9 Questions with Joan Benoit Samuelson
Plus, celebrate the 30th anniversary of the marathoner's Olympic win by making her favorite oatmeal cookie recipe
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Thirty years ago, a 27-year-old Joan Benoit ran through a tunnel into the L.A. Coliseum and won the first women’s Olympic marathon with a time of 2:24:52.
“I was living a dream,” says Benoit Samuelson, who had set a world’s best time at Boston the previous year. “I found running very accessible and affordable. It allows me to prioritize what’s going on in my life; it gives me time to breathe; it gives me a sense of well-being.”
Her big marathon victories, combined with her winning attitude, ignited a running boom among American women—a demographic that has continued to embrace the sport with more fervor and passion every year since.
According to RunningUSA.org, of the 180,000 marathon finishers in 1984, 34,200 (19 percent) of those were women. By 2013, 43 percent of marathon finishers were women (232,600 out of 541,000).
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Benoit Samuelson says. “I don’t know what to attribute that to, except I think women understand balance more than men. And if I dare say, I think they’re better at multitasking.”
On the eve of the anniversary of her gold-medal-winning race, Benoit Samuelson took time to reflect on her Olympic marathon, what’s changed since then, overcoming injury, and the best way to eat healthy—making an exception, of course, for her favorite oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (recipe below—you know, in case you want to multitask).
OUTSIDE: August 5 is the anniversary of your win at the ’84 Olympics. What are some of your memories from that race?
BENOIT SAMUELSON: I remember that first water stop and making the decision not to take water at that point. I never have a race strategy; it’s very important to run your own race and not anybody else’s. I hadn’t been running in a relaxed fashion—I was taking abbreviated stutter steps—so I just made the decision to bypass that water station and get out of the pack and find my own stride and my own space. Fortunately, I couldn’t hear the remarks from the press corps; I guess they were saying I’d made a grave error and that I didn’t know what I was doing. But deep down, I knew what I was doing, and I had faith in my training and faith in my fitness and faith in my career.
I also remember running on the L.A. freeway all by myself. That was sort of bizarre. Back home in Maine, I run on the backroads where I see very little if any vehicular traffic. I look forward to the day I can tell my grandchildren I ran down the Los Angeles freeway all by myself.
Did you consider having the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles a home field advantage?
Well, L.A. isn’t Maine, but I had a lot of friends and a lot of support out there. I felt totally comfortable. During the opening ceremonies, right after they announced the games were open, the American athletes ran to reach out to the Romanians; they were the only Eastern bloc country that didn’t boycott the games. It felt very necessary.
Initially, I stayed in the dorms next to the swimming arena, but because the Americans were doing so well in the swimming events early on, my adrenaline started to flow. I said, “I need to get out of here!” So right after the opening ceremonies, I flew up to Oregon [to Nike headquarters], where I was familiar with all the health community, training facilities, and trails.
I almost missed the flight because I noticed a wooden-toy store in the airport. I was getting married a month after the Olympics, and I saw a little wooden boat with little peg figures in the boat—my husband had built me a skiff—so I had to go in and buy that boat for the top of our wedding cake.
You broke your leg ski racing as a teenager and had knee surgery 17 days before the Olympic trials in 1984. What advice do you have for athletes trying to come back from an injury?
There’s a silver lining in every injury, and sometimes you don’t understand what the silver lining is at the time of injury. But once you start to heal and get back in the saddle, so to speak, you see the silver lining.
I always talk about “the Four Ps”: passion for what you’re doing, patience, persistence, and perseverance. I think those are all applicable to injuries.
What about diet?
I think you are what you eat. I get my nutrition through whole foods, good foods. I eat meat and fish, but free range or organic whenever possible. I’ve never depended on supplements. I have a big garden at home that we can eat out of six or seven months out of the year. I grow a ton of different things, including a ton of blueberries, which are high in antioxidants.
This morning, I finished 16, and I made a smoothie out of blueberries I picked, kale from my garden, orange juice, and a banana. Unfortunately, we can’t grow bananas in Maine, but the smoothie was mostly local.
I discovered coffee when I turned 50 and consider that my performance-enhancement drug of choice. As I aged and became a bit wiser, I could tolerate it. It gives me a little lift and a little buzz.
I try to fuel my body with good food, but I have some weaknesses for sweets. I make a mean oatmeal chocolate chip cookie, which is really an energy bar of sorts, if you will.
How has running gear changed since you started running marathons in the late ’70s?
Technology and fabric have changed the most. I used to wear these cotton T-shirts, and now apparel really breathes and works with the athlete’s body. Also, the colors are more bold; you feel fast, you feel like an athlete when you wear the color schemes.
With the evolution of apparel and shoes, running is an active lifestyle that people are beginning to accept and really aspire to. I used to not wear capris very often, and now I wear capris a lot because they’re accepted socially, whether I’m at the grocery story, an appointment, or whatever.
What about the evolution of running shoes?
In the early ’80s, I wore the Nike Daybreak, but then Nike discontinued it. I was freaking out because I was so used to that shoe. I’d just come off a knee injury, and I was worried about trying something new. But I came home one day and there was a big box on my stairs, and it was a case of Daybreaks that they’d located in Brazil and had flown in for me.
Now I’m wearing the Air Pegasus. I usually find a shoe that works for me, and I stick with it as long as I can. The technology changes, but I stockpile enough shoes so I can introduce a new shoe and alternate that shoe with the shoe I’m comfortable with. If you wear down a pair of training shoes and then introduce a brand-new shoe, there’s a significant difference, and that sometimes leads to injury. If you introduce a shoe or a new technology gradually by trading it out with a pair of shoes that are tried and true, then you minimize the risk of injury.
I am a subscriber with Nike+. I call it the tool of the devil. I can’t run with it, and I can’t run without it. I’m always trying to keep my pace below a certain number. Or, if I’m running 9.7 miles, why am I not running 10 miles? Or if I’m running 12, why am I not running a half marathon? That technology was never around when I was first starting.
You’re as competitive today as you were three decades ago. What’s your next race?
This weekend is the Beach to Beacon 10K, which I founded 17 years ago in my hometown. It’s going to feature Shalane Flanagan and Meb Keflezighi and several other top Americans, which I’m delighted about.
I have no plans for a fall marathon at this time, but I will run the Nike Women’s Half in San Francisco in October. I haven’t missed one yet, and it’s going to be a sad day when I do. I have a streak going.
I never thought I’d be in the game as long as I have been to date. Nike ran a campaign with me in 1990 entitled “There is no finish line.” I didn’t really understand what that tagline meant at the time, but I went along with it. Now I finally figured out what it means—because I have not found that finish line.
Joan Benoit Samuelson’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies
6 cups ground oatmeal
3 cups unbleached and/or whole-wheat flour
2 cups sugar
1 cup softened or melted butter
1 cup safflower or sunflower oil
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
2 cups chocolate chips
1 cup nuts and/or raisins (optional)
Mix all of the ingredients together.
Bake in small dollops at 325 to 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 to 12 minutes.
Makes approximately 5 dozen cookies.