There is no champion like time itself. Nothing moves as swiftly, nor as relentlessly. It will outrun us all one day. Yet it is hard to believe it has been thirty years since Joan Benoit won the inaugural Women’s OIympic Marathon in Los Angeles, California August 5, 1984. But calendars are rather dispassionate, not in the habit of subjective reckoning.
In the dark ages before the internet, or wide spread coverage of running, when Joan raced to a 2:22:43 win at the 1983 Boston Marathon — nearly three minutes faster than Norwegian great Grete Waitz’s world record set the day before in London at 2:25:29 — there were many who chose to believe there were other factors in play beyond the steely-eyed drive and talent of the Cape Elizabeth, Maine native.
This past week as Joanie welcomed thousands of runners to her 17th TD Beach to Beacon 10K, the hometown race she founded that traverses one of her old training loops, it is particularly timely to look back to where we stood those 30 years ago when women were about to first express their talents over the classic Olympic running distance.
On that overcast morning of August 5, 1984 I found myself walking into one of the University of Southern California’s fraternity houses as the inaugural Women’s Olympic Marathon was about to begin out in Santa Monica at 8 a.m. Pacific Daylight time. At the LA Games the shoe companies had rented out USC’s fraternity row as it lay about a mile from the L.A. Coliseum, and could house dozens of folks apiece, a much more convenient arrangement than the more far flung local hotels.
I was at the Puma house to meet my friend 1976 steeplechase Olympian Mike Roche. The plan was to watch TV coverage of the race before heading down to the L.A. Coliseum for the conclusion. Among the most anticipated events of those Olympics, the women’s marathon field was littered with names that today fill Halls of Fame throughout the running world: Joanie, Grete, Ingrid Kristiansen, Rosa Mota, Anne Audain, Juli Brown, etc. As second cups of coffee were being poured and seating arrangements selected in the large living room, the conversation turned to the inevitable, “who do you think will win?”
Not surprisingly, the non-American-Pumans in attendance, stalwarts like 1964 Olympic steeplechase champion Gaston Roelants of Belgium and 1960 Olympic 1500 meter gold medalist Herb Eliot of Australia, were all in the Grete camp, refusing to believe Joan’s time from Boston `83 was legit.
“Downhill, point-to-point, and paced by Kevin Ryan” (the 2:11 Kiwi marathoner who was covering the `83 Boston women’s race for Runner’s World), went their argument. Yeah, but you don’t know Joanie, Mike and I responded.
So when the first three miles fell at a desultory pace and no one else wanted to take control, Joanie, as was her want, lit out on her own, calling on the others to make a decision they were unwilling or unprepared to take so early in the going. As she pulled free everyone in the Puma house crept closer to the edge of their seats, many thinking out loud, “big mistake”. Well, Mike Roche and I thought it was a mistake, too, but not on Joanie’s part.
“Guys, she went through halfway in Boston `83 in 1:08:40. I know it is net downhill, but she’s the ultimate front runner. Like a big game major league baseball pitcher, if you let her find her rhythm, you’ll never see the front side of her again.”
Of course, 2:24:52 later the Puma house (and world) was made aware of the truth of that analysis. The rest, as they say, is history.
Not that ours was an outrageously bold prediction. We had run with Joan, nobody tougher, nobody more focused, nobody more relentless. Her win at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Olympia, Washington just 17 days after arthroscopic knee surgery that May should have been fair warning of the depth of the kid’s iron resolve. This weekend at the Beach to Beacon 10K post-race lobster bake her coach from those glory days, Bob Sevene, recalled having dinner with Joan and her then fiancée Scott Samuelson the night before the Olympic Marathon in L.A.
“She asked me, tongue only partially in cheek, what I was going to do tomorrow when our lives would change,” recalled Sev. “But that was Joanie. For her there was only one medal that day.”
During her victory lap in front of 80,000 spectators, Joanie made a stop to greet her family. After a big hug her mom Nancy said, “I guess you can stop this running thing now.” For those too young to recall, that was still the mentality of a large swath of society even as late as the 1980s when athletics was still considered not a very girlish thing to do.
That night there was a big party for Joan to celebrate her historic win. I brought that day’s ticket stub and asked her to sign it. It remains the only autograph I’ve ever asked of an athlete, as we all knew it was a special day and a special performance.
So thanks for the memories, Joan, and congratulations for all you have done with the podium you so richly earned August 5, 1984. But more than that thanks, too, for all the lives you inspired then, and continue to inspire today. Because of you, Grete, Rosa Mota (the other medalists) and the rest of that inaugural women’s Olympic field nobody is asking whether young girls are ready to give up their passion for running anymore.