(This piece is for my latest book titled Pacesetters: Runners Who Informed Me Best and Inspired Me Most. I am posting an excerpt here each week, this one from May 1984.)
BENOIT’S KNEE. Races aren’t just won and lost on race day. They are as surely decided in the spaces between races, by the right and wrong moves made then. This is never more true than before an Olympic Trials.
I happened to see the fastest U.S. marathoner out training in my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, before the first such qualifying race for women. The sturdy little figure clad in a dark blue jacket and tights slipped onto the bike path two steps ahead of me without noticing I was there. I said nothing to her, preferring to watch rather than talk this Monday morning.
What I saw was heartening. The runner put two minutes between us in one mile. And she didn’t hint at a limp.
Ten days after knee surgery, one week after returning to running, a few days after feeling hamstring pain, Joan Benoit was back. I was happily eating my published words that she wouldn’t be recovered in time for the Trials. She looked ready.
Joan’s race against time didn’t begin on the morning of May 12th in Olympia, Washington, but the evening of April 25th in Eugene. Still drugged with pain-killers after her arthroscopic surgery, Joan asked coach Bob Sevene, “Can I start tomorrow?” Meaning could she begin running then.
Sevene said a firm no. But they agreed that she could pedal a redesigned exercise bicycle with her arms.
This makeshift training continued until the following Monday. Joan ran that day: 45 minutes in the morning, 55 more in the afternoon. She totaled 80 miles for the week but at the price of a sore hamstring from favoring the knee. That was treated by spending most of her waking hours under an electronic muscle-stimulation device to speed the healing.
One final test remained before deciding whether or not to run at Olympia: a 17-mile run on the Tuesday before her Saturday race. She passed it.
“I’ll be running strictly to make the team,” she said at a pre-race news conference. “I’m aware of my problem, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could handle it.”
Handling it meant going right to the lead, and dropping her final challenger in the 23rd mile. Joan ran on alone from there, and not easily. After averaging 5:38 miles through 20, she slipped to 6:11s for the remaining distance.
She looked a bit wobbly at the finish, and more relieved than joyous. “Cardiovascularly I felt great,” she said. “But my legs just wouldn’t go, and I was lucky to hold on. I knew with six miles left that if the pack came on me I was in trouble.”
Joan dodged trouble here. Now her Olympic race could begin.
UPDATE. I watched the Los Angeles Olympics on TV at home, less than a mile from where I’d seen the rehabbing Joan Benoit that spring. Now she broke free of the pack early in the first Olympic Marathon for women. Catch me if you can, she challenged the field that included world record-holder Grete Waitz. No one could.
That fall Joan married Scott Samuelson. In 1985 she set an American record of 2:21:21 that stood for 18 years (and fell to Deena Kastor, the only other women’s Olympic Marathon medalist from this country). Then she continued to qualify for Olympic Trials until 2008, when she was 51, and narrowly missed the 2012 standard.
One of Joan’s most memorable races wasn’t a victory or a record-setter. It was the recent Boston Marathon that she ran with her daughter Abby.
Only two American women have yet run faster than Joan’s best time from 30 years ago. Both are Olympic medalists themselves, Deena Kastor in the marathon and Shalane Flanagan in the 10,000.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Going Far. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Memory Laps, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]