of hyacinths that I'd surrounded with some cosmos, because we had a frost last night and I didn't want them to get frostbitten, and he said, you'd better tell me what a hyacinth is again! But you know, I can tell them to go out and get me parsley or chives or oregano and they know right where it is. I mean, those things are pretty obvious, but they know right where to go. And they love to graze in the garden, too.

Have you ever thought about getting back into coaching?
It's crossed my mind, but it would have to be the right place and the right time. Now it would be tough because my own children are involved in athletics and I'd want to be there to watch their competitions. But when they're older I might consider going back.

When and where did you coach?
I coached at the college level, at Boston University, in the 1980s.

Tell me about your children's sports involvement.
They both ski and play soccer, and Abby did a great job as a skimeister this year, which is a combination of downhill and cross-country, where whoever accumulates the lowest score wins. She did very well on her school's team. She actually won the overall prize for her school. Now she's playing lacrosse, and she'll be playing soccer too. She talked a little bit about maybe running cross-country and playing for school and club soccer in the fall, but I don't know. I'm just giving her her own room.

What's your reaction when she talks about running?
Oh, I'd love to see her run, but I don't want her to do it because her mom wants her to do it, I want her to do it because she wants to do it. That's why I certainly encourage her but I don't say, oh Abby, you've got to do this.

Is it difficult not to push her into it, or do you find it easy to let her do what she wants?
It's not difficult, because I don't think that kids who are pushed will have success. They have to have the desire from within. And I see a lot of parents out there who are pushing it but it's not my philosophy and it wasn't my parents' style either.

Let's shift to talking a bit about the state of elite women's running in the United States. What do you think about these training camps that are cropping up and the opportunities they're offering to young runners -- women in particular?
I think it's a good thing, that this is what we need. I did most of my training on my own and I stayed away from populations of serious runners just because thought I'd not be wanting to do exactly what they were doing. I think you have to run your own races and you have to do your own training. But I think certainly being in a climate like that, with people pursuing similar goals and dreams, is a healthy thing -- as long as you don't get suckered into somebody else's workout when it's not appropriate. I think this is the support that our post-collegiate runners have needed for a long time, and I'm glad to see it coming.

Were there any of these kind of opportunities available when you were at your peak?
I went to one training camp in my entire life. I helped out at different ones, but as far as doing it for my running, just one. It was a week at Squaw Valley.

Was it helpful at all?
I was totally wiped out because we were running in the mountains. I felt I needed to be doing what everyone else was doing, and what I needed to be doing was acclimate to being up there. But it was fun to be with other runners who shared the same dreams, and I think had it not been at altitude and not been in the mountains it would have been a totally different thing.

An issue that continues to come up is that, even with all this support of American runners, no one is anywhere near your American marathon record of 2:21. Any thoughts on that -- as to why no one's even in the same universe?
I remember the thing that got me through the knee problems [the surgery that sidelined Benoit Samuelson prior to the 1984 Olympic marathon trials, almost keeping her out of the race] was that I seriously believed there was nobody out there training any harder than I was, and if there was a way I could get back out there I was going to do it because I didn't want all that training to go down the tubes. I can't say there was any secret to it except a lot of hard work. Guys who would run with me would comment, "Do you ever take an easy day?" I was just able to stand up to it. It wasn't some of the mega-mileage that some of the women who followed me were doing. I don't think I had more than a dozen weeks over 100 miles in my entire career. And those were right around 100, not much over.

So was it more the intensity at which you trained that made the difference?
Yeah, and I didn't do an overabundance of track workouts, and I think distance runners who do too many hard track workouts sometimes suffer injuries. And I think it was just an innate desire to push myself as hard as I could, and that discipline.

Do you think the top young runners today aren't working hard enough?
I think some of them are working too hard. I think also there are so many different coaching philosophies out there, and young runners hear so many different things. It's hard for a coach to know exactly what to do, and I think the athlete needs to really know his or her body extremely well in order to give it the proper workouts and reach optimal conditioning and performance. And a lot of runners look to their coaches, and I think it's very important that the coach know the runner inside and out, and follow that runner for years and know what they can stand up to and what they can't. It's not a one-year relationship that's going to turn someone around. It's nurturing and knowing the person and making sure the personalities and philosophies mesh.

Yet you were largely self-coached for long periods during some of your best years.
I worked a fair amount with both Bob Sevene and John Babington. They were both very important at critical points in my career. It wasn't that I worked with them every day, more like a couple of times a week. Though I did a lot of running with Bob at one point. Usually I'd come down for one Liberty [Track Club] workout a week, come to from Maine to Boston. And when I was coaching at BU there was a period of about a year, an academic year, when I ran just about every morning with Sev, and that was a real motivator. He'd start talking about somebody else's workout and that was enough to inspire anybody.

What sort of training are you doing these days? Are you pushing the pace on most runs, or doing a lot of easy miles?
Most days I'm just going out and running the way I feel. I got on the track for the first time since the [2000] Olympic marathon trials last Wednesday when it was 93 degrees in Portland, and did eight quarters and was dead afterward because it was so hot. And then this morning I did three-minute pickups on the road with a friend, about a half dozen of those over 10 miles, and then 10 minutes sustained after that. I mean, I'm starting to think that if I'm going to do some racing, I'd better do some workouts [laughs]. But I don't have many races lined up, so I'll just have to see how it goes.

Do you have any plans to do another marathon?
I'd like to run another one, but I can't commit right now. I'm going to see how my training goes, and where I'm at in the fall. It wouldn't be anything before the fall.

Come run New York!
Well, I'm doing the commentary for Chicago, so that leaves New York and a couple others, I guess.

Any thoughts on the marathon Trials last year, as a system for choosing our Olympic marathoners, and the fact that we ended up sending only one woman marathoner Sydney?
I don't really want to go there, except to say that it was just a really hot day. I was disappointed not so much with my placing as with my time. I thought I was going to run a sub-2:30 without any trouble at all. I was really in the best shape I'd been since having kids. So that was disappointing in that way, and I think the runners' best interests have to be kept in mind. You know, there was no TV there, so why they didn't move it up a couple hours when they knew the weather was going to be so hot, I don't know.

I know you're involved in a lot of community and service activities. How do you find the time and energy for all of that, on top of everything else?
I wouldn't want it any other way, I guess. I keep busy with a lot of different things. I'm a trustee at Bowdoin [College, her alma mater], and that takes a fair amount of time. I'm also on the board of Friends of Casco Bay, which I'm extremely active with. Environmental causes are very important to me. It's sort of like the Hudson River Bay Keeping Program. And there's the race, the Peoples Beach to Beacon 10K [of which she's the founding director]. But there's something in every court, meaning that I try and keep up a variety of interests, and I really believe that's been the key to my success all along. I never lost a balanced life -- I'd always go out and do things, even at the height of my career, and people would say, You do that? -- whether it was physical labor in the yard, or the garden, or whatever. My parents really instilled that in me, the need to have a variety of interests, and something to always fall back on.

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