She's gone from small-town champion to olympic pioneer to single-named icon. But she never sought fame or influence. Joan Benoit Samuelson wanted something more precious--and has spent the past two decades protecting it.
Mary Ellen Mark
Green thumb, fast legs. Joan Benoit Samuelson near her home in Maine.
No Coasting. Samuelson at her home on Marquoit Bay in Maine this past September. She's training for her last competative marathon, the Olympic Trials in April.
Joan Benoit was the first woman to run away from me. It was late in a 10-mile run through wet, oak woods, two days before the 1983 World Cross Country Championships in Gateshead, England. I was 39, twice an Olympic marathoner, in 2:20-marathon shape, and knew how to use it all. Up a hill, she edged five yards ahead. I used it all. She had me by 15 yards at the top. Down the other side she eased. I caught up. I did not share with her the full significance of the moment. I remember a stab of dread at its implications. Only one was positive. This 25-year old woman with the dry wit and unshakable rhythm was overdue. One evening last summer, as we talked over dinner at her seaside home in Maine, she said, "I remember that run. It meant I'd be strongi n Boston the next month." Strong she as, and on April 18 she unleashed her full force over the Boston Marathon course. It carried her through breakneck splits of 51:38 for 10 miles (a 5:09.8-per-mile pace) and 1:08.22 at the halfway point (a 2:16:44 marathon pace). With those times she had to die, and she did, suffering through the last six miles at 5:47 pace. Even so, she finished in 2:22:43, two minutes and 46 seconds faster than any woman had run a marathon before – faster than the world record held by Grete Waitz of Norway. Suddenly my pride was a lot less wounded
The performance staggered both sport and runner. From that day forward, Benoit became a favorite to win the inaugural women’s Olympic Marathon the next year in Los Angeles.
Benoit knew she was capable of winning gold, but worried that the public would try to possess her even more now, as it had after she first won Boston in 1979, at 21. “That was the first time there was all the attention, the commercial approaches, the foundations pursuing me. I really fell apart,” she said. “I handled [the 1983 Boston victory] better because I’d been through all that before, and I’d learned.”
As it tuned out, she entered the tunnel leading into L.A. Memorial Coliseum near the end of the Olympic Marathon with more than a gold medal on her mind. She was a minute and a half ahead of Waitz. She had it won. But alone in the dim, dusty passageway, sensing the 77,000 inside (and the nation) waiting to embrace her forever, it hit her: This is the first Olympic Women’s Marathon. This could really change my life.
Her first thought was, It’s not too late. I can hide in here and not come out the other side. Of course, she could do no such thing. So she conducted a little bargaining session. “I thought, Okay, this isn’t a world record, but it will be an Olympic gold medal. It seemed a trade-off. One couldn’t be any worse than the other. I really didn’t want to change my life, but I thought I could handle this one.”
With that resolved, she strode out into the light and won in 2:24:52. She was filled with relief, vindication, and something more. Back in that tunnel she had essentially set a lifelong goal to not let the gold medal and attendant celebrity sweep away her identity. It was a vow to be herself.
It was a vow that would be tough to keep. Benoit burst out of that tunnel in a Jungian archetype: She perfectly answered our demand for what a hero must be and do—suffering, and returning transformed. She was running not just for herself but to free women literally shoved aside when they tried to race this mythic distance. The marathon was always a riveting metaphor. Now here was a champion for real progress.
A few months after Benoit’s Olympic victory, I traveled to Maine to visit with her for a Sports Illustrated article I was doing. The story was entitled “Her Life Is in Apple Pie Order,” a play on a goofy photo of Joan and her new husband, Scott Samuelson, in their kitchen displaying a pie with a happy face gouged into it. “It’s not victory that she celebrates but being unharmed by victory,” the article proclaimed. “She has been superbly grounded.”
I wrote those words in the winter of 1985. When she then went on to set more records, when she became the beaming face of our sport, adored by so many that there was no need to ever ask who we meant by “Joanie,” I wondered, how could she not be swept up in all the symbolism, all the vicarious hunger? How could any old promise resist a world determined to drink in her heroism?
Returning to her home 22 years later, and just months after her 50th birthday, I thought it fair to ask Joan Benoit Samuelson if she really had been able to cling, through the injuries and the children and the drains of endurance sport, to her legendary balance. Has she kept the vow while evolving in the process?
“Tell you what,” she said on this warm Maine night. “Hang with me this week and see how I’ve evolved.”
Homebody Samuelson, with her Lab Soot, seemed to preer the simple pleasures of her Maine life, even when she was the world's best marathoner.
The Samuelson sanctuary is a White House on Flying Point, a glaciated granite arm extending into Maquoit Bay, a few calming miles from the bustle of downtown Freeport (think L.L. Bean HQ). The surrounding woods are pine, maple, and birch. House, barn, and grounds are arranged with an eye to the sea. The lawn sweeps down to a rickety dock on a cove. Kayaks are drawn up on marsh grass. A motorboat is moored far enough out to ride above the 10-foot tides.
The main vegetable garden is protected by a picket fence overlaid with bare electric wires, charged by a solar panel. At the night the current fades. In come hungry creatures. Scott, Joan’s husband, catches a few alive in his Havahart trap. Earlier on this August day, he’d driven a furious, malodorous raccoon back into the woods. “He was huge and he was pissed the whole time,” Scott recalls. “Abby wouldn’t even get in the car with that one.”
Daughter Abby, 20, is a sophomore at Bates College in nearby Lewiston, where she runs cross country and Nordic skis. “She’s also practicing her backward walking,” Joan says, “guiding prospective students on campus visits.”
Abby says she had hoped to declare a major by now. Her mother is entirely unconcerned. “That’s why we have small liberal arts colleges,” she says. “For the time and the space.”
On our first night together, Joan serves buttery beets, beans, and pungent salad greens, fresh from her garden. She is tanned and lean—leaner, it seems, than in her 20s, her great years when she won the two Boston marathons. Her fastest marathon, the American record until 2003, was 2:21:21 she rant o defeat Norway’s Ingrid Kristiansen in Chicago in 1985. Then she was a sprite, a waif in a Red Sox cap, and her strength the more astounding for it. Now her chin and nose are sharper. She’s grown in to the face of a great marathoner, and much more.
“I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in March,” she says. “That was great. That’s always been a goal.” Asked her motives, she replies with the old dryness: “I climb mountains because they are there, and because there are a certain number of 4,000-foot-plus peaks in New England.”
She pursues biking with a similar ease. “I was thinking about running 50 miles on my 50th birthday,” she says, “but I aggravated a heel spur in the Oklahoma City Memorial Half-Marathon, so instead I biked 60 miles with a friend.”
Her running, conversely, has been up and down. Injuries, such as the one to her heel, have nagged her lately, and almost with a sense of relief she cries, “The Olympic Women’s Marathon Trials in Boston is my last goal in running!” The race, to determine the three American women who will run the marathon at this summer’s Beijing Olympics, is set for April 20, the day before the Boston Marathon. It will be Samuelson’s fourth women’s Trials, and while she holds no hope of making the team, she says, “I want to break 2:50 at 50.”
She begins to sketch her training plans for it, when the phone rings and keeps ringing. She is in the throes of organizing the 10th running of her creation, the TD Banknorth Beach to Beacon 10-K road race in her hometown, Cape Elizabeth, Maine, a few miles south of Portland. It takes place this coming weekend and will draw a record 6,500 runners. This year, several current and former elite runners are due, including Grete Waitz, Joan’s old rival and friend. Even as the race has gotten larger, Joan has remained its shepherdess, involving herself in the most minute of details. She also takes part in the B2B, as it’s known, with Abby, son Anders, 17, and Scott. When thinking about the upcoming race, Scott sighs, “What I hear from bystanders when I race is, ‘Uh, the rest of your family is in front of you…as usual!’”
Scott was way ahead of one crucial matter. Last spring, with Joan’s 50th birthday coming in May, and her telling him “100 times” she didn’t want a party, he was forced to an act of genius. He sent everyone she knew two small envelopes and a form letter. “I can think of little more important to Joanie,” he wrote “than friends, family, and gardens (okay, maybe a little physical exercise) and I thought how much she’d enjoy a gift that combines you and her gardens. I am creating the ultimate 50th Birthday Seed Catalog of personalized seed envelopes from friends and family.”
To keep it a secret, he rented a post-office box to receive responses. And knowing her, he also asked everyone to include e-mail addresses. “Joanie will want to write you all thank-you notes and I would prefer she send on group-email to everyone, or I won’t see her for a month or two.”
...today outside their home in Maine. "The question," says Scott, "is what to do next after Joan runs the Trials?"
Scott now staggers into the kitchen with an armful of albums that threaten to topple across the table. “Everybody came through!” he says. “Al Oerter [the late Olympic discus champion] painted a miniature abstract oil. Mark Parker [president of Nike] must have worked hours on his ornate ink drawing.”
The albums overflow with real seeds and metaphoric ones, photos and defining remembrance:
From Jane Seagrave and John Kennedy: Already roasted coffee beans. “If anyone can grow these, you can.”
From Valerie Tarantino: Victoria’s Secret seeds. “Have you noticed Joanie has more ‘bounce’ in her step?”
From Lynn: “When I’m on my second cup of coffee, wondering what my day will hold, I’ll give Joanie a call. She’s already baked four sheets of cookies, gone out for a 10-mile run, and put a pan of spanakopita together for a sick neighbor. I drink my coffee with more enthusiasm. There are always enough cookies for me!”
Joan’s next words are a poignant confirmation of the multitasker’s dilemma. “I have only looked at two of those albums,” she says on her way to bed. “There are seven.”
The next day, she does a training run with Beach to Beacon runners in Portland in the morning, then holds a press conference with the governor of Maine in the afternoon and TV interviews until 11 p.m. In between, she whips home for a run of her own and starts autographing 70 or so B2B posters. Race director Dave McGillivray has already signed them “But,” she moans, “he has a rubber stamp.”
She sets a pace to be done in two hours, but falls behind because she keeps adding personal notes.
The next afternoon, on the freeway heading to a Portland interviews, her BlackBerry chimes. It is Alberto Salazar. “Oh, you’re kidding!”” she yells. This is Salazar’s first contact with her since the miracle of his being resuscitated after collapsing with a heart attack at Nike’s campus in Oregon in June. He guarantees that he was helped by a rosary blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. “Well, don’t’ lose those,” says Samuelson, the soul of practicality.
Salazar asks if she can fill in for him at a Nike event; Samuelson has been one of the shoe company’s ambassadors at competitions and meetings for years. But on this occasion she has to decline, being booked solid. “But give my love to Molly and the kids…and take care of yourself!”
As we drive, I remind her of hos she and Salazar escorted Lance Armstrong through the 2006 New York City Marathon. “I did the last belief on every passing mile marker. I tried to take his mind off that, get him to not interrupt his rhythm. But at 25 and a half I knew it was going to be close. I said, ‘If you want to break three hours, stay on my heels an you will.’ And he summoned it. He made it. He went deep. What a cardiovascular system.”
She sparks her maroon Volvo station wagon and sprints into the TV station. She’s out in 25 minutes. “Darn, darn, darn!” she says. “I called Duncan Kibet Robert Kibet! He’s only the race favorite. I hope he wasn’t watching.”
Now I must drive because she has to sign the remaining posters before the final meeting of her 70-strong organizing committee. This is in a buzzing, fan-blasted room in the Cape Elizabeth Community Center. On time to the minute, Joan slips into a seat and nods to McGillivray, who is also the Boston Marathon director.
“It’s not about event management now,” he begins. “It’s about crisis management.” He brandishes a 149-page organization manual. “Communication?” he barks.
“We’re a go.”
“Race-day course helpers?”
“Seven hundred seventy-two.”
Meanwhile, Joan passes out the posters to the right recipients. When finished, she asks to say a few unifying words. David Weatherbie, the B2B’s board president and the son of Joan’s former coach at Cape Elizabeth High, introduces her. “But before Joanie,” he says, “I want to say this organization now has over 1,000 people putting on the race, and how wicked proud I am to be associated with each and every one!”
Samuelson stands. "Tonight we'll honor our volunteers..." she begins, but Weatherbie's gust of feeling has affected her. "I wasn't going to get emotional..." Her eyes stay dry, but she has to catch her breath. "You exemplify what any one group can do," Samuelson says, gaining control," all across the world. You are a celebration of how running transcends and builds community!"
This seems about to be greeted with an ovation, so she wards it off with an order: "To the volunteers' party!"
From Ann and Reese Fullerton: "A perennial in high demand. Hardy, energetic, compact habit, and refinement of form. Exceedingly adaptable, with a remarkable yield of continuous and infinitely varied bloom, the genus thrives in challenging situations, enduring and smiling. Generous, abundant, and vigorous, with long-running, sturdy stems. Makes a complementary coupling. Remarkable modesty in presentation, combines beauty and durability."
On the way to a party, we pass a bronze statue near Joan's high school. It depicts her carrying the flag after her Olympic victory. "This is why people ask if I'm dead," she says.
Joan turns onto a private lane, enters thick woods, passes stables and a mansion, and parks in a meadow next to ranks of other Volvos and Subarus. Below, an immense incandescent tent is filling with people. Barbecue smoke and music waft up the slope. The view is of great estates, sails on the glassine bay, Richmond Island, and the opening sea. This is the Maine that has been home to money and power down through the generations. Kennebunkport is but a bay and a headland to the south.
She explains the function's role: "We've always had the thank-you party the night after the race. But the volunteers were always exhausted by then. Only a few showed up, and it was this tired little party." That so chafed at Samuelson's conscience that she rescheduled the gala to provide the volunteers with a prerace charge. "This is a test," she says. "I hope they have fun."
She thanks every parking guide, every little girl handing out raffle tickets. "I have to be kind of omnipresent for the sake of the volunteers," she says, almost apologetically, but it is transparent that this is not a burden. This is her heaven. She wades into the tent to schmooze with the sponsors, of which there are dozens. There is a tent sponsor. There is a cheese sponsor.
I hang back and meet some of her friends. "I don't know how she talked me into it," says one, a doctor. "My young son had cancer. Joanie said, 'This is what you need to do.' She came and ran with me. She planned my training. She got me through it. She made me a marathoner."
"I always think I should send her a thank-you note for including me in something," says another, "and the next day there's a thank you note from her!"
Three hundred volunteers attend, making it a raucous success. "On behalf of TD Banknorth Beach to Beacon," Samuelson tells them, "I thank you. This is a race for the people and by the people. I had a vision 11 years ago that led to this race, and I had another to have something fun for the volunteers, and that vision is realized tonight. Thank you for coming, thank you for understanding! Thank you for being!"
She concludes in a lower key. "Sometimes," she says in a tone almost of introspection, "sometimes the road we take makes such an impression that others are impelled to follow." This seems to describe not only the influence that came to her because of her great wins but how she welcomes the weight of it, the responsibility of it. All week, she will leave a paper trail of little crossed-out notes, trying to improve the thought.
At party's end, Larry Wold, who heads TD Banknorth's operations in Maine, walks away laughing at the preposterous view. "Not that this isn't part of Maine," he says. "It is. It is. It's just the wicked best part of it!"
That, of course, is the classic New England expression. "Wicked good" is all L.L.Bean feels it needs to say about its moccasins. It's a perfect contradiction, a thing so sublime as to be sinful. It suggests, too, the New England need to not want to enjoy something too much. Savor victory for an evening because when you wake in the morning, you will find it flown, and a new race beginning. That's certainly the Samuelson pattern.
Later that night, Joan is e-mailing before bed, her eyes closing. Scott comes in waving a flashlight. "The barn is filled with baby raccoons," he says. "One's even caught in an old lobster trap."
"No wonder that big guy you hauled away was mad," Joan says. "She's their mother." They investigate. The kits are downy but about half grown, too small to do without a mom, but too big to take in and nurse. Besides, they snarl and bite when neared.
"This is a disaster!" says Scott. The immediate options are to feed them or take them to where he dumped the mother. "But that's such a pain."
Joan is vexed. "This story is not about raccoons!" she yells. Tired, she just wants to simplify life's onrushing narrative.
Scott frees the one in the lobster trap. "Maybe they'll be gone in the morning."
As it happens, the raccoons are still there the next day, two asleep in an empty trash can. Scott carries the can gently across the road and into the woods, tipping it for ease of egress, and tiptoes away. Joan does a 30-mile bike ride.
From Andrea Cayer: "(At Cape Elizabeth High] she was library aide, G.A.A. Executive board, National Honor Society, DAR Award, and answered to, 'Benwah, Space Cadet, Super Elf Benny, JJ' or loan Benoit."
Soaking it in. Provided she can work away nagging injuries, Samuelson will compete in her fourth Women's Olympic Marathon Trials this April
Anders returns from surfing camp later in the day. He has his father's dark coloring and daredevil gene. In winter, he doesn't really change sports, just temperatures. He is a devoted shredder, a snowboarder. Fluent in Swedish, he spent six months as a foreign-exchange student in Stockholm to finish his junior year in high school. His e-mails home prove him a writer of promise. In a piece of fiction he wrote about a marathoner, one line jumps out: "He worked with pace and never grew too confident, always partially blind to his blatant gift." That, of course, is exactly his mother's relationship with her talent, but Anders says he was thinking more of a character in the novel The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay. Even so, I repeat the sentence to Joan as we drive toward Cape Elizabeth. Her head snaps around. "Who wrote that?"
"My son?" Her face runs through about six expressions, and stops on sympathy. "Ahh, he's got it. The writer thing." She makes it sound like she'll have to shoot him a get‑well card.
She visits the race expo and packet pickup, which is in full swing at her old high school gym. One greeter calls out, "Hiya, Joaniebaloney!" Boxes with the 6,500 entries line tables. Joan asks the guy manning the box with numbers #601 to #880 how he liked the party.
"My wife had diverticulitis and was in the hospital all week. I missed the party to be with her."
"Wow, thanks for being here today."
"You are welcome," he says, with the firmness of really meaning it.
That night she attends another, smaller soiree, this for families who host invited runners. Beach to Beacon is unusual in lodging runners in homes, rather than impersonal hotels. "Many of you will become fast friends‑literally," Joan tells them. In the past several hosts have flown to Africa to visit their adopted runners.
On the way home, we get caught in a traffic jam on the freeway. Joan massages her tight right hamstring. "I should keep a tennis ball in the car for this."
I ask about her plans for breaking 2:50 at the Olympic Trials. "If I train seriously for it, train right, I should do it," she says. She did it easily in the 2006 Twin Cities Marathon, where she ran 2:46:27. And she covered the seven miles of the 2007 Falmouth Road Race in under‑six‑minute pace. A 2:50 marathon is exactly 6:30 pace. She's got the speed.
She's also had injuries. "One thing after another;' she says. "In Oklahoma in a half‑marathon in April, I felt an old injury in the calf and plantar fascia go at six and a half miles. I limped in, in 1:54:52."
I give her a look.
She gives me one back. "I know you say drop out. I have never dropped out of a road race, so I couldn't. To drop out of the Trials, that would kill me. But training right will need massage, will need taking more rest. The question is, can I do that? Can I back off, can I do stretching routines? Squatting in my garden is not what I should be doing. I know I'm going to have to try to take a three‑month sabbatical, but, but..."
She almost shivers with horror at the prospect of reining herself in. "The problem is I cram in so much that... 1 cut things so close," she explains. "I'm naturally late for things because I cut things so tight. I'm not proud of that, but that's me. If I need to be there, if it's important for the kids, I'm always there, but it's always close."
The next morning, she attends the race's media conference and introduces two special guests, Grete Waltz and Canada's Jacqueline Gareau. "Jackie won the Boston Marathon in 1980;' says Joan, "and I don't want to say much more than that, because it means mentioning Rosie Ruiz, who jumped in at the end and stole Jackie's laurels."
Afterward, we have lunch with Waitz at a seafood restaurant near the Portland docks. Having never been to Maine, Grete leapt at Samuelson's call to come to the race. They laugh about their varied physical problems before the L.A. Olympic Marathon. Grete had a nagging muscle injury and didn't think she'd be able to run that morning. Joan was ready, but what she had survived to be there is properly legend.
In the spring of that year, her knee locked on a run. Rest and anti‑inflammatories had no effect. Panicking and with nothing to lose, she went to Eugene, Oregon, and had Dr. Stan James operate on her‑17 days before the Olympic Trials in May. "He and I had an agreement;' Joan says. "If he got in there and found that it was bad, really in need of reconstruction, then he'd do it then. If not, I'd go right home.
"So I woke up in the hospital. Stan came in and said, 'I bet you're thinking it took massive repair. It didn't. I simply snipped a plica band that was caught in the joint."
"Then why am I here overnight?"
"Because your reputation has preceded you. I've been advised to force as much recovery on you as possible before you go out and test that knee."
He'd heard right. A few days later, she tested it to the obsessive tune of 17 miles. That caused such tissue damage to her out‑of‑shape leg muscles that therapist Jack Scott had to administer microcurrent stimulation for 14 hours a day. She arrived at the Trials in Olympia, Washington, not knowing if she could make the distance. She led all the way. "I had absolutely nothing left after 20 miles. If anyone had passed me, I think the whole field would have."
She won in 2:31:04. "The biggest win was the Olympics," she says, "but the race of my life was the Trials."
The story is a reminder of how placidly she could run her own race, ungnawed by doubt or what the competition was doing. She won in Los Angeles by roaring out to a big lead after only two miles. She didn't even recall some stretches later because she was "spacing out;' in her words, supremely absorbed in maintaining the right flow for her, right rhythm, right breathing. "I felt smooth and strong;' she says, "almost effortless. Never again."
Her true gift, therefore, in training and racing, was and remains being able to leave everything to the gods. She speaks of having a formal arrangement with them because she has exactly that. "I promised myself if I was able to make it through the Trials and to the Olympics, I would give back;' she says. So it's a done deal. Whatever her sport wants from her, she'll give.
As ever, when she takes a run, she hopes to get away from the obligations and planning and sheer thoughtfulness of her overcommitted life. If she finds that old spacey rhythm, she sometimes returns more refreshed than when she set out.
She still starts so fast, few companions are ready. Brad Hudson, one of the U.S.'s top running coaches and a former 2:13 marathoner, ran with her in New York's Central Park last year. "I had to invent an appointment I'd forgotten so I could peel off
and quit," Hudson says.
From the Espy family, a game:
"Joanie is spearheading Freeport's new
mandatory carpooling law. (Photo of an overloaded, deathtrap African bus.)
"On the way to yoga, Joanie spotted a cruise ship flushing waste, so she's gone to report the violation."
"Joanie's putting a Sugarloaf sticker on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro." (Photo of her doing just that.)
RACE DAY DAWNS MISTY AND DANK. THE
Beach to Beacon course record, set by Kenya's Gilbert Okari in 2003, is 27:28, an incredible time for this 10‑K because the last mile climbs without pity. Sun graces the start at Crescent Beach, but at the finish at Portland Head Light the crowd waits in the fog that makes the lighthouse necessary.
The humidity, to employ an Anders Samuelson phrase, "is nearing solidification." A pair of Kenyans, Duncan Kibet and Evans Cheryiout, baffle throughout the course, with Kibet barely winning, 27:51.7 to 27:52.1. Luminita Talpos of Romania is the women's winner in 32:20.
Anders is first Samuelson, in 39:12, which would be faster but for the huge, sopping soccer shirt he wears. The crowd awaits his mom. McGillivray has broadcast a pledge to give a dollar to STRIVE, the race's youth charity, for every person who beats Joan, saying, "That's the only way to slow her down."
It doesn't slow her down. Only 363 of the 4,839 finishers beat her. She comes in together with (and hugging) Jacqueline Gareau in 41:57. Abby has no trouble handling Scott, yet again. At the award ceremony, McGillivray, saying he likes round numbers, rounds his gift up from $363 to $2,000.
Samuelson opens a long‑prepared box. "And to Jacqueline Gareau," she says, "the laurel wreath she never got in 1980 in Boston!" Gareau joyfully mashes the leafy crown onto her curls, the picture of justice.
The crowd disperses reluctantly, struck by the sight of a schooner ghosting into the offshore fog bank. The lighthouse's foghorn is high‑pitched, a mournful, muffled trumpet. "With great relief," says Joan, "we can now rest before the lobster bake."
At the race's final bash, Joan wears dressy black and sequins, which don't prevent her from wrenching lobster tail after lobster tail from their shells, and eating deeply. Hers is a
Maine metabolism, pursuing its native diet.
Eventually Joan is called to speak. McGillivray says she will be in need of warmth this winter, training for the marathon Trials, so he gives her a symbolic sweatshirt. She takes the microphone, and after thanking each sponsor, says, "It's not always easy to live with a spouse you can't catch, but Scott I love you so."
As she steps down, the Olympic theme swells. There is no stopping this ovation.
From Lynn and Bill Heinz: "Joan, what
does Patriots' Day (the date of the Boston Marathon) mean to you?" "It's the day I
have to have my peas planted by."
WITH THE CRAZINESS OF THE PAST
few days now over, it's time to relax. Two friends with whom Joan climbed Kilimanjaro in March, Wendy Hollister and Kari Rekoske, come for blueberry pancakes the next morning. They bring a beautiful picture of the three of them at Barafu Camp, Tanzania, with the mountain in the background.
"You have to go with a guide and porters," says Hollister, "one porter for your duffel, one for your water. They go up with these huge bags on their heads. They make a dollar a day."
Rekoske says, "It was five days up, and a day down. We had walking poles."
Joan was lucky she had Hollister. "Joanie ‑got really, really cold," Hollister recalls. "I gave her my gloves. I gave her my jacket."
After Hollister and Rekoske depart, Joan types e‑thank‑you notes. Thus there is a moment to ask Anders and Abby whether being raised by Joan made for a great childhood.
"She incorporated us in all the trips and events she could," says Anders.
"And when she was planning them," says Abby, "she'd tell Nike she had to be back for this game or that meet. She made most of ours. Other kids' folks made half as many. Also, she'd sacrifice cool things to do in places because she'd hurry back. And that went double for the gardens. She can't be away from them long."
Samuelson is an accredited Master Gardener, though she doesn't compost using the orthodox series of piles, balancing green versus brown, kitchen scraps versus old leaves, nitrogen versus carbon. She gets her results by mulching everything she grows with seaweed that she and Scott have hauled from their shore and dried. This eelgrass (Zostera marina) grows in narrow ribbons. Her squash, artichokes, row crops, arugula, and peonies seem to push up though mounds of wadded cassette tape. Her celery has won a blue ribbon at the Common
Ground Fair, Maine's biggest organic fair.
It would be uncharacteristic of her to garden for her needs alone. She contributes produce and time to the local Plant a Row for the Hungry organization, which donates more than a million pounds of food a year to local food banks and soup kitchens across the United States and Canada.
"I have a vision comparable in clarity to my B2B dreams a decade ago," she says. "It has to do with how the potato fields of Maine's Aroostook County have lain fallow for so long now that they have become organically certifiable soil. So I dream of Aroostook becoming a great center of organic cold crops. Broccoli, kale, everything."
The idea is warm and alive, waiting for a catalyst. Just how she will invest her time and energy has yet to be determined, but sustainable agriculture seems a natural for one so blithe to exhaust herself, as right for her as marathoning was in her youth. She is evolving wisely.
In other pursuits, such as raising her children and tending to her gardens, she's been fortunate to have a partner in Scott, whose love for the land equals that of his wife. "There have been years where I'm rototilling the snow to get those damn peas in," he says, chuckling. Theirs is a remarkable relationship. Each day Scott and Joan pursue their own callings, then meet back at the farm. "Joanie and I could never work together," he says. "Our friends crack up just trying to imagine that." Scott is a part owner and manager of an environmentally advanced water‑treatment company, SeptiTech. Hers is far more the life that wears one down.
"The drain of her public appearances is seasonal and peaking this week," Scott says. But it's not always this pressured. "We're a skiing family," he says. "Almost every week in winter we head over to our cabin at Sugarloaf, and nothing gets done because we're out all day, and come in tired. That's our family time, together. That recharges Joan, and all of us.
"The question is what to do next, after Joan runs the Trials. How to balance her trips for Nike and the running‑world obligations with sensible time at home."
That is precisely the question, and there's no precise answer. Joan has shaped her life to be doubly exemplary, to give back and to run her best, even though it's obvious that the two ends are so draining that compromise is inevitable. Accepting that is the single toughest thing for Samuelson.
At times, her headlong rush of activities is worrisome. It exhausts her, and she couldn't do it without her understanding support team. At first she's so rational, so expressive, she sneaks her mania past you. But after a while you begin to feel tired for her, and jump up to be useful. She should run for office or manage a political campaign. It's startling to think this soul once trembled because companies wanted to pay her to do commercials.
You wonder, as you do with the obsessive, about whether she is happy. Happy when at rest. Is she trying to do good in so many ways that she'll lose herself to a harmful extent? Is she literally wicked good? What is she trying to prove, after all she's done?
Truth is, it's not a case of wanting to prove anything. It never has been, not since her Olympic tunnel vow. She's living out her deign, and her design climbs mountains because she sees them right there, unclimbed. If we understand that, we ought to stop worrying. We should just stand back in awe that this prodigy has come among us.
That afternoon we walk over to the beach. Scott, an osprey fluttering and wheeling over him, kayaks out to their white runabout, starts its 130‑horsepower outboard, and brings it back to the dock. Soot, their big, old black Lab, knows where it's going and won't allow it to depart without him.
It takes 25 minutes over calm water, past islets that evoke the Baltic, past thousands of lobster‑trap buoys to reach Cliff Island. As a child, Joan spent parts of her summers here. She grew up in its blend of everyone‑knows‑you safety and everyone‑knows‑you boredom. Abby and Anders have done the same.
The scene makes clear how Joan has kept her balance. She is inextricable from this island and this life, where vigorous families stay close, where neighbors feed each other, where hard work brings amazing possibilities, and where you can flow along at your own sweet, inimitable rhythm.
Everyone takes naps, Joan unconscious on a towel on the warm granite beach rocks, protected by Soot and family. No one has ever looked happier.