CAPE ELIZABETH — Ben True hugged Joan Benoit Samuelson and the embrace was full of honest-to-goodness emotion. Never mind their great differences in age and accomplishments.
Never mind that he wasn’t born when she won the 1984 Olympic gold medal and ran into America’s hearts.
True finished third to Bedan Karoki and Stephen Kosgei in Saturday’s TD Beach to Beacon 10K. Samuelson was congratulating him and he was over the moon.
“She’s Joan,” said True. “Of course she’s relevant and it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female.”
Tuesday is the 30th anniversary of Samuelson’s astonishing run to win the first women’s marathon in Olympics history. It’s been 35 years since she won the Boston Marathon for the first time in 1979. She won it again in 1983.
Samuelson is 57 now, but her shadow over the sport of women’s distance running has grown rather than diminished. Probably because no American has been able to take her place.
“She’s the one,” said Sheri Piers of Falmouth, the women’s masters winner Saturday. “She is the face of running. This sport is tough and it’s mean. When you slow down, you get pushed aside or swept under the rug.
“That’s never happened to Joan. She’s the top dog. I think she’ll always be on top.”
Samuelson stood maybe five yards behind the finish line Saturday, watching the final kick to the finish. She saw the drama play out as Karoki and Kosgei collapsed in exhaustion almost at her feet. Then there was True, the Mainer from North Yarmouth. His goal is to become an Olympian. A tick bite hurt his chances in 2012.
Now he was trying to catch the Kenyans. He was like a white stallion running between the fallen on a field of battle, said Samuelson. Yes, even she can turn poetic in the passion of a close race.
She embraced young Will Geoghegan of Brunswick, the first designated Maine runner to finish. She embraced Gemma Steel and Shalane Flanagan, who finished a very close one-two in the women’s race.
Instead of peeling off to hobnob with the elites, Samuelson stayed to slap hands, cheer and congratulate the thousands of other runners.
“Everyone knows my story,” she said. “But everyone has their story, too, and that’s what this race is about.”
Such a big heart for such a little woman. Janet Villiotte, 42, was several strides past the finish line when she did a neat about-face and doubled back. She had run right by Samuelson.
“I was 12 and growing up in Michigan when she ran out of the tunnel (at the Los Angeles Coliseum in the 1984 Olympics.) I said right then I was going to be just like Joan and become a runner.”
Thanks to life’s twists and turns, Villiotte moved to Cape Elizabeth several years ago. She’s run this race several times but Saturday was the first time she saw Samuelson. So Villiotte turned around. She had to tell Joan she was inspired by her. She had to thank her, 30 years later.
Katherine Dubois, 20, of Scarborough crossed the finish line, looked up, and there was Samuelson. “She said ‘Great job, great race.’ I’ll never forget that. I run cross country at Connecticut College and Joan inspires all of us.”
Leif Erickson, 37, and a Boston University graduate living in Gorham, altered his path to meet Samuelson.
“I started running two and a half years ago and she was my inspiration to start. My mom, too, because she battled cancer for 15 years with a sense of humor. But I saw Joan run in Boston and I’ve never forgot that.”
Heath MacVane of Yarmouth finished and saw Samuelson approach. She’s known MacVane since he was a youngster growing up on an island in Casco Bay, he said. She had to tell him: nice job. “What do I see now? Her strength, her kindness.”
True sometimes goes on training runs with Samuelson. At 28 his legs are much fresher. Then he glances over at Samuelson and gets a full dose of her tenacity.
Samuelson brought vegetables from her garden to the True family household the other day.
When Karen Rand McWatters, a Boston Marathon bombing survivor, moved to the Portland area last year, she and her husband, Kevin, found a plant at their front door. It was a housewarming gift from Samuelson, who also sought out Kevin McWatters in April before he ran the Boston Marathon. She had cookies to give him.
Larry Wold is the president of TD Bank Maine, the race’s primary sponsor. He’s run in the race every year. “I’m running to the finish, see Joan and think, ‘How cool is this?’ ”
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: