AUBURN, Maine — Long before Joan Benoit Samuelson ran into the record books by winning the 1984 Summer Olympics marathon, her native Maine had established itself as a breeding ground for distance runners, as well as their proving grounds.
So said Thomas C. Bennett, who lives in this city and combines a dual passion for running and history.
Bennett was one of three featured speakers on Saturday at the Hilton Garden Inn, where registrants for the second annual Lake Auburn Half-Marathon gathered a day before the race around the lake.
He has run 30 marathons, achieving a personal best time of 2:43:14.
Bennett highlighted the origins of distance running in Maine and illustrated his talk with dozens of archival black and white photos culled from years of research while working as director of Prince Memorial Library in Cumberland.
Distance running in Maine dates back to the late 1800s, when the mayor of Bangor sent a message to Portland using relay runners to make the 145-mile trip in 29 legs of 5 miles each. Departing Bangor at 5 a.m., the message arrived at 10:30 that night, Bennett said.
Edgar Welch, born in 1849 in Raymond, was one of the earlier recorded distance runners from Maine, Bennett said.
“He was a splendid athletic specimen,” Bennett said, clicking on a photograph of a man atop Mount Washington clad in a suit, boots and a top hat after making the climb at a record-paced trot.
The “strange character” would be in the middle of farming and suddenly drop his tools and take off as “an uncontrollable impulse” seized him, Bennett said.
Welch thought nothing of making a 60-mile round trip to Portland and back home on the same day, Bennett said. He once made the 280-mile round trip to Boston at a run.
His exploits landed him in the pages of “Ripley’s Believe it or Not,” Bennett said.
Andrew Sockalexis, a member of the Penobscot Nation of Indian Island, finished fourth in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. He finished second in the Boston Marathon in 1911 and 1912.
Maine’s cross-country races and city-based marathons attracted top runners for decades, Bennett showed.
Students at the University of Maine in Orono in the early 1900s proved their talents on the national stage and went on to become national champions. Again in the 1960s, the university’s cross-country team claimed a national championship.
One of the athletes on the notable 1963 team was Bernd Heinrich who went on to become a scientist and author of “Why We Run.” In 1982, he won a 100-kilometer race, setting a new national record, Bennett said.
“It just goes to show,” he said. “If you have a dream, sometimes you can achieve it.”