With no illusions, realist Samuelson runs back into the limelight

April 21, 1991|By Phil Hersh | Phil Hersh,Chicago Tribune

BOSTON -- She is too much the practical New Englander, to much the realist to be carried away by success, relative or total.

That is why Joan Benoit Samuelson did not immediately see more Olympic glory ahead of her after she had put an inglorious recent past behind her.

"This," said the 1984 Olympic marathon champion, "is one of my intermediate goals. I don't know what comes next."

This was the desire to run well again at the Boston Marathon, then and now the most famous event in distance running. To Samuelson, of Freeport, Maine, it had additional meaning.

It was the race in which she had established herself as a talented young athlete with her 1979 victory as Joan Benoit, 21, the Bowdoin College student running with the Red Sox cap. It was the race in which she had became one of the world's leading runners with her 1983 victory in a world-record time. And it was the race that had seemed to mark the end of her pre-eminence with her 1989 ninth place in the worst time of her career.

She was humbled that day, reduced to tears, yet resolute in her will to return at a more respectable level, the level Samuelson had known for more than a decade of brilliant marathoning. She knew it was not going to be easy, what with two young children to care for and a 33-year-old body that also was crying for more tender, loving care.

"Sleep deprivation is a big strike against us [mothers], but I've always said motherhood is a form of cross-training," she said. "The marathon of motherhood has given me more strength."

And there it was Monday, as Samuelson set the pace in the the first 2 miles, ran on or near the lead for more than half the 26.2-mile race, leaned forward into the challenge as she always had done.

There again was the single-minded athlete who fearlessly had run alone for 23 miles in the Los Angeles heat to win the first Olympic women's marathon, who the next year had produced a tactical masterpiece to win the Chicago Marathon in a time -- 2 hours, 21 minutes, 21 seconds -- that still stands as the U.S. record.

The 95th Boston Marathon was only Samuelson's third run at the distance since 1985 and her first since the disaster of two years ago. The birth of her two children -- Abigail, 3 1/2 , and Anders, 1 -- and recurring leg and back problems had thwarted several attempts at significant comebacks.

This was it. Another effort like the 2:37:52 of 1989 could have XTC withered the will of even an athlete as stalwart as Samuelson.

"I said coming here that I would be happy with a time under 2:30 and a finish in the top 10," she recalled.

So it made no difference that she lost second place with a half-mile to go. It made no difference she was beaten for third by 2 seconds.

Once again, Joan Benoit Samuelson was in tears at the end of the Boston Marathon.

There was a big difference.

"These were tears of joy instead of frustration," Samuelson said.

She had run the distance in 2:26:54, good enough to finish fourth in the most competitive women's race ever at Boston.

She had run with frenetic pacesetters Wanda Panfil of Poland and Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway for the first half of the race, then hung with Panfil for a mile after Kristiansen dropped back in the 14th mile.

"I was running on empty for the last half of the race," Samuelson said.

Panfil, 32, would run away to victory in 2:24:18, breaking her Polish national record by 2:13. It was the second-fastest time ever at Boston, bettered only by Samuelson's 2:22:43 in 1983.

Kristiansen, 35, also a mother of two, faded to sixth in 2:29:24, her first defeat in seven marathons dating to 1985 and her slowest time in a decade.

"It is only 8 1/2 months since the birth of my daughter," Kristiansen said, "and this pregnancy was a lot harder than the last. I had to stay in bed for nine weeks during the pregnancy.

"My legs simply weren't ready for this. From halfway, it was terrible. I was working hard just to finish."

Meanwhile, inexorable Kim Jones of Seattle and Uta Pippig of Germany worked their way up from behind for second and third.

Jones, 31, was the first U.S. runner and first mother (she has a 10-year-old daughter) in a personal best 2:26:40.

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