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

Thu, 22 Dec 2011 06:06:37 -0500

Benoit's Knee


(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from May 1984. It also now appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

One year to the week after Joan Benoit reached the top, she hit bottom. On the first anniversary of her record run of 2:22:43 at the Boston Marathon, she couldn’t run at all. She was packing that day for a flight to Eugene for consultation with doctors.

Eugene is a town where rumors spread quickly and widely. If Benoit intended to slip in quietly, she came to the wrong place. Word of her presence and problem raced through town.

Benoit came for diagnosis and treatment of a knee injury. She may have been the most famous victim of what Runner magazine editor Marc Bloom calls “Marathon Trials Syndrome.”

“To understand what it must feel like to suffer from MTS,” writes Bloom, “imagine for a moment that you are an Olympic Marathon contender. Right about when you planned to start running with conviction for the Trials, you got hurt or sick, missed valuable training time, and were left wondering if you could regain your fitness and your confidence in time for the celebrated race. In other words, your dreams would be shattered – or at least punctured.”

Benoit had approached the Trials with uncommon conviction. She had quit her job in Boston and moved home to Maine. She was doing little else except train, and doing that at prodigious distances and paces.

Rumors of 130-mile weeks and interval miles at well below five minutes apiece leaked out of the Benoit training camp. This was make-or-break work.

Her adviser Bob Sevene said, “She’s in fantastic shape – in shape to run 2:19 and win the gold medal.”

Then the break occurred. In early April a knee began troubling Benoit. She rested it for 10 days, then flew to Eugene to consult with Sevene and orthopedic surgeon Dr. Stan James.

Dr. James said the problem was an inflamed plica band, a tissue that surrounds the knee joint. He ordered a 10-mile test run on April 24th. It hurt, so Benoit was scheduled for arthroscopic surgery the next day.

James was pleased with his work. He found no damage to tendons, cartilage or muscle. He expressed confidence that Benoit would recover completely, but wouldn’t predict if she could handle marathon-type stress soon enough.

Benoit and Sevene remained publicly optimistic. The coach denied a Seattle Times report that Joan had abandoned Olympic hopes. He said on the day of surgery that progress would be monitored “on a day-to-day basis” and that she would be in Olympia, Washington, for the May 12th Trials.

That meant she had just 17 days from surgery to the starting line. That’s rapid healing for even the most minor of ailments – and no problem that costs a runner a month of training can be called “minor.”

If Benoit didn’t recover in time for the mid-May marathon, she’d be forced to play her one last Olympic card – the 3000, where she’d race against speedsters. That made the absence from the Olympic calendar of her much-better event, the 10,000, all the more sad.

OLYMPIA AND BEYOND (from May 1984 RC): The sturdy little figure, clad in a dark blue jacket and matching tights, slipped onto the bike path two steps ahead of me without noticing I was there. Though I knew her slightly, I said nothing, preferring to watch rather than talk that Monday morning.

What I saw was heartening. The runner put two minutes between us in one mile. And in that time, she didn’t hint at a limp.

Ten days after knee surgery, one week after returning to running, a few days after feeling hamstring pain, Joan Benoit was back. She was ready. I was happily eating my words that she wouldn’t be recovered in time for the Trials.

Races aren’t just won and lost on race day. They are as surely decided in the spaces between races, by right or wrong moves made then. This is never more true than before the Olympic Trials.

Benoit’s race didn’t begin on May 12th at 9:22 A.M. but the evening of April 25th. Still drugged with pain-killers after her arthroscopic procedure, she asked adviser Bob Sevene, “Can I start tomorrow?”

Meaning could she begin running? Sevene said no, but they agreed that she could pedal a redesigned exercise bike with her arms.

These makeshift workouts continued until the following Monday. Benoit ran that day: 45 minutes in the morning, 55 more in the afternoon.

She would total 80 miles for the week but at the price of a sore hamstring from favoring the repaired knee. That was treated by spending many of her waking hours under an electronic muscle-stimulation device to speed the healing.

One final test remained before deciding whether or not to run at Olympia: a 17-mile run on Tuesday, less than week before the Trials. Benoit passed it.

“I’ll be running strictly to make the team,” she said at a pre-race news conference. “I’m aware of my problem, but I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t think I could handle it.”

She handled it by going right to the lead and staying there, slowing late and having her winning margin slip to less than a minute.

“Cardiovascularly I felt great,” she said afterward. “But my legs just wouldn’t go, and I was lucky to hold on.”

UPDATE: Three months further along in her training, Joan Benoit legs worked just fine at the Los Angeles Olympics. She ran herself into history as the first women’s marathon winner. She ran her last Trials in 2008, at age 50.

[This piece and others also appear on a Facebook page titled “Joe Henderson’s Writings.” I invite you get each update by going to that page and clicking “Like.” The three books of my memoir series – Starting Lines, Going Far, and Running Home – are available as e-books for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Other books of mine in this format: Long Slow Distance, Long Run Solution, Marathon Training, Run Right Now and Rich Englehart’s e-book about me, Slow Joe. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Sample chapters are free – as are applications for dedicated e-readers, personal computers, iPads, iPods, and other smart-phones and tablets.]

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