Joan Benoit Samuelson is no stranger to the working of miracles. She won the 1984 U.S. Women's Olympic Marathon Trial just 17 days after arthroscopic surgery on her right knee and then won the Olympic gold medal three months later. Her performance in Monday afternoon's Boston Marathon must run a close second.
"I'm not looking beyond this race," she had said on Friday. "For me to continue, it's necessary to run under 2:30."
Even that sounded ambitious. The last time Samuelson had broken 2:30 was at the Chicago Marathon in 1985, when she set the U.S. record of 2:21:21, which still stands. She is 33 and her hair is flecked with gray. She had her second child, Anders, 14 months ago and stopped nursing him only last month. "Joanie can do a good race," said world-record holder Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, whom most people regarded as the favorite in Boston. "But she's had so many problems." Her latest one is lower-back pain, which has plagued her since the birth of her first child, Abby, in 1987.
Samuelson has attempted several comebacks. Two years ago at Boston she limped home ninth. Last November she pulled out of the New York City Marathon three days before the race, again with a bad back. But, says Samuelson, "I'm learning to work with [the pain]. I make the best of what I have."
For a couple of months before Boston, she put in 75 to 100 miles a week and ran intervals once a week with a group of guys at her alma mater, Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine. "It's the best training I've had since 1985," she said on Friday.
On Monday, Samuelson looked reckless from the start. Her mind, which has been by far her greatest asset, seemed to be ignoring her body's limitations. She and Wanda Panfil of Poland followed Kristiansen through 10 kilometers in 31:43—faster, Samuelson later pointed out, than she has run a 10K race in more than three years. Soon she was pushing the pace impatiently, leading Panfil and Kristiansen past 10 miles in a brisk 53:40.
The men's race, by contrast, was something of a dawdle. A mob of 10 runners loped past 10 miles in 50:22, 3:29 slower than in 1990. Everyone, it seemed, was running with one eye on world champion Douglas Wakiihuri of Kenya. One exception was Wakiihuri's countryman Ibrahim Hussein, the winner in Boston in 1988.
All week, Hussein, 32, had confided to friends that he was not going to let Wakiihuri dictate the pace. Just past 12 miles, Hussein surged. The only runner to go with him was Andy Ronan of Ireland, a Providence College graduate with a marathon best of 2:13:30. When Ronan got a stitch at 21 miles, Hussein was on his own. He hit the tape in 2:11:06, a pace of five minutes per mile. Abebe Mekonnen of Ethiopia, the 1989 Boston champion, was second, in 2:11:22, five seconds ahead of Ronan. Wakiihuri was sixth, in 2:13:30.
Behind them, the fast early pace had taken its toll on Kristiansen. "I had cramps the second half," she would say after finishing sixth, in 2:29:54.
By 16 miles, Panfil had broken away and showed no sign of faltering. She finished in 2:24:18, the second-fastest women's time in Boston history, behind Samuelson's 2:22:43 in 1983. With consecutive wins in Nagoya, Japan; London; New York; and Boston, Panfil, 32, looks to be a favorite for both the World Championships in August and the Olympics next year.
The strongest finisher in Boston was Kim Jones, 32, of Spokane. Jones has no choice but to start cautiously. She suffers from exercise-induced asthma, which constricts her air passages, cutting off the flow of oxygen. "When I feel it coming on, I have to back off," she says.
At the Cascade Run Off road race in Portland, Ore., last June, Jones did not back off in time. She had completed the race and was running back across the finish line the wrong way when she was spotted by friends. Jones, who has no memory of this bizarre occurrence, caught Samuelson with half a mile to go on Monday and finished second, in 2:26:40.
Also finishing strong was Uta Pippig of Germany, who ran cunningly wide down the last straightaway, on Boylston Street, so Samuelson wouldn't notice her. She finished third, in 2:26:52.
Samuelson was fourth, in 2:26:54, a time that qualifies her for the Olympic trials. "I knew I'd be back as soon as I got over those [medical] problems," she said. "All I had to do was to get my head in the thick of things."
Panfil won a fourth straight marathon by running away from the field.