Samuelson running strong as ever

BOSTON -- In 1979, an unknown 21-year-old sprite from Maine showed up in Hopkinton and bobbed her way to a Boston Marathon win. Afterward, clad in a Bowdoin College singlet and with a fresh laurel wreath sitting atop her Red Sox cap, the new American women's record-holder smiled widely for the cameras as running fans the world over peered at their programs and wondered: "Who?"

Thirty-three years later, everyone knows Joan Benoit Samuelson.

She won the Boston Marathon again in 1983, finishing in a world-record 2:22:43, and then over the next two years Samuelson grabbed gold at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and won the 1985 Chicago Marathon with a personal best of 2:21:21. Today, "Joanie" -- as she's known to the legion of fans and friends who surround her every time she appears in Boston to run -- is a certified running legend, a celebrity, practically the mayor of the Boston Marathon.

When she decides to enter the race, as she has this spring for the second consecutive year, that alone is a noteworthy event. And when she runs it with her daughter, Abby, a 24-year-old Bates College graduate ("I tell everybody it could have been worse -- she could've gone to Colby," Samuelson says of her alma mater's rival school) in honor of women's rights, as she will on Monday, it becomes an opportunity to etch another indelible image onto an already historic career.

"Our plan is to run together on Monday and celebrate the fact that we can do this," says Samuelson. "This year is the 40th anniversary of women being allowed to run in the Boston Marathon and the 40th anniversary of Title IX [the 1972 U.S. anti-discrimination legislation that led to equal female participation in high school and college sports], so for me Monday's race is about being able to share those anniversaries with my daughter, who never had to deal with not being able to have access to sports."

Samuelson, 54, says that lately she is drawn less to the competition of sport than to the chance it offers to tell poignant stories, like that of Title IX. Just a few weeks ago, knowing she would be running in Boston, Samuelson ran an entire marathon in Japan -- albeit at a scaled-back pace -- simply because she felt strongly about the stories involved.

"I wasn't expecting to run," she says. "It was the first Nike women's marathon and half-marathon outside of the U.S., so I was there to celebrate that event. And then I found out it was the largest women's marathon ever assembled and it was taking place one year to the day of the nuclear tragedy at Fukushima. And I said, 'I can't be on the sidelines of this event. I need to be in it.' Here was a celebration of life and sport, celebrating a sort of resurgence in the country and showing that we can overcome challenges. And that was important to me, so I ran. It's all about storytelling for me."

Samuelson, born in tiny Cape Elizabeth, Maine, a coastal village of less than 10,000, says she learned early on that the professional sporting life requires a delicate balance.

"I was a beneficiary of an athletic scholarship at [North Carolina State University] in 1977, when scholarships started to become available," she says. "So I tell everybody I took my year abroad south of the Mason-Dixon Line and then came back to graduate from Bowdoin. I found out then that there is more to life than sport, that there needs to be a balance in one's life. When I was on a Division I athletic scholarship I was expected to be totally focused on running. And it was different and I didn't compete quite as well as I might have expected to compete, because it took away from the balance that I had in my life up until that point."

Since then, Samuelson says she has worked hard to restore that balance.

"Sometimes it's very difficult," she says, "but in athletics we often talk about the mind-body-spirit triad, and trying to balance those three things is important. I know when I'm focusing too much on my running or focusing too much on something in the community or on a family issue or whatever -- and sometimes we have to do that. But oftentimes we can strike that balance, and if we could all sort of gear our lives to finding a balance that works for our interests and our colleagues' interests in the workplace and our family's interests at home and our neighbors' in the community, I think this world would be a much better place."

These days, Samuelson is something of a runner-activist, working to promote physical fitness and the environmental health of New England. She sticks primarily to events that are "meaningful and that tell stories," she says, but don't let her mellowness fool you: Samuelson can still fly when she wants to. At the 2010 Chicago Marathon, she ran a blistering 2:47:50, good for a new American record in the women's 50-54 age group, and last spring in Boston she finished in 2:51:29 -- far faster than many of her younger counterparts.

This year Samuelson plans to run at Abby's pace -- "This race is about mother-daughter bonding," she says, "at least as long as she'll have me or until I can't keep up" -- which is only fair, she says, since it was Abby's idea to run.

"My husband and I gave Abby a wide berth, and my son [Anders] as well," Samuelson says. "We tried to expose them to as many different interests and disciplines as possible, but in the end they both came around to running, on their own and through other sports. It was Abby who said that she wanted to run Boston this year. I wasn't really thinking about it -- I was thinking about running [April 22's London Marathon]. But just hearing [Boston Athletic Association executive director] Tom Grilk talking about '40 years of women in Boston' and knowing it was 40 years since Title IX, I just knew I had to run."

And on Monday she will -- side-by-side with Abby, as both remember and celebrate the eight women who first lined up in Hopkinton in 1972 and enabled Samuelson's record-setting victory seven years later, as well as those who fought for a law that helped make it possible for a gutsy girl from Maine to run at all, let alone win.

The sport has come a long way since then, and while she won't win this April, what Samuelson will do, upon crossing the finish line with her daughter, is add yet another story to a career bursting with them, a career that -- no matter what Monday's stopwatch might read -- is far from finished.

"I already have a story in mind for Boston next year," Samuelson says, her eyes twinkling. "So we'll see what happens."

Tom Lakin is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com.