Joan Benoit Samuelson: A Marathon Storyteller

Joan Benoit Samuelson's Chicago Marathon record still stands 30 years later. Courtesy Bank of America Chicago Marathon

Olympic gold medalist and Chicago Marathon champion Joan Benoit Samuelson was back in Chicago this weekend to celebrate the 30th anniversary of her record-breaking win in 1985. Samuelson, 58, was unable to run on Sunday because of an illness, but she shared some of stories of her running and reflected on how her marathon training has changed with age.

Benoit Samuelson on her role at this year's marathon:

I'm on the ground doing various things, promoting the Bank of America Chicago Marathon as well as Abbott, the title sponsor of World Marathon Majors. I had a goal to run within 30 minutes of my record-breaking time 30 years ago, which would mean I'd have to run 2:51:21 or better.

Unfortunately, I contracted a stomach virus two weeks ago and I've had a hard time shaking it. My training has been off as a result of that, and I've been dealing with some dehydration as well because of the illness. This being the 30th anniversary, I hate not to be a part of it, especially after putting so much time and effort into trying to achieve that goal.

On the stomach flu that kept her out of the race:

I'm not able to retain my nutrients and my liquids. It started a few weeks ago. I mixed a very demanding travel schedule and trying to hold on to my training at a high level for me. Trying to do that and do all the traveling, plus you know I'm not as young as I used to be -- I think I am! But I'm not. I think it just all caught up to me and I haven't given my body a break until it's just, well ... broken, if you will. You live and you learn. All marathoners walk that fine line and sometimes it's hard to stay on that line leading up to a big event.

I love training and I love to test my fitness. I told somebody years ago that if you told me I'd never race again, I'd be OK with that; if you told me I'd never run again, I wouldn't be OK with that.

On telling stories with her marathon appearances and times:

The storytelling through marathoning started after the 2008 Olympic trials in Boston, where I had every expectation to end my competitive marathoning career right where I'd started my career in 1979 with the Boston Marathon. So the deal there was I was going to try to run a sub-2:50:00 at the age of 50 and then walk away from competitive marathoning. I achieved my goal there, so, story told ... or so I thought. Then the year after, 2009, I got a call from Mary Wittenberg, who has been with the New York Road Runners, asking me if I would come to New York to run the 40th anniversary run of the NYC marathon, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of my Olympics win. I said, "Well, that tells a story. Sure, I'll come to New York."

And then the following year, they called me and asked if I'd come to Chicago to celebrate the 25th anniversary of my fastest marathon time. The date was 10-10-10, and I said, "Well, I can't pass up those numbers." That also tells a story. So I came to Chicago. And then I went on to Athens because it was the 2,500th anniversary of the marathon, and I thought any marathoner who's a storyteller needs to be there. So I went to Athens to run that race.

And the next story I wanted to tell came in Boston. Unfortunately, it coincided with the bombing (the goal there was the 30th anniversary of my fastest Boston time, which was 2:22:43). ... Then last year, it was the 30th anniversary of the Olympic marathon, so the story there was running the Boston Marathon, to come back after the tragedy with our two children and to run within 30 minutes of each other. So we accomplished that. Our son ran a 2:50:00, I ran a 2:52:00 and our daughter ran a 3:14:00. It's a story that really motivates me to go forward, and that's really what keeps me going.

On training at age 58, versus age 28:

I set the record 30 years ago. I was 28, maybe young and foolish. We hadn't started a family yet. I refer to my career in two phases: before children and after labors. And before children, I scheduled my day around my running, and after children, I scheduled my running around my day. So that was really the biggest difference. I went from double workouts most days to single workouts, and that's still the way I operate for the most part. The children are grown now and out of the house, so I have some of that time back. Still, I can't lead a full and balanced life and train at that level, so I went singles.

I do a lot of cross training, kind of change the running. A lot of Nordic skiing, especially in the winter. That seems to make me strong for the spring marathons. Sometimes I'm stronger in the spring that I am in the fall because of the strength I gain from that because I'm not as efficient at the Nordic skiing as I am at running. I have to work harder so I can get my cardiovascular system going at a higher level. I do some cycling and kayaking and a lot of gardening.

I'm also very active. We have a wood-burning stove, so somebody's got to carry the wood in to keep the home fires burning, so to speak. My husband obviously takes care of most of that, but there's times when he's away. So it's a holistic approach. I'm not one for gimmicks and things like that.

A total mind, body, spirit and whole approach, if you will. I eat whole foods and healthy foods and local foods. You are what you eat, and I eat what I crave.

On how her being forced to sit out the 2015 Chicago Marathon is just part of a bigger story:

The marathon is really a metaphor for life, and we don't know what's going to be around the next bend. Everything could be going really smoothly and then you could come up against a roadblock or obstacle. I guess I'm witnessing what I preach.