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Seventeen miles into the Women's Olympic Marathon Trial Saturday in Olympia, Wash., Joan Benoit had surged to a 400-yard lead. Her face was slack, unreadable; her eyes were narrow with concentration. But she still saw her Athletics West coach, Bob Sevene, beside the road. His face was filled with questions. "Sev, I'm all right," she said as she passed.
Sevene spun and leaped, almost stumbling into a hedge of the bright yellow Scotch broom that flanked the road for miles. "When she says that," he cried, "you can go wait in the bar. The race is over."
Sevene's relief was equaled only by Benoit's own. On March 16, the possessor of the best marathon time ever run by a woman (2:22:43 at Boston in 1983) reached Mile 14 of a 20-mile training run near her Freeport, Maine home and felt a sudden catch in her right knee. "In a mile the knee went from just a little pain to shutting down completely," she had said last week. "It was sticking, not able to go through the whole running motion. It was the first time in my life I ever walked out of a training run."
She rested. The pain eased, then came back. She had a cortisone shot and trained well for the following 10 days, "and then had to walk again." She submitted to another cortisone shot and five days off. No change. It was now April 17, only 25 days before the trial. Benoit flew to Eugene, Ore., where Sevene lives, and he took her to orthopedic surgeon Stan James. "He said five more days off and Butazolidin," said Benoit. Her impatience was rising. "I was ready to lose it at that point, to go on home. I knew it wasn't helping."
At the end of the prescribed fifth day, she ran three miles and then had to walk, in tears. She reported to James. "He said I only had one option—surgery." She agreed. "Actually I was hoping he'd say that because I thought there was something there. But to do it with so little time...." The operation was set for April 25. That would leave just 17 days to the trials. Driving from James's office, she accidentally smashed the left rear fender of an Athletics West van. "Not the most tranquil week," she sighed.
The next morning, James cautiously inserted an arthroscope into her knee and looked around. And around. "There was no obvious cause," he said. "I got in there and saw this little vertical suspension, just a slender little band of collagen fibers in front of the fibular collateral ligament. It didn't look like it could be causing all her problems. And it wasn't inflamed. But it was where the pain was, so I snipped it. It was guilt by association."
But guilt nonetheless. "I won't say what Stan did was a miracle," said Benoit, "but he did what had to be done so delicately there was very little swelling." Benoit was on a cycling machine the next day. On Monday, April 30, five days after the operation, she took her first run. At the end of 55 minutes around Eugene, she was grinning like a Cheshire cat. She was cured.
But later in the day, wild to get back to full training, Benoit took another hour run, with Sevene. "She was down to a six-minute pace at times, testing herself," Sevene said later. "She was on an emotional high. In retrospect, that was the biggest mistake, letting her loose too early."
Three days later, she ran for an hour and 48 minutes. "I overcompensated with the other leg. I strained my [left] hamstring," said Benoit ruefully. On Saturday, exactly a week before the race, she was so sore she couldn't run. "I was so down that I wanted to go home again. It seemed I'd been away for months. I left a puppy, and I'll go home to a dog."
Alberto Salazar, the world-record holder in the marathon, who lives in Eugene, learned about her hamstring and told Dick Brown, Mary Decker's coach and psychologist, who's also with Athletics West. Brown alerted Benoit to the presence of an Electro-Acuscope in town, a heralded healing machine used by, among others, Terry Bradshaw (SI, Dec. 19, 1983). " Jack Scott has worked with it for 3� years," said Brown. "He's here to introduce Mary to a new model."