Joan Benoit Samuelson Sets American Masters Record in 3000 Meter Run

Joan Benoit Samuelson kicks to the finish in the 3,000 meters in a record 10 minutes 22.68 seconds on Friday in Landover.
Joan Benoit Samuelson kicks to the finish in the 3,000 meters in a record 10 minutes 22.68 seconds on Friday in Landover. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Carl Little
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, March 21, 2009

The skin on Joan Benoit Samuelson's face isn't as taut as it was in 1984, back when she became a pioneer in track and field by winning the first women's Olympic marathon in Los Angeles. Smile lines form parentheses at the edges of her mouth. Crow's feet tattoo the corners of her eyes.

But from the neck down, her lean, compact frame is timeless. So is her tenacious spirit. Samuelson used both yesterday (probably a bit more of the latter) to win the 3,000 meters at the U.S. Masters Indoor Track and Field Championships at Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex in Landover. She crossed the line in 10 minutes 22.68 seconds, an American indoor record for women 50 and older.

"I feel really strong, but I don't feel very fast," Samuelson, 51, laughed.

Fast is relative for the former world and American record holder in the road marathon. She dominated yesterday's race, nearly lapping the entire field on the 200-meter track and finishing 37 seconds ahead of Kathryn Martin, who set the previous record of 10:23.84 in 2004.

Before this week, Samuelson had not worked out on an indoor track since 2003. She said its tight turns and the amount of torque they place on her hips make her nervous.

She had good reason to be. Moments after the gun fired, Samuelson's left hip gave out and she said she felt like she was going to fall. But she managed to steady herself -- it took her about a lap to work the kink out of her hip -- and she shot to the front of the pack.

That was about her only hiccup. Samuelson led from start to finish, completed her first mile in 5:34.11, then ran the remainder of her race at an even faster clip.

With every lap that passed, the public address announcer kept the smattering of fans in attendance -- and Samuelson herself -- aware of how close she was to record pace. On the bell lap, he bellowed that she was half a second off the mark. The crowd, realizing it might be witnessing history, cheered loudly when Samuelson came around the final turn and spurred her to the finish with applause.

"She's amazing," Martin, 57, said of Samuelson. "I knew she could do it. I'm honored to have my record broken by her."

"She's tough as nails," added John Tuttle, a former U.S. Olympic marathoner who finished fifth in yesterday's men's 50-54 3,000.

The Masters championships, hosted by Potomac Valley Track Club, featured 12 former Olympians and 58 current or former world champions, the most in the 35-year history of the meet. Athletes had to be at least 30 to qualify for competition.

At 94, Frank Levine of Pennsylvania was yesterday's most senior competitor. He ran his first marathon when he was 65 and credits his longevity in the sport to "relatively clean living." The only participant in his age division (90-94) in the 3,000 meters, he crossed the line in 29:34.42.

Samuelson was a high school sophomore when she first started running. She broke her leg during a skiing accident and turned to running as an alternative form of exercise. Six years later, she won the first of two Boston Marathons.

Although she did not make the U.S. women's marathon team at the 2008 Olympic Trials, she finished in 2:49:08, fastest ever in the 50-54 age group.

"There is no finish line," Samuelson said. "This is part of who I am. For some people, it's coffee, but this makes me feel alert and focused. When I no longer find it enjoyable, I'll know it's time to stop."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company