The Marathon's Maine Woman

Down East runner Joan Benoit strode into downtown Beantown with a stunning world best—2:22:42
May 01, 1983

Joan Benoit stood calmly at the Boston Marathon starting line on April 18, serene amid chaos. Around her, tiny Hopkinton, Mass. was enduring its annual Patriots Day siege. Helicopters whirled overhead. The 6,674 shivering runners nervously shed their disposable old sweaters and plastic garbage bags, wedged together on the narrow road and were astonished at the warmth generated within their mass.

Many of the competitors had rows of numbers inked on their wrists or palms, the times they hoped to hit at intermediate points. Benoit was clean. She had a goal, an immodest one, but it was secret. Besides, an even pace this day would be subordinate to racing tactics. That was because nearby trotted Allison Roe of New Zealand, the women's world-record holder at 2:25:29.

The morning before, Roe had telephoned Benoit with the news that Grete Waitz of Norway, who had brought the women's record down more than nine minutes in the 1978, '79 and '80 New York Marathons and from whom Roe had wrested the mark by 13 seconds in the 1981 New York race, had that day tied the record in the London Marathon. Roe's intent in passing this along was to encourage Benoit to join in a record attempt. But Benoit, holder of the U.S. women's mark at 2:26:11, joins nothing but battle. "Usually there's somebody I want to run into the ground," she told Roe. "But my goal tomorrow is just to run the best race I'm capable of."

At the gun Benoit bolted out with reckless swiftness. Her time for the first mile was 4:47, a bare 11 seconds slower than her personal best for the distance. "Rumor had it that Allison was going to sit on my tail," she would say later. "I wasn't going to wait around and play cat and mouse."

Roe wouldn't see Benoit for the rest of the race. She led by a minute at five miles, which she reached so quickly that race officials missed her completely. At 10 miles her time was 51:38, shattering her American record at that distance by a gaudy minute and 40 seconds. Noting her pace, an experienced male runner near Benoit had already told her, "You better watch it, lady."

Indeed, the sensational start seemed to place Benoit in mortal peril. A blazing early pace is, typically, the way runners come unhinged at Boston. There are lots of tempting downhills in the early going. Their price isn't exacted until the last eight miles. A year earlier Waitz had run at a 2:23 pace until the last three miles, but her thighs were so shocked by the pounding by then that they cramped and she couldn't finish.

Benoit knew this. She's the women's distance coach at Boston University. Yet she charged undeterred through the cheers from Wellesley College students to reach the halfway point in 1:08:23. "Two-seventeen pace," she thought. "This isn't right." Even her secret goal had been only 2:24. She had told intimates to expect a spectacular race from her, but whether it would be one of revelation or collapse she didn't yet know.

Benoit, at 25, is defined by both startling athletic achievement and collapse. Her competitive tenacity strikes many as incongruous with her 5'3", 105-pound Campbell's Soup-kid appearance. But it is never far from the surface, and it often has compelled her to damage herself in the hunt for better performance.

She began as a downhill skier, natural for the daughter of Andre Benoit of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, because he'd been an enlisted man in the Tenth Mountain Division, fighting in the Italian Alps in World War II. "Her first race was a little thing, only halfway down the bunny slope," he recalls. "Joanie won. She was only in the third grade, but you could see the exhilaration in her face."

Character revealed. She seemed such a cute, soft, quiet child. Only in sport did the wildness show. The look that her father saw as exhilaration, others, watching her run in later years, took to be a deep hunger. "Her eyes," a voice in the crowd once remarked as she passed, "are as hungry as a shark's."

Skiing showed the absolutist in her. At age 16 she appealed to her parents to let her transfer from Cape Elizabeth High to Burke Mountain School in Vermont, because there she could ski eight hours a day and be tutored in the evening.

"By mutual agreement, we decided it wasn't the best thing," says her father.

Benoit remembers it differently. "He said no." There was absolutism in the father as well.

It was skiing that first hurt her. In her sophomore year in high school she broke her right leg while slalom racing. The cast came off 10 weeks later, and she started running to rehabilitate the atrophied limb. By her senior year in high school, her mile time was down to 5:15.

But she couldn't yet abandon all her other sports. She played basketball and tennis in high school and co-captained the field-hockey team. When she went to Bowdoin, among the pines and stone outcroppings of Brunswick, Maine, she kept on with field hockey. Then in her sophomore year she was benched for turning up at a game unable to move at more than a trot because she'd run a half marathon the day before, finishing second. In response, the absolutist emerged.

After that season she quit field hockey—and Bowdoin—to go to North Carolina State, to train with the prodigiously gifted Julie Shea. Benoit was miserable there. Shea tore her up in workouts. And she never felt comfortable in the South. "I'm a Yankee," she says. "I missed Maine. I missed the ocean." She went home after three semesters, returned to Bowdoin, studying history and the environment, and has based herself in New England ever since.

She has now become an accomplished exponent of the trades of her region. She is an experienced lobsterwoman, in both the trapping and the cooking. She knits soft wool sweaters that depict farm scenes overhung with knit apple trees and knit apples. She square-dances, puts up delicious preserves, collects stamps. And she loves to take long runs in the peaceful morning countryside.

It was these that prepared her for her first Boston Marathon, in 1979, her senior year at Bowdoin. She had slept on a friend's floor the night before. They got stuck in an immense traffic jam before the race. "I just got out of the car and ran through the woods," she says. "I must have bushwhacked two miles to the start. I remember thinking, 'I hope I didn't warm up too much.' "

She had time to cool, trapped back in the pack, waiting to run after the gun had gone off. She moved into the lead after 19 miles. At the 23-mile mark she picked up a Red Sox cap from a friend. And that was what she wore as she crossed the finish line in the rain, an upset winner in the women's race with an American record of 2:35:15.

At once she was thrust into the maelstrom of delirious attention that swirls about a Boston winner: interviews, invitations, offers; the phone ringing, always ringing. There was even a movie producer demanding her portfolio. "Just a few poses in leotard and tennis and cheerleading outfits," he said. "Yeah, right," said Benoit, restraining herself.

All this celebrity became a vexation to a private young woman from Maine who had done what she had done not to be famous, but because a long hard run was what she seemed born for. "I hated the publicity," she says. "I hated it so much that I seriously considered giving up running so I would be left alone."

That would be O.K. with her mother. The extremity to which the marathon forces Joan is repellent to Nancy Benoit. Once she sent her daughter a picture of herself crossing a marathon finish line, pale and limp and chilled. She attached a note that read, "Joanie, if marathons make you look like this, please don't run any more. Love, Mom."

Benoit passed 15 miles in this year's Boston race in 1:18:56. She was still on 2:17 pace. Jaqueline Gareau of Canada, who had won in 1980 after the chicanery of Rosie Ruiz had been exposed, was moving up to second, where she would finish with 2:29:27. "There is fear when you do what Joan did," she would say. "Maybe you will break down."

"I was getting a little scared by the splits," Benoit would say. "But heck, I felt so good."

That's a relative term for a marathoner. She had been developing blisters since six miles. Now, at 17 miles, she got a stitch in her side. She slowed slightly and took some water. Minutes later at that same spot, Roe dropped out with leg cramps.

Benoit's stride is not long, but rapid, her heels rising high behind her. She maintained her cadence over the hills, and at 20 miles her time was 1:46:44. She was slowing but still well ahead of record pace. At 21 miles, Heartbreak Hill was behind her, too.

Hers are Achilles' heels. They became chronically sore in 1979, when in the span of four days she ran a marathon and two-mile, 800-meter and 10,000-meter races. Both Achilles tendons tightened so that she couldn't walk for days. Her good races after that, including two American-record half marathons, were achieved in pain. She wondered whether running was worth it. "She kept chickening out of surgery," says Bob Sevene, her Athletics West coach. "Finally she gave the surgeon a shot, even though we practically had to drag her into the hospital."

During the operation degenerated bursa sacs in both heels were taken out. The right tendon was partially ruptured. Scar tissue and bone spurs had to be removed. The doctor put walking casts on both of Benoit's legs. But two days after getting out of the hospital she was pedaling furiously on a stationary bicycle. "The little body tends to hide the tiger," says Sevene. "But of all the people I've ever coached, she is the most tenacious."

She also worked on Nautilus machines. And when the casts came off, she added swimming workouts. "My overall strength and fitness increased," Benoit says. "I was hungry to get going."

This she did last spring and summer with U.S. bests for 10 miles and for the half marathon. In August she shattered Waitz's course record at the 7.1-mile Falmouth road race by 39 seconds, with a 36:34. "A friend got married the night before the race," she said. "I won Falmouth on vodka and wedding cake."

In September, in what now seems a harbinger of a race, she ran the Nike Marathon in Eugene, Ore. She heard no accurate splits after her halfway time of 1:11:20, thought she had slowed too much for any kind of mark and then finished sprinting in an American women's record 2:26:11, the third-best marathon time ever run by a woman. An hour and a half after the race she was getting her hands all scratched up picking the large blackberries that grew near the course. "I'd stay in a berry patch all summer," she said, "so long as I didn't get poison ivy. I ran here instead of the Chicago Marathon because I knew about these. Chicago doesn't have any blackberries."

Benoit put in a good winter's training before the Boston Marathon. She ran well in cross-country, indoors and on the roads. In March she led the U.S. women to the world cross-country title in Gateshead, England. Waitz won the individual title. Benoit was fourth.

Two days before that race, she went out on a purportedly gentle 10-mile run with a not entirely decrepit past Olympic marathoner who prefers not to be named and practically killed him on the uphills. "It was like I was back being destroyed by Gerry Lindgren again," he marveled later.

If that weren't enough indication of fitness, a treadmill test measuring maximum oxygen consumption that Benoit took in the winter was. Men, science says, score higher on this measure of aerobic capacity than do women. For example, Greg Meyer, this year's Boston men's winner with a sterling time of 2:09:00, consumes 80 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute at full effort. By contrast, Mary Decker Tabb tested at 67 ml/kg/min. three years ago. By more amazing contrast, Benoit's reading is 79, the highest ever by a woman. The test cannot predict performance, but is a guide to potential. "Confirms what we already knew," says Sevene. "She's nowhere near her limits."

Both Sevene and Benoit recognize that if her potential is ever to be reached, her compulsive mileage-gathering has to be held within limits. Her tendons are still vulnerable. "Looking back," says Benoit, "I guess the surgery was a blessing in disguise. It made me rest—something I'm not very good at." Two weeks before Boston, when most runners would be relaxing their training, she put in a 125-mile week, 10 more than she'd ever done. Asked why, she smiles. "I don't know," she says.

It wasn't until she reached Coolidge Corner, two miles from the finish, that the fatigue began to be almost insurmountable. "But I was still in control," Benoit says. And there were the Boston U women she coaches, howling at her from up in the trees that line Beacon Street. She would make it now. The cheers escalated into a din.

She crossed the finish line at the Prudential Center in 2:22:42, a world's best by two minutes and 47 seconds. It was a time that would have won every men's Olympic marathon through 1956. She would have beaten the immortal 1952 champion, Emile Zatopek of Czechoslovakia, by 21.2 seconds. There being no berry patches in downtown Boston, Benoit celebrated by dancing at a Beantown night spot, the 57 Club, until the wee hours of the next morning.

This may not have been Benoit's magic day, in the sense that she will have no other. The last half of her race was six minutes slower than the first, in part because of the hills, in larger part because of her headlong early pace. Had she balanced the halves of her race, she might have been able to approach 2:20. This is the time she has said it will take to win the first women's Olympic marathon, next year in Los Angeles.

For now her thoughts are more on the coming summer, when she'll leave her post at Boston University and move back to Maine, where there's a seaside house she will renovate and then gradually fill with antiques. A friend up there is building a lobster boat, and in back of the house there's a tideflat full of clams.

The odds are that diversions such as these will temper her compulsion for long runs in the thick, salty Atlantic air just enough for her tendons to hold. She'll not dwell for long on the magnitude of what she has done. She'll just matter-of-factly train and knit and pick and can, and happily emerge in about a year for the Olympic Trials and the Olympics to show us that even this marvelous display at Boston was mere bushwhacking, just warming up.

PHOTOBenoit rose to the occasion by breaking the women's best by two minutes, 47 seconds. PHOTOOther women left far behind, Benoit raced men in Boston. TWO PHOTOSMom hates marathons and Dad prefers skiing, but they can understand Joan's native yen for knitting and antiques.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)