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TUNNEL VISION : Benoit Retraces a Coliseum Marathon and Contemplates a Race After Seoul

Times Staff Writer

Joan Benoit’s first passage through the Los Angeles Coliseum tunnel did not come on the morning she carried the United States to triumph in the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon. It actually came one week earlier--a journey less rigorous than the 26.2-mile footrace known as a marathon--but one that, in her mind, foreshadowed the victory to follow.

On that day, the one that opened the 1984 Games, she was barely visible, swallowed by the rest of the United States team, part of the parade of athletes marching through the tunnel onto the track for the opening ceremonies.

“I remember, as we walked through that tunnel, wondering what it would be like running through it alone, with a big crowd waiting,” she said recently. “It sent tingles up my spine. They were the same tingles I felt a week later.”

Four years have passed since that day, Sunday, Aug. 5, she ran through that tunnel alone. She was a tiny figure in a gray singlet and shorts, looking, as her mother later put it, “like a little gray mouse skittering out of a hole,” as she emerged into the sunlight for her final lap, easily outdistancing a top international field of women on her way to a gold medal.

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Much has happened to Joan Benoit since. She returned to her beloved Maine, and two months after the Olympics, married Scott Samuelson, then a graduate student, now a businessman who markets wooden sports-oriented executive furniture. A year later, she ran her fastest marathon ever. And last October, she and Scott welcomed their first child, a daughter, Abigail Webb, now approaching her first birthday and starting to walk.

“Time has passed very quickly,” she said in a recent interview. “I feel a lot older now, although I still think I’m capable of running a PR (personal record). But I’ve aged in many ways since then. Not that that’s bad. I’ve become a more public person. I’m seasoned. My priorities have shifted.

“It doesn’t seem like the Olympic marathon was four years ago. I go out and run the same training runs on the same roads I did then. But when I look at those pictures, I look so much younger.”

After the opening ceremonies, she left Los Angeles to spend the week before the marathon in solitude in Eugene, Ore., where her coach and many of her running friends lived. It had been too stressful, trying to remain in the Olympic Village.

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“The adrenaline there was just too much,” she said.

And it wasn’t any better staying in Santa Monica with friends.

“Every time I went out for a training run, other people would try to race me,” she said, admitting those were challenges she found impossible to ignore.

Instead, she spent the week picking raspberries in the fields of Oregon and making jam.

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She came back to Los Angeles the day before the marathon, but almost missed her plane. Her fiance had built a boat for her birthday, and they had planned to depart in it after their wedding. Shortly before her flight was scheduled to leave, she saw a toy wooden boat with two people sitting in it in the airport gift shop, and decided it belonged on top of their wedding cake. “Buying that wooden boat, I barely made the plane,” she said.

By the time her flight reached Los Angeles, she was beginning to get the jitters. Her stomach was acting up, a condition she once described as “my perennial marathon companion.” After the plane landed, clutching her stomach, she searched for a bathroom. It didn’t help when four “punks” with purple and green hair accosted her in the airport lounge.

“I was feeling on edge and just couldn’t deal with it,” she said.

Irritated, she pulled away. Then she recognized one of the “punks.” It was her fiance, Scott. The others turned out to be her brother John, his wife, Holly, and one of her closest childhood friends, Martha Agan.

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“Martha had said years earlier that she wanted to be my coach when I got to the Olympics because, when we were growing up, she used to race me up the hill all the time and beat me,” she said.

She didn’t sleep very well that night. She lay in her bed, listening to the theme from “Chariots of Fire” over and over again on a Walkman. It was the same tune that would accompany her into the church for her wedding.

She had spent the previous several days drinking water, a wise marathoner’s weapon against dehydration, especially in the heat. But as a result, she had to keep getting up every half hour to use the bathroom. She believes she slept only about an hour that night. She dreamed she was trapped in a department store.

The next morning, 50 of the world’s finest female marathoners gathered on the Santa Monica track. “I couldn’t focus on anything,” she said. “The day was overcast and the air was heavy. I cut holes in my number because everyone else was cutting holes in their numbers.”

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She fidgeted with her white painter’s cap, trying to decide which way to wear it--brim forward or backward--or whether to wear it at all. Worried about her stomach, she went to the bathroom again. In fact, she wore a small plastic bag with stomach medication inside her shorts throughout the race--just in case--although she later said there was no way she would have reached “into my shorts on ABC television.”

When she came out of the bathroom, officials were positioning the athletes for a march onto the track. Everyone lined up in alphabetical order, according to their homelands. The United States, as the host country, marched last.

“I kept thinking to myself, ‘first shall come last and last shall come first,’ ” she said.

Joan Benoit Samuelson has few memories of the race itself, which is typical for her. She never looks at a marathon course ahead of time, and allows very little to penetrate her concentration while she is running.

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“The one thing I remember is looking over at a sidewalk in Marina del Ray and seeing a Bowdoin banner,” she said, speaking of her alma mater. “That gave me a tremendous lift.”

She ran with the pack for the first three miles, then, feeling restrained, decided to break free. No one followed. From then on, the race belonged to her.

“I looked back once, I think it was on San Vicente Boulevard, after about six miles,” she said. “After that, I never looked back. At about 16 or 17 miles, I couldn’t believe they were running in a pack as far back as they were.”

The lonely stretch along the Marina Freeway, where no spectators were allowed, was the piece of the course she had dreaded the most. There is nothing in Maine that resembles the Southern California freeway system. But, despite her apprehension, she found that she loved the isolation.

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“I felt the most at home on that part of the course,” she said. “I was alone. It was like running on the back roads of Maine.”

She crossed the finish line in 2 hours, 24 minutes and 52 seconds, a minute and a half ahead of second place finisher, Norway’s Grete Waitz. It was one of the fastest women’s marathon times in history, even though she had run faster before--and has run faster since.

In October, 1985, the last time she ran a marathon, she posted a new personal best, 2:21:21, just 15 seconds slower than the current world record.

She will not be competing in Seoul this year, and her emotions are mixed. It is very difficult for Samuelson to not be where the competition is. On the other hand, she had been uneasy about bringing her family to South Korea, where the political situation is so tenuous.

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Her Olympic dream was fulfilled on Aug. 5, 1984. Her most cherished remaining goal is to become the first woman to run a marathon faster than 2 hours and 20 minutes.

She had a tough time coming back after the birth of her daughter, in part because of a long-time biomechanical problem caused by one shorter leg. She also suffered back problems through much of the winter. By last April, her training was finally going well, but she had run out of time to prepare for the May 1 Olympic trial.

She hopes to run her first marathon in three years this fall, probably in New York City. She doubts that she will break 2:20 this time but she believes there is a sub-2:20 in her future. This fall, however, she wants to run at least several minutes faster than the gold-medal winning time in Seoul.

These days, Samuelson barely thinks about her gold medal winning race. In a way, she lives her life exactly the way she runs. “I just don’t look back,” she said. “I just keep looking ahead.”

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