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The Marathon's Maine Woman
Kenny Moore
May 02, 1983
Down East runner Joan Benoit strode into downtown Beantown with a stunning world best—2:22:42
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May 02, 1983

The Marathon's Maine Woman

Down East runner Joan Benoit strode into downtown Beantown with a stunning world best—2:22:42

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Skiing showed the absolutist in her. At age 16 she appealed to her parents to let her transfer from Cape Elizabeth High to Burke Mountain School in Vermont, because there she could ski eight hours a day and be tutored in the evening.

"By mutual agreement, we decided it wasn't the best thing," says her father.

Benoit remembers it differently. "He said no." There was absolutism in the father as well.

It was skiing that first hurt her. In her sophomore year in high school she broke her right leg while slalom racing. The cast came off 10 weeks later, and she started running to rehabilitate the atrophied limb. By her senior year in high school, her mile time was down to 5:15.

But she couldn't yet abandon all her other sports. She played basketball and tennis in high school and co-captained the field-hockey team. When she went to Bowdoin, among the pines and stone outcroppings of Brunswick, Maine, she kept on with field hockey. Then in her sophomore year she was benched for turning up at a game unable to move at more than a trot because she'd run a half marathon the day before, finishing second. In response, the absolutist emerged.

After that season she quit field hockey—and Bowdoin—to go to North Carolina State, to train with the prodigiously gifted Julie Shea. Benoit was miserable there. Shea tore her up in workouts. And she never felt comfortable in the South. "I'm a Yankee," she says. "I missed Maine. I missed the ocean." She went home after three semesters, returned to Bowdoin, studying history and the environment, and has based herself in New England ever since.

She has now become an accomplished exponent of the trades of her region. She is an experienced lobsterwoman, in both the trapping and the cooking. She knits soft wool sweaters that depict farm scenes overhung with knit apple trees and knit apples. She square-dances, puts up delicious preserves, collects stamps. And she loves to take long runs in the peaceful morning countryside.

It was these that prepared her for her first Boston Marathon, in 1979, her senior year at Bowdoin. She had slept on a friend's floor the night before. They got stuck in an immense traffic jam before the race. "I just got out of the car and ran through the woods," she says. "I must have bushwhacked two miles to the start. I remember thinking, 'I hope I didn't warm up too much.' "

She had time to cool, trapped back in the pack, waiting to run after the gun had gone off. She moved into the lead after 19 miles. At the 23-mile mark she picked up a Red Sox cap from a friend. And that was what she wore as she crossed the finish line in the rain, an upset winner in the women's race with an American record of 2:35:15.

At once she was thrust into the maelstrom of delirious attention that swirls about a Boston winner: interviews, invitations, offers; the phone ringing, always ringing. There was even a movie producer demanding her portfolio. "Just a few poses in leotard and tennis and cheerleading outfits," he said. "Yeah, right," said Benoit, restraining herself.

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