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Run-Girl Power With Olympic Medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson!

Photo courtesy of Nike
Photo courtesy of Nike

In 1984, Joan Benoit Samuelson completed—and won—the first women’s marathon in history, at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Twenty years later, in celebration of her groundbreaking accomplishment, that same woman became the voice of what would soon become the iconic Nike Women’s Marathon (and half) in San Francisco—Nike 26.2. And on Oct. 20, 2013, I cruised the streets with 30,000 other females (with males scattered throughout) as part of the 10th anniversary race of the now two-race series.

In just a few words, I was completely in awe of my experience and humbled by my surrounding competitors. Media from over 10 different countries and participants from 54 countries slammed San Francisco for the historic event, with nearly 10 percent of its field donning purple and representing Team in Training along the course.

The course was—for lack of a better word—intense. My start ‘group’ was bunched with the top starting times at the start line—a testament to how the road races are increasingly all-inclusive to any type of runner (I do not consider myself a front-of-the-pack runner). It was less about cranking out the fastest time and collapsing at the finish line and more about the female camaraderie and energy surrounding my 13.1-mile journey. While I was among thousands of frontrunners that met my pace—or faster—our ‘group’ led the other 75 percent of the field, a fierce crowd that took to the streets and stuck it to the man (or lack thereof) when it came to thoughts of ‘can’t’ or ‘don’t’—and that fierce girl power was the true tell that we had created something great.

We were running because we could. It was unrelenting drive like I’d never seen it and encouragement like I’ve never felt it.

During my time with Joan, or, as so many of the esteemed Nike employees called her, “Joanie,” I reached for any opportunity to gain a better understanding of why this third running boom—the fem-boom as it was dubbed—has taken off more quickly than Florencia Borelli’s winning half-marathon time (1:18:22). What about the sport was captivating females by the masses and pushing them toward start lines and beyond their self-imposed limits? Where is this warm feeling of sisterhood coming from?

“You see these women not only accept the opportunity [to run], but also run past the opportunity and do great things for the world. It’s the common bond that threads through our sport,” Joan explains.

Perhaps she was onto something—running is no longer as individualized as it was once viewed. With the rampant rising of social media communication and various bragging outlets (yes, I am on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter multiple times a day), women have the ability to share every accomplishment, every mile, every breath, every feeling of “hell yea!” with a network of fem-supporters, many she might have never even met. (I was definitely tracking one of my favorite bloggers all weekend—never met the girl, but she crushed her first half marathon in 1:39.33!) And that powerful support that reaches beyond the boundaries of face-to-face communication is what allows us ladies to share our goals and allows our growing network of runners to hold us accountable simply by following our journey from afar.

“Because our sport is so accessible, goal setting is hugely important for running success. Once you open the doorway to our sport, you will find inspiring stories of all kinds. Let those stories carry you through the hard parts.”

Aside from the obvious fact that I was in the presence of Joan-greatness, I was completely humbled as I listened to her speak passionately on the fem-boom within her sport. I couldn’t kick the giddy, nerdy, runner-girl feeling of a star struck athlete; I was sitting next to the woman that started it all. We ran that day because we could—but only because she ran when she was told she could not.

I asked her if she viewed herself as the inspiration she is to thousands of blossoming runners today—some of who had never even heard of Joan Benoit Samuelson before Oct. 20. “I consider myself a person on a journey that was inspired by my passion for the sport. So many people remain in the sport even when they can no longer run—once a runner, always a runner.”

Well said, Joanie. Well said.

Did you race in San Francisco with Nike on Oct. 20? Tweet @caitpilk and tell me about your experience! I had a great one—I hope you did too!