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All this celebrity became a vexation to a private young woman from Maine who had done what she had done not to be famous, but because a long hard run was what she seemed born for. "I hated the publicity," she says. "I hated it so much that I seriously considered giving up running so I would be left alone."
That would be O.K. with her mother. The extremity to which the marathon forces Joan is repellent to Nancy Benoit. Once she sent her daughter a picture of herself crossing a marathon finish line, pale and limp and chilled. She attached a note that read, "Joanie, if marathons make you look like this, please don't run any more. Love, Mom."
Benoit passed 15 miles in this year's Boston race in 1:18:56. She was still on 2:17 pace. Jaqueline Gareau of Canada, who had won in 1980 after the chicanery of Rosie Ruiz had been exposed, was moving up to second, where she would finish with 2:29:27. "There is fear when you do what Joan did," she would say. "Maybe you will break down."
"I was getting a little scared by the splits," Benoit would say. "But heck, I felt so good."
That's a relative term for a marathoner. She had been developing blisters since six miles. Now, at 17 miles, she got a stitch in her side. She slowed slightly and took some water. Minutes later at that same spot, Roe dropped out with leg cramps.
Benoit's stride is not long, but rapid, her heels rising high behind her. She maintained her cadence over the hills, and at 20 miles her time was 1:46:44. She was slowing but still well ahead of record pace. At 21 miles, Heartbreak Hill was behind her, too.
Hers are Achilles' heels. They became chronically sore in 1979, when in the span of four days she ran a marathon and two-mile, 800-meter and 10,000-meter races. Both Achilles tendons tightened so that she couldn't walk for days. Her good races after that, including two American-record half marathons, were achieved in pain. She wondered whether running was worth it. "She kept chickening out of surgery," says Bob Sevene, her Athletics West coach. "Finally she gave the surgeon a shot, even though we practically had to drag her into the hospital."
During the operation degenerated bursa sacs in both heels were taken out. The right tendon was partially ruptured. Scar tissue and bone spurs had to be removed. The doctor put walking casts on both of Benoit's legs. But two days after getting out of the hospital she was pedaling furiously on a stationary bicycle. "The little body tends to hide the tiger," says Sevene. "But of all the people I've ever coached, she is the most tenacious."
She also worked on Nautilus machines. And when the casts came off, she added swimming workouts. "My overall strength and fitness increased," Benoit says. "I was hungry to get going."
This she did last spring and summer with U.S. bests for 10 miles and for the half marathon. In August she shattered Waitz's course record at the 7.1-mile Falmouth road race by 39 seconds, with a 36:34. "A friend got married the night before the race," she said. "I won Falmouth on vodka and wedding cake."