CAPE ELIZABETH – Five minutes before the start of Saturday’s TD Beach to Beacon 10K with its thousands of moving parts and months of preparation, an elite female runner approached Joan Benoit Samuelson with a question.
“I’ve never run a 10K road race before,” said Alexi Pappas, the irrepressible Dartmouth graduate. “Can you give me some advice?”
Some 6,200 runners were ready to surge at the sound of the air horn starting the 16th running of Maine’s most anticipated road race. Rain clouds crowded the sky. The increased security presence in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings was discrete but visible. Emotions were taut.
Samuelson put aside her mental checklist. The Beach to Beacon is her vision, her baby. She doesn’t hand off the big tasks or the small chores. Pappas was vying for Samuelson’s attention and got it.
Samuelson ran much of this course as a young girl, long before she won the 1984 women’s marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics. She understood the younger woman’s nervous anticipation and did something about it.
Go out hard but have something left by Mile 4. Go hard again. Pappas took the tactics and ran with them.
Sixteen years after its first run, Beach to Beacon remains the big race with the big heart without the big-time attitude. Part sporting event, part spectacle, it takes its cues from the unpretentious Samuelson. She’s at the finish to congratulate the winners and elite runners, and to welcome the thousands of citizen runners who finish an hour or two later.
In turn, they have haven’t stopped thanking her for lending her credibility and passion to a race for the elites and for them.
That gratitude was shown last year and every summer going back 16 years. Remarkably, as the years go by, more and more finishers weren’t alive when Samuelson won Olympic gold in 1984. It doesn’t matter.
“I think every Maine runner loves this race,” said Riley Masters, the Bangor-area native who transferred from the University of Maine to the University of Oklahoma. On his third try, he won the Maine men’s division.
“So much of this is sentimental because she’s such an icon,” he said.
Samuelson has been so visible for so long it’s easy to take her running success for granted, or relegate her gold medal and marathon victories to the record books. Think of this: No Maine woman, no American woman, has been called the next Joan Benoit Samuelson. She’s the list. She’s still the example. We’re still waiting for a No. 2 or No. 3.
The agnostics, or those who give little thought to race preparation or strategy and dismiss anything not played with a stick or a ball, wonder what’s the fuss about people running. Where’s the drama in this race? Where are the Americans?
Trailing the East African runners again.
You don’t have to wave an American flag to appreciate the victories or the human drama. Take Gemma Steel of England. She finished second to Joyce Chepkirui by 12 seconds and was so excited, a race organizer escorted her to the postrace interview saying Steel was the women’s winner. Whoops.
Steel’s flight across the Atlantic wasn’t booked until a week before the race. Larry Barthlow, the elite runner coordinator, couldn’t find her at first at Logan Airport after her arrival a couple days ago.
She was in an airport doughnut shop, working on illustrations for a children’s book written by her twin sister. Patient, unconcerned and confident someone would appear to take her to Cape Elizabeth. No diva in this athlete.
She was still floating an hour or two after the finish. She had run with six of the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, beating all but one. It was the best day of her running career. It was the best day of her life.
At the awards ceremony Steel sat next to Pappas, the screenwriter/playwright. In her first 10K road race, Pappas finished a surprising 10th. Samuelson’s advice had paid off.
Maybe 150 runners lounged on the grass or wandered over to the edge of Fort Williams to get their photos taken with the Portland Head Light in the background. Many didn’t notice the member of the South Portland Police Department standing at his post high on the tower with his weapon slung over his shoulder and binoculars at his eyes.
The thousands of citizen runners had already melted away. Their prizes weren’t the modest checks or the laurel wreaths. As always, their prize was running and finishing Joanie’s race.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: