Joan Benoit Samuelson still gets stopped on the streets of Chicago by fans. It was at the 1985 Chicago Marathon that the first Olympic gold medalist in the women’s marathon toed the line for the 26.2-mile distance for the first time since her historic win in Los Angeles 14 months before.
“In 1984, I just remember being excited in Chicago but also I was exhausted from the Olympics, my wedding and I thought there was no way I could run a marathon,” Benoit recalled. “I made a commitment to return the next year.”
Benoit says that she felt she owed it to her country to run her next marathon in Chicago and to chase a fast time in the race that had been dubbed “America’s Marathon.”
The field in 1985 was one of the best assembled since the Los Angeles Olympics the previous year. Benoit would take on the 1983 and 1984 Chicago champion and Olympic bronze medalist in Rosa Mota of Portugal and Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, who had had set the women’s world record of 2:21:06 in winning the London Marathon earlier that year. That mark had eclipsed Samuelson’s 2:22:43 run in the ’83 Boston Marathon, on a point-to-point course.
“It was almost like an Olympic replay,” Samuelson says. “We were all trying to beat Ingrid. I wasn’t thinking so much about her time as I was trying to beat the world record holder in the marathon.”
The days leading up to the race were sunny, but clouds took over and a dark sky hung over Chicago on race day. According to The Chicago Tribune, Samuelson’s coach, Bob Sevene, was hoping she would break 2:20 on the day. To this day, Samuelson remembers being put off slightly by the weather.
From the gun, Samuelson and Kristiansen ran together stride-for-stride, something the Olympic gold medalist disliked and felt tired her out. They came past the half-marathon marker in 1:09:33 and remained under sub-2:20 pace through 19 miles.
Watch the final miles between Samuelson and Kristiansen below:
Samuelson never looked back during the race. Before the 20th mile, Kristiansen was dropped as Samuelson pulled away in her red-and-white Nike Athletics West kit. She would not look back until she crossed the finish line in a personal best of 2:21:21. No one was in sight, as Kristiansen would not cross for almost another two minutes in second place, with Mota taking third.
Samuelson got what she wanted in a victory. The time on the clock was icing on the cake, but left her wanting more.
“It wasn’t until after the marathon that I said to myself ‘Man, I should’ve gone for a sub-2:20 marathon’ because I was so close given the way I was feeling,” Samuelson says. “I intentionally left something in the tank with the thought that Ingrid or Rosa might come up on me at the end of the race.”
Samuelson did not look at the marathon course before a race and believes that Chicago was once instance in which she wished she had. Samuelson’s next fastest marathon would come at the 1991 Boston Marathon, where she ran 2:26:54 for fourth place. She never broke 2:21, but held onto the American record for 21 years. until Deena Kastor lowered the mark to 2:19:36 in 2006.
“I knew she was going to be the next one instinctively,” Samuelson says. “I’d never put anything past Deena, but realistically on paper, Shalane Flanagan is the next person to do it.”
Thirty years later, Samuelson and Kastor will run in the same marathon for the first time since the 2008 Olympic trials. In that race, Kastor was victorious and Samuelson ran 2:49:08 for a sub-2:50 marathon at the age of 50. Now Samuelson runs regularly at her own pace, depending on how her body feels. Her mileage, she says, sometimes peaks into the low 80s for a week.
“This time around, I’d like to run 30 minutes within the time that I ran here 30 years ago,” Samuelson says. “That will be a huge challenge for me. Note that I said I’d ‘like to’ not that I will.”
Once at the front of major races, Samuelson has now become a story-teller with the marathon. In 2014, she celebrated the 30th anniversary of her Olympic victory by running within 30 minutes of her son and daughter in Boston.
After Sunday, Samuelson will looks to tailoring another storyline to make her runs interesting. She will turn 60 in two years, which could make for some fun ideas.
“Then again, if I were to run a sub-3:00 marathon in 2020, I think I’d be the first person to do that across five decades,” Samuelson jokes before going back on her suggestion. “Who knows? I’m just happy to get on the starting line here.”