The Day I Almost Beat An Olympic Champion

The great Joan Benoit-Samuelson, after winning the marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
The great Joan Benoit-Samuelson, after winning the marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

I was once young and spry and athletic, good-looking and confident, and willing to go at it with anybody in the world, athletically speaking — from a Division 1-level college basketball player to a Gold Medal winning Olympian.

Now I’ll be the first to admit I got schooled when it came to going up against those more athletic that me, bigger than me, and just plain ol’ better than me.

But I wasn’t one of those athletes who ever shined in the spotlight of fame and athletic grandeur. I was never destined for greatness on an athletic field. To the contrary, my greatness was found in telling the stories of the athletes who deserved to have their stories told. Thus, I made that my life, my passion, my success.

But I did love sports and they were always fun for me. And I never gave up when I stepped into that arena. I was the worker bee, down in the mud, working my ass off during each and every competition to make sure that if you were better than me then you were going to work your ass off, as well. You might beat me, but you would never out-hustle me.

In the fall of my 16th year, in my hometown of Bangor, Maine, there was a popular road race called the Benjamin’s 10K. It was sponsored by a local watering hole and instead of giving out t-shirts, they gave out the coolest green and yellow winter caps. It became one of the biggest and best road races the state of Maine would see back in those days, which was in the early 1980s, at the peak of the running boom that was sweeping the country.

I was a cross country runner back then, during my high school days, back before the desk job and before age and fat and bones that ache took control of my body.

This particular Benjamin’s — the one rising from my past from this morning — was held in 1982, the day after our Eastern Maine regional championship race. Still, a number of runners from our team opted to run the race as a weekend workout. As a team we attacked the course as we would any race. For me, that meant finding my pace — which was never at the front of the pack — before turning it on at the end and emptying my tank over the last half mile.

All of these years later, I don’t remember much about the course. I can’t even tell you where the starting line was, though if I had to render a guess I’d say it started in front of Benjamin’s Tavern, on Franklin Street, just a block from the heart of downtown Bangor.

But I remember the finish.

The finish was a long stretch up Harlow Street, past the old covered bridge that spanned the Kenduskeag Stream, past the five-story tall Federal Building, toward the finish line in front of the Bangor Public Library.

It began as a long slow grade up a hill before evening out for the kick home.

There I was, young, taut, ego-driven, pumping my arms, churning my legs, just starting to dig into the reserve tank that made my kick the best part of my running game. I figured I’d pick off 10 to 12 spots over the last quarter mile. Sure, I’d finish maybe one hundred people back in a pack that numbered more than 600 runners, but they would be 12 others who would finish behind me. So one by one I started to pick them off.

From out of nowhere she came off my left shoulder, at first a blur, then as obvious as the Federal Building, which stood high above my right shoulder as I ran by, my pace picking up with each foot strike.

Anybody who laced up a pair of running shoes in the State of Maine in the 1980s knew who Joan Benoit was. She was the best female runner the state has ever produced.

Two years later, in 1984, when she won the gold medal in the marathon at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the whole world would know her name, as well.

I tried to go with her, tried to find that testosterone-driven pride that a woman would never beat me. But it was a vain attempt of machismo. It wasn’t happening. Greatness scoffs at the notion of being bested by a middle of the pack runner like me and Joan pulled away as she raced home and won the women’s championship in a time of 32 minutes, 43 seconds.

Needless to say, by the time Joan Benoit — who would later become Joan Benoit-Samuelson — built the bulk of her running resume there would never ever be any shame in losing to her. She won marathons. She set world records.

And on an Sunday afternoon in October she out-kicked me and left me in the dust and there was nothing I could do about it.

This ghost from my past comes back to me today because on Monday morning Joan competed in the Boston Marathon once again. It was race she won twice in her prime, over a course where she set a record that lasted 11 years.

This year, she finished 1,413th overall, 67th in the women’s field. Her time was listed as two hours, 54 minutes and three seconds.

She’s 57 years old.

As for me? I can sit at my desk for three hours, reliving the day Joan beat me in the Benjamin’s 10K Road Race. Without any doubt whatsoever, though, I admire her as much today as I did back then.

She is one of the greatest runners I’ve ever gotten to see run in my lifetime and the fact she’s still out there doing it gives even a shlub like me hope that tomorrow is just a few miles away.

 

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