On Sunday, the Napa Valley Marathon marked its 40th year in the wine country, a span of time stretching back almost to the debut of a pioneering women’s champion – and the Napa race’s guest of honor in this anniversary year.
Highlighting the marathon’s companion 5-kilometer run was Joan Benoit Samuelson, the world-record holder who captured the gold medal in the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984. A day after regaling marathon fans with tales of her rise to fame, she joined other runners while offering a glimpse of the running form that helped lead the way for numerous women who followed in her footsteps.
During a Saturday interview at the Napa Valley Marriott marked as much by unaffected humility as much as friendliness, Benoit Samuelson, now 60, recalled her unassuming start in the sport that eventually boosted her to world fame. Recovering from a broken leg suffered while skiing, she took up distance running and in the 1979 Boston Marathon – only her second time competing at 26.2 miles – bested the women’s course record by eight minutes on her way to victory.
“I just went out and ran,” she recalled when asked about her running strategy by Joe Henderson, the former editor of Runner’s World magazine. “I always ran the way I felt. The marathon is like a metaphor for life; you don’t know how you’ll feel around the next turn. I truly don’t have a game plan – I just go out and run.”
Five years after the victory in Boston, Benoit Samuelson was on the starting line as the Summer Olympics hosted its first women’s marathon. Breaking from the pack despite the energy-sapping August heat, she grabbed the lead after only three miles and made the cushion stand up, all the way to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the top step on the podium.
“There was a helicopter over San Vicente (Boulevard) and I remember looking up, and noting it was starting to go back a ways,” she remembered of her gold-medal performance, 84 seconds ahead of second-place Grete Waitz. “I had nothing to lose so I gambled, and it worked.”
Visiting the Napa Valley for its hometown marathon, Benoit Samuelson, who also ran 20 miles of the course in 2008 while preparing for the U.S. Olympic trials, made clear that not only her past glories but that chance to be around today’s runners had drawn her to the wine country.
“I’ve been around the sport a long time so I have a lot of stories to tell, but I like to hear from the runners too,” she said last week before traveling to Napa. “I’ve resorted to storytelling as my way to gear up to the goals I have my sights on. I want to hear from other runners, whether it’s over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or side by side.”
Recovering from knee surgery, Benoit Samuelson chose to enter only Napa’s shorter Kiwanis 5K Fun Run on Sunday morning, a small step toward her goal of running the first sub-3-hour marathon by a woman 60 or older.
“Oh my God, I’ve got some training to do!” she exclaimed after completing the out-and-back course at Vintage High School 20 minutes and 24 seconds later, the eighth finisher overall. Eighty seconds earlier, the first runner had crossed the finish line: Madison Denny, a 14-year-old from Fairfield less than a quarter of Benoit Samuelson’s age.
The opening of distance running and other sports to female athletes like Denny was a movement in which Benoit Samuelson was at the vanguard – a fact that may have made her more proud than the records broken or the championships won more than three decades ago.
“I was in high school in 1972 when Title IX was passed,” she said during her Saturday interview, referring to the anti-discrimination bill that launched the rise of high school and college sports for women and girls. “When the door was opened to women, I wasn’t going to let it shut. And many, many women felt the same thing.”