May 21 2018
How running after losing my leg has helped me find my identity and purpose.
Republished from Run Strong, Stay Hungry by Jonathan Beverly with permission from VeloPress.
As she approached 50, Joan Benoit Samuelson faced a decision. Up until then, the queen of the American marathon was still competing in the lead pack. While she wasn’t winning large races anymore, she remained a fierce contender.
“In my mid-40s, I was racing, trying to run as fast as I can. I didn’t look at myself as a master runner,” she told me.
At 48, she qualified for her seventh Olympic Trials by running a 2:46:27 at the 2006 Twin Cities Marathon, placing 11th overall. Her times, however, were far slower than they had been, and while she never considered quitting running, she was thinking seriously about no longer competing.
“I got slower,” she said. “But I’m passionate about the sport. It’s part of who I am.” She knew she still wanted to compete, but she determined that the nature of her goals had to change. She couldn’t win outright, she couldn’t set new PRs, and age-group victories didn’t excite her.
So she started tying goal times to what she calls “stories.”
“When the trials were announced for Boston, I set a goal of running sub-2:50 at 50, where I started my career,” she said.
In interviews leading up to the trials, she hinted this would be her swan song. “I think it is pretty cool that I will most likely end my competitive marathoning career where I started my competitive marathoning career almost 30 years earlier.”
At the time, however, Benoit Samuelson was also dealing with an injury and debated even starting, as she’d never dropped out of a race before and certainly didn’t want to do so at the trials. Despite this uncertainty, she did start and went on to finish under her goal time, running a 2:49:08.
“I accomplished the goal and walked away with Deena and Magdalena [Lewy-Boulet] and Blake Russell,” she said. “They waited for me at the finish line, which was really sweet. I thought, What a way to go out.”
But then a funny thing happened: She didn’t go out. Stories continued to compel her.
The next year she got a call from Mary Wittenberg. Wittenburg, president of the New York Road Runners, said, “How would you like to come to New York to celebrate the 25th anniversary of your Olympic win and the 40th anniversary of the New York City Marathon?”
Benoit Samuelson thought, Well, that tells a story. And off she went to New York.
The next year, Carey Pinkowski, executive race director for the Chicago Marathon, called. “It was the 25th anniversary of my fastest time in Chicago and the date was 10/10/10—and that told a story,” Benoit Samuelson said.
Then it was the Athens Marathon, celebrating the 2,500th anniversary of the Battle of Marathon. “As a marathoner, I really ought to go,” she recalled thinking.
And so she has run through her 50s, chasing one compelling story after another. In 2013, she ran the Boston Marathon on the 30th anniversary of her fastest time, with a goal of running within 30 minutes of that time. She achieved the goal, and then “all hell broke loose with the bombs, so I had to come back the next year.”
The next year was the 30th anniversary of her Olympic victory and the first time her two children ran in a marathon with her. They set a goal of all finishing within 30 minutes of each other.
“It’s the stories that motivate me to keep going and keep it fresh,” she said. “And then in so doing, I’m told I often motivate others, which is a bonus. I’m doing it to tell my story—if I can pull others along with me, that’s pretty cool.”
The next story, she said, was to run a marathon in her home state of Maine, which she had never done. She planned to do it the weekend after her 60th birthday alongside Michael Westphal, a high school friend now running marathons with Parkinson’s disease, who would also be celebrating his 60th birthday.
And after that? “I’d love to run under 3:00 at 60,” she said.
It’s an arbitrary number, three hours. But it’s a story that compels her, and it is appropriate for her fitness level today. She’s not sure she can run sub-3:00—it will take work. The challenge is enough to keep her doing long runs when she finds herself on a nice day with clear roads, racing cars to the next stop sign when she’s feeling frisky, and going to yin yoga classes once a week.
While it is challenging, it is also a goal within reach. Benoit Samuelson is not trying to win Chicago* or match the PR of 2:21 that she ran there in 1985. She knows that if she can get in the miles and stay healthy, and then focus and race tough, just as she has all her life, she has a good chance of making it. It’s the same challenge she’s faced for 45 years—the numbers are irrelevant.
Benoit Samuelson said people often question her, asking, “You were giving it up. What’s going on?”
She tells them, “I said I was going to give up competitive marathoning. I never said what constitutes competitive.”
Benoit Samuelson’s recognition that she gets to define what constitutes competitive lies at the heart of the strategy many runners use to stay hungry for a lifetime. Runners who can adapt their view of what it means to be competitive and what constitutes success will never run out of challenges and satisfaction.
*Editor’s Note: Joan Benoit Samuelson withdrew from the 2017 Chicago Marathon after this book’s publication due to injury.