Life Lessons from Running Legend Joan Benoit Samuelson
The Olympic marathon champ—who hopes to become the first woman over 60 to run a sub-3-hour marathon this fall—shares her hard-fought wisdom
Last week, women’s running pioneer Joan Benoit Samuelson celebrated her 60th birthday. A few days later, she ran the Sugarloaf Marathon in her home state of Maine in 3:12:21, winning her age group by a margin of more than seventy minutes. The 1984 Olympic marathon gold medalist now has her sights on the Chicago Marathon in October, where she hopes to become the first woman over 60 to run a sub-3-hour marathon. We wouldn’t bet against her.
Samuelson’s case is unique among top-level marathoners who fall into the Senior (50+) category. Many stars of the scene, like David Walters or the late Ed Whitlock, were good amateurs in their youth, but none share Samuelson’s distinction of once being the best marathoner in the world. In addition to her Olympic gold, Samuelson held the world record from 1983 to 1985 and won the Boston Marathon twice. Athletes of her caliber rarely, if ever, keep trying to push their physical limits once their fastest years have passed. But while Samuelson may have slowed down since she ran 2:21:21 at the 1985 Chicago Marathon (Deena Kastor and Shalane Flanagan are the only American women to have ever run faster) she never stopped running.
Any athlete who has managed to stay so good for so long has figured out a few secrets. We reached out to Samuelson in the hope that she would share some of them.
Stay Busy, Stay Balanced
“I was just gardening for three hours. That was after I ran and responded to emails and business calls relating to Beach to Beacon [Maine’s prominent road race, which Samuelson founded in 1998]. My days are just full. I try to balance all my passions in life. I’ll rest when I’m dead.”
There’s Always a New Story to Tell
“It’s through storytelling that I motivate myself. I try to come up with a story that will motivate me to get out there and attempt a goal—like trying to run a sub-2:50 at the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials in Boston. [Samuelson ran 2:49:08. At age 50, she was the oldest competitor in the field.] I really thought that was where I was going to end my career, but then I received calls from other race directors, including [NYC Marathon race director] Mary Wittenberg. The 40th anniversary of the NYC Marathon coincided with the 25th anniversary of my Olympic win, and that told a story. [After turning 50] I wanted to run 2:50s in all the major U.S. marathons, which I did, except that the Boston time was on the Olympic Trials course. And, last Sunday, I ran my first marathon in my home state of Maine, with a longtime running friend who suffers from Parkinson’s.
Don’t Be Reckless with Your Training
“I haven’t done any track workouts in probably two decades. I wasn’t even doing track workouts when I ran the Trials in 2008. I think I’d be playing with fire on the turns on the track.”
Well, Maybe a Little Bit Reckless
“I try to beat cars to certain places when I’m running out on the road.”
Mix It Up
“I do some cycling, swimming and kayaking in the summer months. Every winter weekend when we’re up at Sugarloaf, I’ll go for a run in the morning, and I’ll downhill ski until about one, and then I’ll go Nordic skiing until darkness.”
With Training and Racing, Feeling Is Everything
“I’m certainly not running at the level that I once was, nor am I training at that level. I do what I can reasonably do. I don’t have any rhyme or reason to my training except to run the way I feel on that particular day. If I feel good, I run hard; if I don’t, I run easy. I just try to keep things simple. [In a race] if I feel like I can go out hard, I’ll go out hard. I usually feel stronger, especially as I age, as I get further into the race.”
Technology Is a Good Servant and a Bad Master
“I use the Apple Watch Nike+, but I think I tend to overtrain with it, so I know when to leave the watch at home. I can push myself too hard, trying to line up my miles with my [split] times, so I do know when to pull back and say: ‘Okay. You need a day when you don’t need to know exactly how far or how fast you’re running.’ Back then [in my competitive prime] I was doing more track workouts, and the track doesn’t lie, so maybe that’s the trade-off. There’s a tipping point where I said, ‘Okay maybe I can use a little technology now.’”
Embrace Your Roots
“There are other beautiful places, but Maine is where my heart and home are. Way back when, I was asked to run for Nike and their Athletics West team. It was based in Eugene, and I asked if I continue to stay in Maine and train where I felt was comfortable. I was granted permission and it fortunately all worked out.”
To Thine Own (Runner) Self be True
“If it ever looks like I’m quivering when I’m running, I’ll know, I hope, and my friends and family will know, when it’s time to say, ‘Okay, you’ve had enough.’ . . . I’ve been very blessed as far as serious injuries are concerned. Someday I know there’ll be a finish line, but not yet, I hope.”