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A joyous journey for Joan

Gutty Joan Benoit won the U.S. trial for the first women's Olympic race

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 3½ years," said Brown. "He's here to introduce Mary to a new model."

Jack Scott? Yep, the same Jack Scott, a central figure in the Patty Hearst case and onetime Bill Walton adviser. Sevene was dubious, but Scott, who lives in Berkeley, Calif. and is now proselytizing for the Acuscope, made his case by saying that it couldn't hurt. "That's the beauty of it," he said. "All other treatments put something damaging into the body to get their effect. Ultrasound can tear you up, Butazolidin and cortisone have their side effects."

"But this," explained Brown, "is electrical stimulus in low, low levels, very much like the current the body works on. Each cell has a charge that it loses when it's hurt or tired out. Recharging it seems to decrease healing time."

"A section of Joan's hamstring on Monday was like Maine mashed potatoes," said Scott.

"Idaho," said Benoit, "but you're right."

Scott treated her knee and hamstring. The treatments, which lasted up to nine hours per day, received a lot of publicity at the trials. "The treatments helped," said Benoit, "but without Stan James's surgery there would have been no need to make use of them." As well, after a couple of runs, Benoit soaked in a tub of ice. "Never heard her whimper," said Scott.

On Tuesday, May 8, now only four days before the trials, Benoit ran 17 miles at a good pace. "It was a mind run," said Sevene. "She had to know she could go the distance." She did, kind of. "Those last six miles are scary," she said on Wednesday. "Anything can happen."

It was, of course, a historic race, this qualifying run for the first-ever Olympic marathon for women. Olympia, which is Washington's capital but has barely 30,000 citizens, put on a fitting display of flags, bands, balloons and crowds. A field of 238 started. Benoit ran at the front in the early miles, but tentatively. "I was comfortable, but tight," she said. "I wasn't aware of the knee, but I always was of the hamstring."

With her were Betty Jo Springs, running her second marathon and pushing it, and Julie Brown, who was intent on making the Olympic team with as little effort as possible, because the women's marathon will be only slightly weakened by the Soviet boycott. "Grete Waitz [victor in last summer's World Championships in Helsinki] is Norwegian; that's all I need to know," said Brown. Right behind bobbed the blondish-brown curls of Lisa Larsen, 22, who as a freshman at Michigan went to the AIAW Nationals, the swimming nationals, as an individual medleyist. A cheerful and immense talent, she has run for only four years. This was her third marathon.

At 12 miles Benoit picked up the pace. "I wanted to run my own race," she said later. "We were doing 5:40 miles. I knew I'd feel better going faster." She quickly built a sizable margin. Springs faded. At 17 miles, Brown took over second. Larsen held third. That looked like the team.

But Benoit was right. With six miles to go, it got scary. Her legs went. "I knew if the pack came on me, I'd be dead." She slowed to six-minute miles.

Brown, now a minute behind, was content with a spot on the team. "The slower the better," she would say. "It was more like a training run than a destructive duel." She would place second in 2:31:41. "I expected to have to do 2:27," she said.

Behind Brown, Larsen had her own problems. One was 5'1", 100-pound Cathy Schiro, 16, a junior at Dover (New Hampshire) High and the youngest runner in the field. Schiro's roommate in Olympia was the trial's oldest participant, Sister Marion Irvine, 54, a Dominican nun, who would come in 132nd. Larsen saw Schiro coming. "Just stay calm," I told myself, "and if she gets past, go with her." But Schiro ran out of steam and would slip to ninth. She was one of the women that Julie Isphording would pass during her rush to the front.

Isphording, 22, whose graduation day from Xavier University this was (she had a 3.8 GPA in business administration), was 23rd at 10 miles. "It seemed too fast for me," she said. "I realized I had to run my pace and be patient." Then she began to work up, gaining momentum with each victim. With three miles to go she was blasting along at 5:20 pace. "But I didn't know what place I was in. People had stopped telling me when I got to about ninth."

Larsen knew what she was about to lose. "If I had it to do over, I'd train differently," she said. "I'd do more long runs. I fade at the end." She didn't really. Isphording was simply the race's fastest finisher. "I got to know her this week," said Larsen. "If anyone had to pass me, I'm glad it was her."

Isphording finished a joyous third, in 2:32:26. "I only realized it for sure with a half mile to go," she said, salt streaks across her cheeks. "It was like a dream. You know how you always dream something to be absolutely perfect?"

Larsen was fourth in 2:33:10 and was named first alternate for L.A. "I'm pleased, I really am," she said. "O.K., that separating line between third and fourth is hard, but you can't be unhappy with fourth." An innate Olympian.

Margaret Groos was fifth in 2:33:38, becoming second alternate. Five more women broke 2:35. The natural conclusion for one witnessing the trial's flood of close finishers was that the L.A. organizing committee ought to take all the places in the Olympic marathon that were abandoned by the Eastern bloc countries and fill them with the fastest in the world, regardless of nation. Surely that would mean several from this revealing race.

Benoit hung on to win in 2:31:04, and fell into the arms of Sevene. Both were shaking with the emotion of her effort. Words came hard. "The greatest damn athlete in the world," said Sevene.

"I feel I've really been tested," said Benoit. "The knee, the operation, the hamstring, the emotional ups and downs. Somehow, with all the people who helped, all the people who love me, I made it. I can't believe it. Now I'm looking forward to two months of solid training."



Benoit (1), Brown (2), Springs (20) and Larsen (behind Springs) were together at the start.


Benoit, alone at the finish, is looking forward to some normal training for a change.


Sister Marion Irvine (above), 54, finished 132nd; her roommate, Schiro, 16, struggled home ninth.


After all the downs, Benoit is now up.