Robert Vigorito, founder and race director of the Columbia Triathlon Association, went straight to the top when choosing a spokesperson for his new race, the Iron Girl Columbia Half Marathon and Coed 5K, scheduled for April 29.
Vigorito asked Joan Benoit Samuelson, a rock star in the world of racing -- breaker of world records, winner of marathons, and the first woman to win an Olympic marathon. Samuelson, now 54, is an ardent advocate for lifelong fitness, and, believe it or not, she still runs marathons.
“Women and girls can do anything they please,” she said. “I always tell people you need passion. Without passion there’s no fire, and without fire you can’t ignite anything.”
In 1979, while a junior at Bowdoin College, she won the famously grueling Boston Marathon, a feat she repeated in 1983. But she is probably best known for winning Olympic gold in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, the first year the Olympics included a women’s marathon. A year later, she was the first to cross the finish line at the Chicago Marathon, setting an American record of 2:21:21.
In 1998, Samuelson started an annual TD Bank 10K, which benefits a different children’s charity each year.
In 2009, after running her 40th New York City marathon (in under 2:50), she was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame. She’s also author of two books, an autobiography called “Running Tide” (1987), and “Joan Samuelson’s Running for Women” (1995).
Samuelson spoke by telephone from Maine about her running career and why she is serving as ambassador to the first Iron Girl Half Marathon, which will benefit the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource Center, which provides resources to people with cancer. She also offers advice to women who plan to run in the Iron Girl.
Q: How did you get involved with the Iron Girl Half Marathon?
A: I got connected through Robert Vigorito. He tracked me down and expressed an interest in having me come down and be a spokesperson for the event. I think the half marathon is a great distance for women who are serious about running, and it gives novice runners a challenge and something to aim for.
Q: Why support the Claudia Mayer Cancer Resource Center?
A: It seems like there are a lot of runs to support breast cancer, and I’m delighted the Iron Girl is one. The participants can directly see the impact of their running. I think you’re going to see a lot of breast cancer survivors running in the event, even ones still going through the treatment.
The people I’ve watched go through breast cancer and treatments usually change their nutrition habits and become more active. The race gives them an opportunity to set goals for themselves in an arena that is positive. It’s also a way to raise awareness for breast cancer. Runners will be raising funds, so you can support the cause even if you don’t run.
Q: What spurred you to start running competitively at a young age? Was your family supportive?
A: I started running as a form of rehabilitation after breaking my leg when I was a sophomore in high school while ski racing. I liked that I could run anywhere at any time. It was affordable and accessible. Unlike skiing, I didn’t have to wait for snow or go to the mountains.
My family thought it was a passing phase. We were expected to be at the dinner table at 6, but my mother was as accommodating as possible. I tried to be there on time, but sometimes I just had to run one more mile.
I was a bit embarrassed to be seen initially because I was trying to shed the image of being a tomboy.
Ironically, I started and did most of my running at an abandoned Army post near where I grew up, in Fort Williams Park. The 10K I founded ends in that fort. My senior year in high school, I decided to run competitively. I just started challenging myself in longer and longer distance.
Q: Tell us about winning the Boston Marathon twice and winning gold in the Los Angeles Olympics.
A: I really wasn’t the favorite in any of those races, but sometimes it’s easier going in as the underdog. I was in the right place at the right time. When I was starting out, women were told they couldn’t run more than a mile because it was thought they would do bodily harm and they wouldn’t be able to have children.
Q: What is your advice for women who want to run the Iron Girl Half Marathon but have never run competitively?
A: I would hope most people who are targeting the half marathon are already doing some physical activity, walking or jogging. It’s just a question of building up from there. You build the mileage gradually. It’s always a good idea for runners to keep a log to see their progress.
I think women who can run 10 miles comfortably before the half marathon, or walk and run, can go the distance. But anybody who says, “Oh, I want to do that” shouldn’t just start training willy-nilly. Check in with a health care provider. Make sure you’re healthy enough to start a training program for half marathons.
Q: You suffered a knee injury and underwent surgery just 17 days before the Olympic trials. What are the best ways to avoid injury? Any advice for easing back into training after an injury?
A: The best way to avoid an injury is to monitor your training, to not overtrain, and to use some cross-training methods, whether it be cycling, swimming or skiing. Runners normally have stronger legs, so it’s good to develop more strength in the upper body and arms, which will make you more efficient as a runner.
Recovery depends on the injury. Rest is important, and sometimes massage, yoga, Pilates, physical therapy, swimming or another exercise can help.
Q: Most books and training regimens are gender-neutral. Are there differences in the way men and women run? Should women train differently from men?
A: I’ve always trained with a lot of men. Women have issues like periods and menopause, but you just gear your running and training accordingly.
Q: Any advice on buying good running shoes and the correct clothing?
A: I’m a Nike athlete, so I support the brand. But especially for a woman who is starting out, I would tell her to go to a running specialty store and have them really look at her gait and how she moves and look at the structure of her foot to make sure she’s put in the right shoe. Everybody’s foot is different.
As for clothing, wear something that’s comfortable. Some people prefer close-fitting; some prefer a little more room. In winter months, I tend to layer. Where I live in Maine -- as I get warm and remove layers -- I can just leave the clothes on somebody’s mailbox.
Q: Is stretching important? Any advice for post-race recovery?
A: I don’t do a lot of stretching, but that’s not to say you shouldn’t stretch. Do what works for you. I tend to jog into and out of my runs, and if I’m particularly tight I might do some yoga-type stretches.
After a race, take a rest day. You’re not going to go out and test your fitness the next day.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m not training for a specific event now, but I’m looking forward to the Iron Girl Half. I may run the London Marathon the week before the Iron Girl. We’ll see. I actually feel better in my 50s than I did in my 40s.