In 1984, 11-year-old Deena Kastor sat in her living room with her parents, eyes glued to the first women’s Olympic Marathon. American Joan Benoit Samuelson emerged from the tunnel into the Los Angeles Coliseum to claim the gold, waving her white hat. “No matter what my profession turned out to be in life, her performance that day would’ve inspired me to be better,” Kastor said during a recent visit to Chicago.
Of course, Kastor followed in Samuelson’s footsteps as an iconic marathoner. After her Olympic triumph, Samuelson won the 1985 Chicago Marathon in 2:21:21, establishing a new American record. Kastor broke that record by five seconds in London in 2003, earned the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Marathon in Athens, won the Chicago Marathon in 2005, and ran 2:19:36 in London in 2006 to set the current American record.
Kastor and Samuelson long ago secured their spots in women’s running history, but they haven’t finished making their marks. On October 11, both will again run the Chicago Marathon. A decade after her victory here, Kastor has her sights set on breaking Colleen De Reuck’s American masters record of 2:28:40. Benoit Samuelson will try to beat 2:51:21, which would mean finishing within 30 minutes of her record-breaking time 30 years ago.
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“They’re not coming here to jog and wave to the crowd. They’re coming here to compete—which is the core of what these two women are about,” said race director Carey Pinkowski. Their aims are lofty but not beyond reach. Kastor set the world masters half marathon record in September 2014, running 1:09:36 in Philadelphia, and Samuelson ran 2:54:03 at Boston in April.
According to industry group Running USA, there were more than 236,000 women finishers in U.S. marathons in 2014. Last year, women constituted about 46 percent of Chicago’s 45,000-runner field. The increase in women’s participation at all distances has been the biggest change in the sport during her years of running, Samuelson told Runner’s World.
To younger runners today, it may seem nearly inconceivable that women weren’t considered capable of competing in the Olympic Marathon until 1984 (and that the first gold medalist is still breaking 3:00). In 1980 in Moscow, the longest distance women could run was 1500 meters.
In part, Samuelson said, she feels she has been “in the right place at the right time,” giving her a career arc that aligns neatly with the rise of women’s running. Title IX, which guaranteed women’s equal participation in federally funded school sports, was enacted in 1972, one year after she started high school. Distance running emerged as a viable career option thanks to women before her—including Roberta Gibb, the first to run the Boston Marathon in 1966—who ignored conventional wisdom and proved women’s bodies could withstand the mileage.
Kastor, in turn, said she owes many of her accomplishments to Samuelson’s trailblazing. Though Samuelson’s Olympic victory obviously stands as a highlight, her legacy can’t be minimized to a single moment, Kastor said. Through her longevity as an athlete, her strong commitment to family, and her dedication to issues outside of running, including sustainability in her home state of Maine, Samuelson modeled a career trajectory other elite women could follow. “She is committed to her variety of passions, timeless in this sport, and one of the most powerful inspirations for runners of all ages,” Kastor said.
Passing the Torch
The two women first met when Kastor was still a self-described “geeky fan,” but connected more deeply before the 2005 Chicago race, when Kastor was aiming for the win. “She was hugely supportive of my goals and abilities in the marathon,” Kastor said. “That was the greatest compliment I have received in this sport.”
Samuelson, meanwhile, said she’d watched Kastor’s early career and saw commonalties that ran deeper than their shared New England roots. (Kastor was born in Waltham, Massachusetts.) When studying her competition before the 1984 Olympic Marathon, Samuelson said she knew the medal would go to the woman who wanted it the most. Fortitude and dedication propelled her to victory, she believes, and she quickly identified those traits in Kastor.
“When she ran her first marathon in New York [in 2001], I remember being at that press conference and saying we were looking at the next American record holder in the marathon,” Samuelson said. “I truly believed in Deena. I knew her personality, I knew her training, I knew her passion. Sometimes when you have similar values or qualities, you can see those qualities in others.”
This shared sensibility tempered any disappointment Samuelson might have felt when her American record fell in 2003. “Records are made to be broken; I knew it wouldn’t last forever, and I was just delighted it was Deena who did it,” Samuelson said. She sees the future in another New Englander. “I’d love to see Shalane [Flanagan] go on and break that record,” Samuelson said.
Still Drawing Crowds
Samuelson said she didn’t know Kastor had signed up to run Chicago this fall when she made the decision to do so. “There’s a sort of mental telepathy or underlying thread there, I think,” she said.
Samuelson considers it a privilege to race with the current American record holder; meanwhile, the fact that Samuelson continues to challenge herself motivates Kastor to do the same. “I think Joan and I are returning to Chicago because we love the sport and because we cherish time with the thousands of like-minded people toeing the line with us,” Kastor said. “We are ambitious in our goals and intimately hooked on the sport of marathoning.”
Pinkowski—who can remember watching Samuelson’s 1985 victory over beers at a suburban Chicago sports bar—said he’s thrilled to have them back on his city’s streets, both as a fan and as a businessman.
“I think there’s going to be more people who want to see Joan 30 years later than they did 30 years ago, and more people who want to see Deena in 2015 than in 2005,” he said. “It’s going to be great.”
Cindy is a freelance health and fitness writer, author, and podcaster who’s contributed regularly to Runner’s World since 2013. She’s the coauthor of both Breakthrough Women’s Running: Dream Big and Train Smart and Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries, a book about the psychology of sports injury from Bloomsbury Sport. Cindy specializes in covering injury prevention and recovery, everyday athletes accomplishing extraordinary things, and the active community in her beloved Chicago, where winter forges deep bonds between those brave enough to train through it.