CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — Joan Benoit Samuelson has been a pioneer in the sport of running and an inspiration in women’s athletics.
Her hall of fame resume is one of triumph and perseverance, but perhaps her most redeeming quality is her laid-back demeanor.
“It’s a work in progress,” the humble Samuelson said of her storybook career on a recent sun-splashed day at Fort Williams Park, site of the finish of the TD Beach to Beacon 10K road race, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on Aug. 5.
Samuelson’s accomplishments include winning the gold medal in the first Olympic marathon for women, two Boston Marathon victories (1979, 1983), marathon triumphs in New Zealand (1980) and Chicago (1985), multiple hall of fame inductions and founding a premier 10-kilometer road race.
Even at age 60, she has plenty of “work” to do.
Samuelson, who finally ran her first marathon on Maine soil at Sugarloaf last spring, seeks to break the 3-hour mark. It’s another career nugget she describes as “storytelling” — sharing her passion by simply doing what she loves.
“I thought the 2008 Olympic trials were going to be my last competitive marathon. I’m not saying I’m going to do it (break 3 hours), but it’s out there,” she said. “It’s going to be a really big effort on my part to get there.”
Samuelson ran the last 15 kilometers of the Sugarloaf Marathon with Cranberry Island’s Michael Westphal, a longtime friend who is still churning out miles while dealing with Parkinson’s Disease.
“To keep that friendship going, that appreciation and respect for one another is extremely special,” said Samuelson.
“It was very special,” Westphal said of the run. “That last two miles she pretty much drove me through. I had a rough finish but she made sure I got to the line.”
Westphal’s life is one of thousands Samuelson has touched through running over the years.
“She’s still amazing,” said Westphal, a former University of Maine runner who has known Samuelson since college. “It’s just a testament to her own giving and her determination.”
An injury that opened a door
When Samuelson was a teenager, running wasn’t really on her radar.
Growing up, her sport of choice was skiing and it’s a recreational activity she still enjoys.
But a broken leg suffered in a ski race during her sophomore year of high school closed the book her competitive skiing career — and opened a new one.
Samuelson joined a club track and field team at Cape Elizabeth High School, but she could not imagine it would be the opening chapter of her running success story.
“I basically found that running was accessible and affordable,” Samuelson said, “and I think that’s why the sport of road racing has been enjoying such growth.”
Samuelson also was interested in tennis and baseball, but she grew up in the days before the implementation of Title IX in 1972, when athletic opportunities for young women were limited.
“I really wanted to play Little League baseball but there was no room for girls back then,” she said.
Samuelson went on to have a successful career at Bowdoin College, then made her first statement in the running world by winning the 1979 Boston Marathon.
“I’d always heard about the Boston Marathon but I always ran the Portland 5-miler on Patriots Day,” she said. “The fact that it was my first marathon and it was in my backyard was very meaningful.”
Four years later at Boston, she set a course record (2 hours, 22 minutes, 43 seconds) that stood for 11 years. Those victories set the stage for what would become one of the landmark women’s events in the history of the Summer Olympics.
‘A run that counts’
Aug. 5, 1984, was a sunny, warm day in Los Angeles. Samuelson and 49 other competitors lined up for a 26.2-mile jaunt through the city to the historic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the first Olympic women’s marathon.
Samuelson recounted her approach to the race in a way that would make Bill Belichick smile.
“I just went out and ran my own race,” she said. “You can’t get too anxious and excited about it. You just have to take it as another run. A run that counts.”
Samuelson, who overcame a knee injury sustained just before the Olympic Trials, faced a talented field that day. It included the late Grete Waitz of Norway, Rose Mota of Portugal and Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway.
Even with the milestone event being held on U.S. soil, Samuelson didn’t feel any real pressure.
“I don’t think I realized what, if any, impact at the moment I would have if I were to win the marathon,” she said.
When Samuelson emerged from the tunnel leading into the L.A. Coliseum, the magnitude of the moment quickly set in.
“In the tunnel I said, am I capable of carrying the mantle that comes with the first Olympic women’s marathon win?” Samuelson said. “For some reason, I said I thought I could.”
Upon crossing the finish line and spending time with her family, Samuelson promised them she’d remain humble in the wake of her triumph.
“I made them promise to keep me honest in the sport and to make sure that I gave back to a sport and a community that had given so much to me,” said Samuelson, whose vow played a small role in the birth of the Beach to Beacon 13 years later.
Westphal, who watched the race with longtime friend and MDI Marathon race director Gary Allen, was so moved by Samuelson’s performance that he instantly laced up his shoes.
“We were so inspired we went out and ran 16 miles after watching it,” he said.
A landmark race is born
In 1997, when Samuelson envisioned putting on a 10-kilometer road race in her hometown, she realized the importance of having the community’s support.
“The first bridge we had to cross was whether or not the town of Cape Elizabeth would embrace the event or run us out of town and, fortunately, they embraced the event,” Samuelson said.
Samuelson immediately shared her vision with Dave McGillivray, the longtime race director of the Boston Marathon, and he quickly came on board.
“He knows the game better than anybody else in the world,” Samuelson said. “Dave has been magnificent at orchestrating the race.”
That should come as no surprise given McGillivray has overseen large events including World Championships and Olympic Trials during his illustrious career.
“I sort of humbly took it on and said, I hope I don’t disappoint you,” McGillivray said. “The best part about this race for me is the people. People embrace it and they know it’s not just a road race.”
As with all accomplishments in her life, Samuelson is humble about the success of the race, which has grown from 3,000 participants to more than 6,000. It also features a mile run for Maine’s best high school athletes and a separate start for elite women.
“She’s definitely the face of Maine running, I would say, for men and women,” said Sheri Piers, a Falmouth resident who has won the Maine division of the race three times.
“It was my vision but it was a community and a committee and a passionate and dedicated group (that made it a success),” said Samuelson, pointing to the citizens of Cape Elizabeth who each summer line the streets to cheer on the runners, the race committee and Larry Barthlow, who organizes the race’s elite field.
It’s the runners and their stories that make the Beach to Beacon what it is.
“It’s something that leads to celebration and allows people to challenge themselves and to set goals for themselves,” Samuelson said.
Maine and American running certainly had something to celebrate last summer when North Yarmouth native Ben True became the first U.S. runner to win the Beach to Beacon. He’ll return to defend his title next weekend.
“You’ll be sure that everyone will be cheering him on,” Samuelson said.
As for her role in the race, Samuelson doesn’t have a specific job description, which is how she likes it. She runs it every five years. Her most memorable race came in 2002 when she ran with New York City firefighters less than a year after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
“I just plug in where I’m needed and that goes from the vision for this event to picking up litter on the field after everybody’s left,” she said. “Nobody has an ego and we just try to throw all of our passions together to try to make this as outstanding an event as possible.”
Many things draw runners back to the Beach to Beacon every August, but its founder remains one of the main attractions.
“The athletes out there, wanting to be a part of Joanie’s race, even though it’s the TD Beach to Beacon, the subtitle is ‘Joanie’s race,’” McGillivray said.
Neither of Samuelson’s Boston Marathon victories mean as much as completing it with her husband Scott and children Anders and Abby together in 2014.
A year earlier, terrorist bombs went off near the finish line, killing three people and injuring at least 264. In the days and months that followed, human spirit and perseverance from the running community resonated with Samuelson.
“I met many of the victims of that horrific day and they’re all back on their feet and trying to make, in many cases, new lives for themselves,” Samuelson said.
“It’s just the resiliency of human spirit and human desire [that’s inspirational], and out of the tragedy came great strength and recovery,” she added.
Six years earlier, in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, Piers competed in the race along with Samuelson.
“That was a once in a lifetime thing,” Piers said. “Just to be included in that with her, makes you feel good.”
Keeping it in the family
Samuelson and her family still enjoy skiing, and taking advantage of all the recreational activities Maine has to offer.
“We like to do anything together,” said Samuelson, who noted she did not bring her children up to be runners.
Instead, she preached a lifestyle that balanced sports and other activities without trying to put pressure on them.
“I told the kids, this is this, this is that, chart your own course, follow your heart and live your dreams,” said Samuelson, whose kids participated in a variety of sports at Freeport High School while she served on the board of the Friends of Casco Bay.
Samuelson has maintained a balanced lifestyle. She is a master gardener and is “very involved in my community in different ways.”
She also is a crusader for the protection of the environment.
“We take this greening very seriously and we’re all very proud,” Samuelson said. “Maine is Vacationland, people expect to come and see a very environmentally healthy state, so we’re all in this together.”
Both of Samuelson’s children, her two brothers, husband and son-in-law all plan to join her for the Beach to Beacon.
She also is impressed by the success some former Maine athletes have enjoyed recently, with Kate Hall of Casco winning an NCAA Division I championship in the long jump, Isaiah Harris of Lewiston qualifying for the World Championships in the 800 meters, and numerous performers heading to Division I colleges.
“I think that they all have roots here in Maine, they were all brought up in homes that exposed hard work and dedication and balance, and anything is possible for anybody coming from that state of Maine,” Samuelson said.
That includes winning the Maine division of the Beach to Beacon, as True did in 2009.
“Usually there are surprises amongst the Maine runners, that’s another great component of the race,” Samuelson said.
To nobody’s surprise, the Beach to Beacon remains a landmark sporting event with international appeal, thanks in great part to the competitive spirit and vision of one remarkable Mainer, Joan Benoit Samuelson.
“She’s like the Energizer bunny She just keeps on ticking,” McGillivray said.