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In September, in what now seems a harbinger of a race, she ran the Nike Marathon in Eugene, Ore. She heard no accurate splits after her halfway time of 1:11:20, thought she had slowed too much for any kind of mark and then finished sprinting in an American women's record 2:26:11, the third-best marathon time ever run by a woman. An hour and a half after the race she was getting her hands all scratched up picking the large blackberries that grew near the course. "I'd stay in a berry patch all summer," she said, "so long as I didn't get poison ivy. I ran here instead of the Chicago Marathon because I knew about these. Chicago doesn't have any blackberries."
Benoit put in a good winter's training before the Boston Marathon. She ran well in cross-country, indoors and on the roads. In March she led the U.S. women to the world cross-country title in Gateshead, England. Waitz won the individual title. Benoit was fourth.
Two days before that race, she went out on a purportedly gentle 10-mile run with a not entirely decrepit past Olympic marathoner who prefers not to be named and practically killed him on the uphills. "It was like I was back being destroyed by Gerry Lindgren again," he marveled later.
If that weren't enough indication of fitness, a treadmill test measuring maximum oxygen consumption that Benoit took in the winter was. Men, science says, score higher on this measure of aerobic capacity than do women. For example, Greg Meyer, this year's Boston men's winner with a sterling time of 2:09:00, consumes 80 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute at full effort. By contrast, Mary Decker Tabb tested at 67 ml/kg/min. three years ago. By more amazing contrast, Benoit's reading is 79, the highest ever by a woman. The test cannot predict performance, but is a guide to potential. "Confirms what we already knew," says Sevene. "She's nowhere near her limits."
Both Sevene and Benoit recognize that if her potential is ever to be reached, her compulsive mileage-gathering has to be held within limits. Her tendons are still vulnerable. "Looking back," says Benoit, "I guess the surgery was a blessing in disguise. It made me rest—something I'm not very good at." Two weeks before Boston, when most runners would be relaxing their training, she put in a 125-mile week, 10 more than she'd ever done. Asked why, she smiles. "I don't know," she says.
It wasn't until she reached Coolidge Corner, two miles from the finish, that the fatigue began to be almost insurmountable. "But I was still in control," Benoit says. And there were the Boston U women she coaches, howling at her from up in the trees that line Beacon Street. She would make it now. The cheers escalated into a din.
She crossed the finish line at the Prudential Center in 2:22:42, a world's best by two minutes and 47 seconds. It was a time that would have won every men's Olympic marathon through 1956. She would have beaten the immortal 1952 champion, Emile Zatopek of Czechoslovakia, by 21.2 seconds. There being no berry patches in downtown Boston, Benoit celebrated by dancing at a Beantown night spot, the 57 Club, until the wee hours of the next morning.
This may not have been Benoit's magic day, in the sense that she will have no other. The last half of her race was six minutes slower than the first, in part because of the hills, in larger part because of her headlong early pace. Had she balanced the halves of her race, she might have been able to approach 2:20. This is the time she has said it will take to win the first women's Olympic marathon, next year in Los Angeles.
For now her thoughts are more on the coming summer, when she'll leave her post at Boston University and move back to Maine, where there's a seaside house she will renovate and then gradually fill with antiques. A friend up there is building a lobster boat, and in back of the house there's a tideflat full of clams.
The odds are that diversions such as these will temper her compulsion for long runs in the thick, salty Atlantic air just enough for her tendons to hold. She'll not dwell for long on the magnitude of what she has done. She'll just matter-of-factly train and knit and pick and can, and happily emerge in about a year for the Olympic Trials and the Olympics to show us that even this marvelous display at Boston was mere bushwhacking, just warming up.