CHICAGO — As Joan Benoit Samuelson took her victory lap at the Los Angeles Olympics, her mother just had to ask: “Now, can you quit?”
The answer remains a resounding no 26 years later.
Samuelson is still running strong heading into the Chicago Marathon on Sunday, hoping to finish in less than three hours and maybe even qualify for the 2012 Olympic Trials.
That would mean clocking in at 2 hours, 46 minutes.
A more realistic goal to her is breaking 2:50 this weekend, and if she happened to qualify for the Olympic Trials in two years, well, even better.
But at 53, Samuelson isn’t necessarily eyeing another golden moment like the one in 1984.
“I think people think that if you could run a sub-2:50, that’s really close to a 2:46, and to the average person’s mind, maybe it is,” she said. “But when you’re 53 and you’re trying to shave close to three minutes off your time, that’s a lot of time. I would love to run another sub-2:50. If I can do that, I would be extremely happy. And if it’s faster than that, great.”
Samuelson is the most recognizable name in an event that includes both defending champions.
Russia’s Liliya Shobukhova and Kenyan Sammy Wanjiru are back after winning last year and figure to be pushed by deep fields, with the winners each taking $75,000.
London champion Tsegay Kebede of Ethiopia and Boston winner Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot of Kenya could challenge Wanjiru. The same goes for 2009 Boston champion Deriba Merga of Ethiopia and countryman Feyisa Lilesa, whose personal best time of 2:05.23 is among the fastest in the field.
The women’s field includes three Ethiopians: Astede Baysa, a two-time Paris champion; Askale Tafa Magarsa, 2008 Berlin runner-up;and Mamitu Daksa, a 2010 Dubai champion. They’re joined by Berlin champion Irina Mikitenko of Germany and top American Magdalena Lewy-Boulet.
As for Samuelson, there’s no guarantee she’ll compete after the Chicago Marathon, where she finished in 2:21:21 in 1985 and set an American record that lasted until 2003.
Samuelson, who lives in Freeport, Maine, competed in the 2008 Olympic trials in Boston, saying then that it would be her last competitive race. She finished in 2:49:08 to set an American record for the 50-54 age group but did not make the Olympic team.
Last year, she ran the New York City Marathon to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her Olympic victory and finished in 2:49:09. Now, she’s back at the site of another memorable 1985 race, where she prevailed against a deep field that included world record-holder Ingrid Kristiansen along with 1984 bronze medalist and defending Chicago champion Rosa Mota.
Samuelson wound up missing the world record by 15 seconds but set the American and course marks that year in her fourth — and most recent — major marathon victory.
“It’s all about coming back to Chicago 25 years later after my fastest marathon time. There’s something about 10-10-10 aligning with 2:21:21,” she said, referring to the date of this year’s race and her time a quarter century ago. “So I’m just delighted to be back and plan on running as best as I can.”
To her, that’s what this is about. It’s about the challenge and the memories. Anything more, like qualifying for the Olympic Trials, would be a nice bonus. But that’s not driving her.
“It’s just the challenges, the stories that are told with the races,” she said. “I’ve been around long enough that usually there’s some reason for me to be going to run a particular race. This is the 25th anniversary. It’s the 10-10-10, it’s the 2:21:21. It’s the memories, the friendships. It’s our sport at its finest.”
Steve Jones, the men’s winner in 1985, withdrew from Sunday’s scheduled recreational run because of a hamstring problem. That didn’t stop the reminiscing on Friday.
Samuelson said the ’85 Chicago race “was all about going after Ingrid Kristiansen’s record.”
And in Los Angeles the previous year, Samuelson recalled her mom, Nancy, leaning over the wall during the victory lap after that gold medal run and asking if enough was enough as they embraced.
“I said, ‘Mom, I’ll quit running when you quit smoking,’ and I’m happy to say that she will be 90 on Halloween and she quit smoking 20 years ago,” she said.
Samuelson, however, can’t kick the running habit.