FREEPORT – It’s been almost 30 years to the day since Joan Benoit Samuelson took gold in the inaugural women’s Olympic marathon, exploding gender barriers in the running world. And in that time, she’s used her fame as a means of improving life for countless others.

It’s common knowledge that she’s the founder of Maine’s premier road race, the TD Beach to Beacon 10K, which has grown since its inception in 1998 to attract elite athletes from across the globe and each year raises mountainous donations for a different charity.

Samuelson has lived in Freeport for many years with her husband Scott and children Abby and Anders. She was hardly an unknown before the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, of course. By the time those games rolled around, she’d been setting records for years. She started, as all great athletes do, at a young age, running high school track in Cape Elizabeth, her hometown. She moved on to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, where she earned All-American honors. In 1979 she won the Boston Marathon, setting American and course record times in the process. Four years later, she won again – and set a new world record in doing so.

The Tri-Town Weekly caught up with Samuelson by phone, as she was preparing for another important milestone, the 40th anniversary of the Bix 7 road race in Iowa, which she’s been running for more than 20 years. Samuelson will be back in Maine for events leading up to Aug. 2’s Beach to Beacon.

Q: On Aug. 5, it’ll be exactly 30 years since you were the first women’s gold medalist in the Olympic marathon. How are you feeling, looking back?

A: It’s really hard for me to believe it’s been 30 years. I look at it as a time to reflect on a career that’s been good to me, and has given me an opportunity to pay it forward. I had an incredible amount of support during my developmental years, and I continue to have a lot of support, from friends in the sport, and especially everybody who’s been involved with the Beach to Beacon. To be able to have a vision, and to see it through to the event that it is today, just gives me a great feeling of being part of a much larger community. And it’s all because of the people who’ve come forward to volunteer their time and expertise – and that includes the runners and the sponsors, and the town of Cape Elizabeth and the surrounding communities as well.

Q: We always have this impression of vividly remembering particular moments in our lives. Do you remember crossing that finish line 30 years ago just as vividly as the most vivid other moments in your life?

A: The memories are still very dear. It’s hard for me to imagine that that happened 30 years ago. The fact that I’m still in the game, and still running and still trying to set goals 30 years later, just boggles my mind. That was certainly the biggest win in my career, but as far as races are concerned, being able to run this year’s Boston Marathon with our two children was an incredible experience as well. I never dreamed of seeing that day. That we have two children who seem to enjoy the sport as much as we do gives my husband and I great joy. And finishing within 30 minutes of each other 30 years after the Olympics was sort of an unspoken goal of mine, and that happened.

It’s all about storytelling, and it’s through storytelling that I’m able to motivate myself to get out there. That was a story, just like the story last year was to run within 30 minutes of my time 30 years ago in Boston, when I ran a 2:22, which at the time was a Boston record. I think the Beach to Beacon tells a story for a lot of people. The stories that emanate from that race, I find very inspiring – and it’s all because of the people.

Q: What’s one story that the Beach to Beacon has told, since you founded it?

A: The fact that we benefit a different children’s charity every year is extremely important, and it helps to make the race what it is. It touches the community on a variety of fronts because of the beneficiaries that are involved. But I’m also very moved by the number of people who have come off the sidelines to either volunteer or run – people who thought they’d never be able to cover 6.2 miles. They see the runners running by, and ask themselves, “Might I be able to do this?” Therefore they set goals, and in so doing, they’re improving their lives. When somebody improves their life, they become a better person; they feel better, and they can go out and inspire somebody else.

Q: It’s been 30 years since LA, but you’re clearly still going strong. The Beach to Beacon is a teenager now; it sails in and out of Cape each year, and is a more attractive event for more eyes. People look forward to it more and more every year. Do you have other events, goals, accomplishments in mind that you want to tackle next? Another road race you want to start somewhere? Do you want to climb Mount Everest?

A: Well, I haven’t climbed Everest, but I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro and I’ve climbed Katahdin. It’s all about the 10Ks and the Ks. You know, I consider myself a visionary, not an implementer, and that’s why I have so many people to thank. And I hate to single out people, except to say, we have the best race director in the world in Dave McGillivray, and Dave Weatherbie carried the torch as the president of the organization for the first 16 years, before appropriately handing it off to Mike Stone. Our leadership is exceptional, and that’s a story in itself. But I hesitate to single people out, because it’s taken the entire organization, the sponsorship and the volunteers to make the event what it is.

As I said, I’m a visionary, not an implementer, and I spend a lot of time thinking while I’m out training, and yes, I do have more ideas. I hope to see those through at some point. My whole mission now is to build awareness that prevention is to health what conservation is to the environment. The two are inextricably linked.

Q: Are any of the ideas that you have well-formed enough to mention?

A: Not yet, but hopefully soon.

Q: What do you do with a gold medal that you’ve had for a while? Do you move it around? Does it just stay on the mantle? Does it get in the way when you’re trying to dust?

A: It’s in a drawer. And depending on the weather, I can either open the drawer or not. Sometimes people come to the house, and they want to see the medal, and if it’s hot and humid, they may not be able to, because the chest will swell and I won’t be able to open the drawer. I don’t display the medal, but I’m happy to show it. I don’t take ownership of it. There were a lot of people involved in my journey who I’d like to think it would belong to. It’s generally part of history, but you can’t be complacent with history. You have to move forward and make the world a better place. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Joan Benoit Samuelson smiles in her official capacity as Beach to Beacon founder. Thirty years ago this week, Joan Benoit Samuelson of Freeport won the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon. 


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