Sit for a little while at the instrument panel in Joan Benoit's mind. It's Aug. 5, 1984, and you're nearing the end, the blessed end, of the first Olympic-marathon for women. One more hard left turn brings you to the mouth of the downsloping, ivy-walled tunnel into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. There, in the passageway, it's wonderfully cool and dim after two hours and 20 minutes on the hot Los Angeles roads. You'll get perhaps 80 yards of this respite from the rolling applause of the city—the crowds in the final miles have been held back by chain link fences—before you pop out into view of the roughly 77,000 people waiting in the stadium, waiting to engulf you with their adoration.
"Before going in that tunnel," recalls Benoit, "I somehow heard or sensed the crowd inside come to its feet. I thought, 'This is the dream. This is the first women's Olympic marathon. This could really change my life.' "
She knew she might be running through a passageway to more than she had bargained for. "It's still not too late," Benoit thought. "I can hide in here and not come out on the other side."
Of course she could do no such thing. A vehicle carrying a TV camera preceded her. The entire assembly was watching her progress on the Coliseum scoreboard screens. Imagine the horrified fascination of the world, and the dissection of her psyche that would have taken place, if she'd tried to duck out of this now. It was an illusion that she had any choice but to finish. But Benoit didn't want to face up to that for a bit.
First, she cast back: "I remembered marching in the opening ceremony, being stacked up behind the rest of the teams at the end of this same tunnel and wondering what my legs would feel like in the marathon if I made it this far still in the lead." Now she knew. They felt fine. She had left the field behind after three miles and now led Grete Waitz of Norway by a minute and a half. Even though she'd been running comfortably, saving something to repel a challenge—"I knew it would be a tight pack all the way. I worried about being outkicked," Benoit said later—she had it won.
The tunnel is curved. Benoit reached a point in the dirty gloom where she could see neither entrance nor exit. "In that 15 seconds, I thought of the aftermath of winning the Boston Marathon in 1979," she says. She had been an undergraduate at Bowdoin College then, a waif in a Red Sox cap finishing in the cold rain. "That was the first time there was all the attention afterward, the commercial approaches, the foundations pursuing me, all of them worthy, but so many of them...I really fell apart after that."
But she'd learned from it; she'd come to understand that the life she'd enjoyed during her childhood in Maine would always be the best for her. "I handled the 1983 world record better because of that," she says. That was her 2:22:43, again at Boston, a prodigious run, nearly three minutes better than the world record that had been shared by Allison Roe and Waitz.
Her impending victory in Los Angeles would underline the Boston record and certify Benoit as the best woman marathoner ever. That is, it would if she chose to come out of the tunnel. "I thought, 'O.K., this isn't going to be a world record, but on the other hand, it will be the Olympic gold medal,' " Benoit says. "It seemed like a trade-off; one couldn't be any worse than the other. I really didn't want to change my life, but I thought I could handle this one."
So, straight with herself, she strode out into the light and the welcoming song of the nation. "I was absolutely amazed that it was over and I had had it so easy," she says. "Even the parts that I'd dreaded, like the Marina Freeway [between miles 17 and 19], were fine. In fact, the freeway was where I felt the most at ease. I was all by myself, without even any spectators. That's the thing I'll tell the grandchildren, that I ran down an L.A. freeway all alone."
And happily so, because that's the way she trains. "Ninety-five percent, anyway," she says. "No, 98 percent."