If it wasn’t for all of you, I wouldn’t be running around in circles wondering what I’ll be when I grow up.–Joan Benoit Samuelson, November 15, 2007

Joan Benoit SamuelsonJoan Benoit Samuelson spoke last night for about an hour at the Maine Running Company. She was the first women’s Olympic Marathon gold medalist in 1984, has won the Boston Marathon twice and the Chicago Marathon once. She is the founder of the Beach to Beacon 10k, which is one of the most popular races here in Maine and never fails to bring in world-class talent year after year.

Throughout the evening, Joanie told some stories about her training as she has aged and shared her thoughts and opinions on the modern state of running and our children.

She said that she finds it more difficult to speak at home than she does when she travels and talks to strangers, but you would not have been able to tell by listening to her tonight despite her soft tone.

She spent the majority of her time answering questions from the 30 or so people that had come out to see her last night.

There were 9 specific questions that the audience asked Joan:

  1. How did you develop the single minded focus to be a champion?
  2. How important is cross training for beginner runners?
  3. What was high mileage in your prime?
  4. Do you run by mileage or by time?
  5. What advice do you have for pacing the beginning of a race?
  6. What are your thoughts on the state of US running, and our chances in Beijing?
  7. Is a 10k too much for a 10 year old?
  8. What do you do to combat stiffness as we age?
  9. How does running affect your quality of life?

How did you develop the single minded focus to be a champion?  

Joan’s immediate response to this first question was, “Having 3 brothers.

Joan was constantly racing for the best seat in the car, or the best baseball glove, or competing for any number of privileges with her brothers. She grew up as a tomboy because it was the only way to keep from getting pushed around.

Joan also believes that it is very important to stay healthy and to have other interests outside of the running to prevent from getting burnt out on the whole thing.

The most important element in developing the focus needed to be a champion, though, is to have a passion for it. Passion can not be instilled in a person; it is either there or it is not. Parents need to stop trying to live vicariously through their children and specializing them in sports when they are too young.

Becoming a champion requires that you are comfortable when and where you are training. This is very important.

Joan knows a couple of young athletes that are out training abroad that just aren’t really comfortable. She wants their parents to bring them home.

You really need to be comfortable with where you train. She once turned down an opportunity to run and train in Eugene just because she just was not comfortable with the idea of leaving Maine.

How important is cross training for beginner runners?  

You need to find what makes you tick and implement it in your training.

Joan has always felt that cross training was important, and has really increased the amount that she does as she has aged. Joan does a lot of cycling and nordic skiing, depending upon the season.

Walking and running are two different sports that complement each other very well. When you are walking, you should walk for time and not for distance. The act of walking is more important than the speed of it.

Nordic walking is a good introduction to nordic running, and is a great way to build some upper body strength that will equal your lower body strength and bring your body into balance. A body in balance is more efficient.

Swimming and biking are also great cross training activities.

Find out what works for you. Try some nordic walking; there are clinics for it that begin at the Maine Running Company throughout the winter.

What was high mileage in your prime?  

Joan’s mileage topped out around 80 to 90 miles for most of her career. Her highest mileage weeks tended to be around 100 miles, and the most that she ever ran was maybe 112 miles.

After the Olympics in 1984, Joan’s parents asked her if she could quit now. She still had other goals to meet and knew that she was not yet done with the sport. She has never made her sub-2:20 marathon goal, but she has adjusted them as she has aged to more realistic levels and she is still racing.

Competitiveness runs in her family. Her uncle is 92 years old and still swims competitively, holding quite a few age group records.

She is in training for the Olympic Trials. In August, Joan said that she wanted to run a 2:50 marathon when she was almost 51 years old. Now that Lance has gone out and run a 2:46 marathon, she wants to beat that time. Realistically, though, she would be happy with anything in the 2:50s.

Joan has 1 leg that is shorter than the other from a skiing accident. Now that she has gotten older, her body is having more difficulty coping with the issues that that raises with her running gait.

Do not let snags in the road compromise your goals. Just set intermediate goals that can tide you over until it is time to chase down those original goals.

Do you run by mileage or by time?  

Joan almost always runs by mileage. She has three types of workouts:

  1. Maintenance Mileage
  2. Long Runs
  3. Speed Work

Joan believes in always running by the seat of her pants. She would look at her schedule for what type of workout to do. If it said a long run, then she would be out there for a long run. If she felt great, then she would run a fast long run. If she was down for whatever reason, then it was a slow long run. The same applied for any of her other workouts.

Joan believes that you should always keep a training log. Like the track or a stop watch, your training log doesn’t lie. It can help you keep from making significant changes over night to your training, and allows you to go back and analyze what you did wrong when you hit a flat period.

The track is like a stop watch and it doesn’t lie.

But then you get old enough that you can’t read the watch.
        –Joan Benoit Samuelson, November 15, 2007

Joan divides her career into two distinct phases, B.C. and A.D.

  • Before Children
  • After Diapers

Before she had children, she had been running twice a day. After she had her children, her training was usually limited to one session per day.

Joan would like to be running at around 70 or 75 miles before the Olympic trials.

She has never dropped out of a race yet and does not want the trials to be the first one.

She has also never run a marathon in over 3 hours, and does not want the trials to be the first one. If she had to choose, though, she would take a 3 hour marathon over dropping out.

What advice do you have for pacing the beginning of a race?  

Adrenaline will be surging through you but you need to hold yourself back. Make it a goal to run the entire last mile so that you do not go out too fast.

It is much harder to run slower than to try to keep up with somebody that is running faster because it does such a number on you psychologically. Elite runners will usually try to run negative splits, where the second half of the race is faster than the first half of the race, because it is one of the most effective strategies for successful racing when you can do it.

It is much easier to pass runners than it is to be passed. You really need to learn not to be cocky early in a race. Let people pass you, no matter how tough that is, and then catch them on the other side.

One of Joan’s favorite tips for runners that are running their first race is to find a moving target in front of you and go for them.

When she was running the New York City Marathon with Lance Armstrong, he was constantly looking for the mileage markers so that he could get a gel pack and some water from her. At mile 22, she saw that he was going to be pretty close to the wire for his sub-3 hour goal, so she convinced him to start looking for people to chase.

It is very easy to look up, see somebody in a funny hat or a bright singlet, and to chase them. Waiting for a mile marker which may not even be in sight can be very disconcerting and can knock you off of your game.

Joan believes that running groups are great, but that you really need to find your space. Throughout her career, she has run probably 90% of the time by herself. She has always tried to do speed work with other people, but it has only been the last few years when she has wanted to share her long runs with others. When you run with others, it is too easy to run at a pace that isn’t right for you.

Groups to run with are nice, but having somebody in your neighborhood is important to get you out the door. If you know that there is somebody waiting for you at the corner, you are more likely to roll out of bed on a dark morning and get moving.

The crowd at Maine Running Company

What are your thoughts on the state of US running, and our chances in Beijing?  

Someone that is relatively unknown is going to win the marathon because of the air conditions and the weather in Beijing.

American distance running camps have really been making a difference in the talent that is being produced. Deena Kastor could win a medal, and only God knows what Ryan Hall can do.

The real problems with American running are that we are getting burned out at the collegiate level. The NCAA should limit scholarship athletes to 8 seasons of competition to prevent burnout and to have hungry runners coming out of their college programs.

There is more money to be made in other sports, and parents are trying to specialize their kids at too young of an age in those sports. Most of these kids are so burned out by the time they get to college or leave college that they have no interest in competing afterwards.

Right now, a child can play soccer for all four seasons in Maine.

Joan was recently at the NCAA Division III regional cross country meet, and that is just pure sport. Division III athletes love what they are doing and are passionate about it. Division I athletes are pure to an extent, but they are there for the money and the education. The walk ons and the other other divisions run for the love of what they do.

Is a 10k too much for a 10 year old?  

Joan is not a fan of young children specializing in any specific sport, or in their training too hard. Kids should be outside playing and having fun, and they have plenty of time to start specializing after they are at least 14 years old.

The woman who asked this question has a 9 year old son who has wanted to run the Beach to Beacon 10k since he was 5 years old. He participates in many different sports throughout the year depending upon the season, runs whenever he wants to, and jumps into random 5k races throughout the year on a whim.

If he wants to run a single 10k in the course of a year and isn’t training specifically for that race, then Joan thinks that he will probably be fine. If he is already going out for 3 or 4 mile runs whenever he wants without any trouble then 10 kilometers is not outside of his reach. He is too young to be training regularly for the race, though.

Joan was against the 14 and under age categorization for the Beach to Beacon because she did not want to create a competitive category for those kids. If they want to run, they should have fun and not try to get a medal yet. By setting the age category to 19 and under, there is little opportunity for a 10 or 12 or 14 year old to win and they will be less likely to burn themselves out before giving themselves a chance.

Joan is a big believer in participating in the indigenous sports for each region in each season.

What do you do to combat stiffness as we age?  

The full question asked about some specific strategies such as stretching. Joan’s immediate response which raised a laugh was, “Stretching makes problems worse!”

Seriously, though, she has been doing yoga for the past couple of years and that has really helped. She is still not a big fan of stretching and tries to limit each stretch to about 30 seconds. That means that she is stretching for a max of about 5 minutes per day when she gets done working out.

She would rather be up and moving around for an hour or so before a run than just getting up and heading out the door. Moving around and warming up that way is far more effective than stretching.

How does running affect your quality of life?  

Staying healthy is important. Joan does not believe that a runner can be a productive person when they are not running well. It is too easy to just get moody and go to bed instead of getting anything done. When you are running well, though, then no matter what you do you just make it happen. Everything is easy.

After Joan had her children, she cut her mileage significantly. She could not deal with public places and lost any semblence of productivity. It only took a couple of weeks after she added some longer runs back into her weekly training before her anxieties were gone.

Joan told a story about a woman that bumped into her at a grocery store once. The woman had met a guy and they had gotten married, and then he started running. She felt as though he had lost her.

Joan pointed out that, “Running is a selfish pursuit.” She compared smoking and running as both are addictive behaviors. Her mother smoked throughout her whole life and said that she would quit smoking when Joan quit running. (Joan won; her mother finally quit smoking and Joan has not yet quit running.)

One useful tidbit that Joan shared was about meeting up with somebody at a marathon. “If you value a friendship then don’t run together,” she said. The marathon can have such a different effect on different people (or on the same person on different days) that you can wind up really straining a friendship when one person is struggling and the other isn’t.


John Rogers and Joan Benoit SamuelsonJoannie hung around for about half an hour after her presentation and chatted with individual people that had come by.

She signed quite a few autographs on everything ranging from notepads to t-shirts to fliers for the Beach to Beacon.

I have taken a few liberties when I translated her talk from my notes. Joan has a tendency to revisit topics a few times as she answers different questions and they lead into topics that relate to one another. Rather than mixing and matching, I tried to group the distinct topics into the same question for ease of reading.

If you were there last night, then please enjoy the content of what Joan had to say if not the exact chronology of when she said it. I tried to keep as much of it in Joan’s words as I could, and I kept the questions that Joan was asked in the same order that she was asked them in.