Benoit’s run still inspires

Posted Aug. 04, 2009, at 6:55 p.m.

Twenty-five years ago today, a 27-year-old Maine woman darted into the history books. She had just won the first-ever Olympic marathon for women. Joan Benoit, a Cape Elizabeth native, ran 26.2 miles in two hours, 24 minutes, 52 seconds.

I watched the race on television in my mom’s living room. I marveled that such a slight woman could be so amazingly powerful. Women’s athletic achievements — commonplace now — make it difficult to remember how earthshatteringly remarkable that marathon was. Benoit, now Benoit Samuelson, won her race just 12 years after Congress passed Title IX, the legislation that assured schoolgirls would have access to sports.

You can go to YouTube and watch her historic victory. Each and every step looks just like the step before it. And when she crossed the finish line she waved her hat and smiled as though she’d only sprinted 50 yards. Could winning an Olympic marathon really be as easy as Benoit made it look? Of course not.

But while it can’t be easy it is inspiring. Her amazing determination and stamina should inspire us all to do something great. And I have just the thing. We don’t have to run a marathon, but we could work at self-control and self-inspiration to improve our health.

Maybe you don’t need to work on fitness. Lucky you, all you have to do is keep doing what you already are doing. But for the rest of us, it’s going to take amended behavior. Some of us will have to change how we eat and how often we get up and move.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that 66 percent of all noninstitutionalized Americans over the age of 20 are overweight or obese. We don’t eat right, we don’t get enough exercise and we’re having heart attacks and suffering from chronic illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes at an alarming rate. As average Americans, we’re racing toward something in this country, but it’s not the Boston Marathon’s Heartbreak Hill. No, it’s a Boston Cream Pie-laden heart attack.

When Benoit Samuelson won her first Boston Marathon back in 1979, I weighed 30 pounds less than I do now. Consequently, I seem to be growing another chin. In addition to my weight, I have my brown hair recolored every six weeks by a lovely man named Larry, and I need glasses to read my own column. If the outside of me is so clearly showing the passage of time, I can only guess what’s happening on the inside.

I don’t have to think too long and too hard to figure out that I don’t have the same sort of determination and drive that Benoit Samuelson has. Did you know that she got caught in traffic before the 1979 Boston Marathon and rather than be late for the start, she left her car where it was and ran the two miles to the Hopkinton starting line — and then ran and won the marathon in record time.

Still, if you’re more like me and less like her, don’t be too hard on yourself. Or if you’re young now but still need to jump-start your fitness, that’s OK too, because we can all turn it around today.

We can use this anniversary of great achievement to make a commitment to be more like Joan Benoit Samuelson. And that doesn’t mean we have to run in the Olympic qualifiers at 51 years of age and set the record as the fastest woman over 50. But we can be more committed to our bodies and our health.

Here’s the plan. In 2008, when Benoit Samuelson raced in those qualifiers she ran the marathon in two hours, 49 minutes, 8 seconds: only 25 minutes slower than 25 years ago. So here’s the challenge to other non-Olympians like me. Let’s promise ourselves to exercise two hours and 49 minutes every week — that’s only 25 minutes a day. You don’t have to join a gym. You could walk, run, or go up and down the stairs in your house.

Let’s commit to that, so that we all can be here to celebrate Benoit Samuelson’s 50th Olympic anniversary.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

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