Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 10 Oct 2004 10:08:34 -0400

Joan's Golden Years


Joan Samuelson was the latest in a line of famous folks to grace Dick Beardsley's half-marathon race in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. It's subtitled "Run with the Legends."

Alberto Salazar came last year and Bill Rodgers in 2002. And, of no one is more legendary locally than the race's host and namesake himself.

All of them did their fastest running by the mid-1980s. If they'd only relived these glories for the last 20 to 25 years, they would be sad figures in the sport.

But all live up to the Kelley Credo. Old Johnny Kelley, who died recently at 97, was a three-time Olympian and two-time Boston Marathon winner. He once said, "I don't judge success by what I once did, but by what I keep doing."

Kelley ran races into his 90s. He served as grand marshal at Boston in his final year.

Beardsley speaks an even better message to recovering addicts than to running groups. Salazar coaches, from Olympians to high schoolers. Rodgers set age-group records into his 50s and is running's goodwill-ambassador-for-life.

Joan Samuelson does good works in her own way. Constant travel doesn't suit her the way it does Bill and Dick. When Joan wanted to "give something back" to the sport, she did it by bringing the Beach to Beacon race to her hometown in Maine.

I sense that Joan would prefer to stay close to home. But occasionally she goes out for more giving-back. This trip to Minnesota brought her travel misadventures that no one seeks.

Spinoff storms from a southern hurricane reached up to Maine. This weather canceled Joan's first flight, thereby messing up her whole day (which had started at two A.M., Midwest time).

She took a bus to Boston. Which caused her to miss a flight to Chicago... which put her into Fargo many hours late... which put off a series of interviews and a school appearance scheduled that day.

Joan had agreed to come the hour north to the Beardsley Marathon Camp for the night. She stuck to that bargain, though it meant reaching the Rainbow Resort at almost midnight by her body's time.

We didn't see her at breakfast ("she's sleeping in," camp director Jan Seeley explained). Or at lunch ("she's taking a run, then going fishing with Dick"). Joan made her first appearance at an afternoon talk, held outdoors with a lake behind her.

That Friday night, before introducing Joan at her talk, we stood talking in the wings of the theater stage. I asked about the Samuelson children I'd not seen in 10 years.

"They're both in high school now," she said. "Abby is a junior, and Anders just started his freshman year."

Are they athletic? "Abby runs cross-country, but does it to get in shape for skiing. Anders thrilled me recently by saying that he wanted to try track next spring. Then he added -- 'in the pole vault'."

This statement says much about Joan. First, she isn't a pushy mom, demanding that the kids follow her athletic path. Second, hers is a sly sense of humor that you miss if not listening closely.

Her audience in Detroit Lakes almost couldn't catch the laugh lines, so softly were they delivered. And so poor was the sound quality and so small was Joan's voice.

After introducing her, I retreated to the back of this auditorium. There I saw Joan, dressed in a sweatshirt and shorts, dwarfed by an American flag backdrop like the one used for the movie "Patton." Her voice didn't reach my seat.

A man seated nearby saw me sit down. He rushed over and almost shouted, "We can't HEAR her!"

A race official overheard the complaint, dashed backstage and came out with a new microphone for Joan. She still was barely audible. Her powerful lines were all but lost in her quiet, untheatrical delivery.

She talked routinely about her Olympic victory and the training that led to it. Then she came alive while talking about her family and about "giving back" through her hometown race. She was at her best while answering questions, especially those from children sitting on the front row.

Joan usually is more comfortable running than speaking. But not this weekend.

An hamstring injury had left her doubting herself, racing more from obligation than desire. "I might just run the 5K," she had told the Friday night crowd.

She still didn't know on Saturday morning how far she would, or could, go. Dick Beardsley stood where the 5K course split from the half-marathon.

"Joan veered as if she would go the shorter distance," Dick said later. "Then she went the other way."

She ran 1:23, and won the women's race. By five seconds. At age 47.

Joan's 20-year-old gold medal is nice to have. But what she keeps doing counts for more.


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