Joan Benoit stood calmly at the Boston Marathon starting line on April 18, serene amid chaos. Around her, tiny Hopkinton, Mass. was enduring its annual Patriots Day siege. Helicopters whirled overhead. The 6,674 shivering runners nervously shed their disposable old sweaters and plastic garbage bags, wedged together on the narrow road and were astonished at the warmth generated within their mass.
Many of the competitors had rows of numbers inked on their wrists or palms, the times they hoped to hit at intermediate points. Benoit was clean. She had a goal, an immodest one, but it was secret. Besides, an even pace this day would be subordinate to racing tactics. That was because nearby trotted Allison Roe of New Zealand, the women's world-record holder at 2:25:29.
The morning before, Roe had telephoned Benoit with the news that Grete Waitz of Norway, who had brought the women's record down more than nine minutes in the 1978, '79 and '80 New York Marathons and from whom Roe had wrested the mark by 13 seconds in the 1981 New York race, had that day tied the record in the London Marathon. Roe's intent in passing this along was to encourage Benoit to join in a record attempt. But Benoit, holder of the U.S. women's mark at 2:26:11, joins nothing but battle. "Usually there's somebody I want to run into the ground," she told Roe. "But my goal tomorrow is just to run the best race I'm capable of."
At the gun Benoit bolted out with reckless swiftness. Her time for the first mile was 4:47, a bare 11 seconds slower than her personal best for the distance. "Rumor had it that Allison was going to sit on my tail," she would say later. "I wasn't going to wait around and play cat and mouse."
Roe wouldn't see Benoit for the rest of the race. She led by a minute at five miles, which she reached so quickly that race officials missed her completely. At 10 miles her time was 51:38, shattering her American record at that distance by a gaudy minute and 40 seconds. Noting her pace, an experienced male runner near Benoit had already told her, "You better watch it, lady."
Indeed, the sensational start seemed to place Benoit in mortal peril. A blazing early pace is, typically, the way runners come unhinged at Boston. There are lots of tempting downhills in the early going. Their price isn't exacted until the last eight miles. A year earlier Waitz had run at a 2:23 pace until the last three miles, but her thighs were so shocked by the pounding by then that they cramped and she couldn't finish.
Benoit knew this. She's the women's distance coach at Boston University. Yet she charged undeterred through the cheers from Wellesley College students to reach the halfway point in 1:08:23. "Two-seventeen pace," she thought. "This isn't right." Even her secret goal had been only 2:24. She had told intimates to expect a spectacular race from her, but whether it would be one of revelation or collapse she didn't yet know.
Benoit, at 25, is defined by both startling athletic achievement and collapse. Her competitive tenacity strikes many as incongruous with her 5'3", 105-pound Campbell's Soup-kid appearance. But it is never far from the surface, and it often has compelled her to damage herself in the hunt for better performance.
She began as a downhill skier, natural for the daughter of Andre Benoit of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, because he'd been an enlisted man in the Tenth Mountain Division, fighting in the Italian Alps in World War II. "Her first race was a little thing, only halfway down the bunny slope," he recalls. "Joanie won. She was only in the third grade, but you could see the exhilaration in her face."
Character revealed. She seemed such a cute, soft, quiet child. Only in sport did the wildness show. The look that her father saw as exhilaration, others, watching her run in later years, took to be a deep hunger. "Her eyes," a voice in the crowd once remarked as she passed, "are as hungry as a shark's."