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Joan Benoit Samuelson has a prominent place in running history. At the first Olympic marathon for women—in Los Angeles at the 1984 Olympics—she left the rest of the pack behind at mile 3 and won gold. It was a spectacular victory for her, as well as for many people who pushed for women to be able to run.
Samuelson was familiar with the taste of success, winning the Boston Marathon in 1979 and 1983, setting a world record in the latter, and she set many course records. But none of her success would have been possible if the women who came before her hadn’t fought to make it possible, she told Women’s Running.
‘Miles to Go,’ a new podcast series narrated by Samuelson, features several key players who helped build the sport of women’s running into what it is today.
“They were people who made it possible for me to discover the passion that I’ve developed and continue to hold on to,” Samuelson says. “These were people I ran against, people who lobbied to include the Olympic marathon for women in L.A., and people who still contribute to the sport today and give back. These were the people I credit for getting me where I was at the height of my career and where I exist today.”
The podcast, created by Peter McDonnell and narrated by Samuelson and Carol Monda, weaves Samuelson’s stories together with the perspectives of others who helped open doors for women and girls to run.
Among those featured is Julia Chase-Brand, who talks about becoming the first woman to break the gender barrier in road races by running in the Manchester Road Race in 1961. Despite being largely responsible for ushering in girls’ and women’s cross-country, she still isn’t a household name.
“The women who came before me encountered numerous challenges, numerous obstacles, and people telling them: no, they couldn’t do something. And a lot of them did it anyway,” Samuelson says.
Samuelson wants more people to know these stories. “I think if these girls and women in sport find passion in what it is they’re doing, it’s important for them to know what led to that opportunity,” Samuelson says. “I think history sort of fuels inspiration, and then success and self-esteem and whatever other good things go along with that.”
A podcast was a way to highlight some of the lesser-known history of women’s running.
“Storytelling is somewhat of a lost art, and I think in this world of technology, it’s important to keep those stories alive and being told,” Samuelson says.
Other voices in the podcast include Sara Mae Berman and her husband, Larry, who started one of the first coed cross-country clubs in the country in 1963, as well as Bill Rodgers, Bobbi Gibb, Nina Kuscsik, and Jacqueline Hansen. Hansen was pivotal in getting the women’s marathon added to the Olympics.
“Those pioneers who were in the podcast, and several who were not mentioned, passed me a baton, which I hopefully have helped to pass on to the generation that’s crushing it out there now—and to the next generation,” Samuelson says.
When Samuelson was growing up, she didn’t know much about running, and she never dreamed she’d run in the Olympics, she said. In high school, she remembers being told that “we couldn’t run longer than a mile because we’d do bodily harm and never have the ability to have children,” she says. People talked about that, but “they didn’t talk about the Julia Brands, and Jacqueline Hansens and Bobbi Gibbs and Kathrine Switzers and Charlotte Lettises.”
Samuelson did dream of making it to the Olympics as a ski racer, but she broke her leg. She started to run as a form of rehab, and then turned her attention completely to running. “Had I not had that silver lining in a disappointment, I don’t know what I’d be doing today,” she says.
In the podcast, Samuelson talks about the knee injury and surgery she had to overcome shortly before the 1984 Olympics. At the time, she was more focused on getting herself ready to compete than she was on the race’s historical significance. But she knew the best runners in the world would be there.
“I undoubtedly could have been more aware” of the historical significance, she says. “And it’s probably a good thing that I wasn’t more aware, because I was trying to get to a starting line that I had dreamed of getting to, just to challenge myself on the global stage. It wasn’t because I had something to prove to the world—I had more to prove to myself.”
Samuelson has shared with her daughter what she’s experienced and overcome. “Now, having a daughter who loves to run, and maybe someday being able to run with a granddaughter—that keeps me going,” Samuelson says. “Our granddaughter may develop totally different interests, but if she sees the passion that I’ve had for the sport of running, and the friendships that I’ve made in the sport, and the opportunities that I had, whatever it is that she decides to pursue, she can call upon my stories to fuel her desires and goals and ambitions.”
But it’s not just Olympians whose stories matter. Everyone comes to the sport for different reasons, Samuelson says. “If you were to enter a road race or a marathon and talk to the person next to you while you were getting ready to start, you’d find these stories inspiring. Everybody has a different story, and there’s inspiration in every story,” she says.
“I think about the lack of opportunity I had before Title IX, and then the opportunities that I had, and then I look at the even greater slate of opportunities our daughter had,” she says. “And I hope it’s even a bigger canvas for our granddaughter, whether it’s running, the arts, the sciences—whatever field it is that she wishes to pursue. We’re still catching up–and we’re gaining, but we’re not there yet.”
Samuelson and the other people who share their perspectives in the podcast have seen the sport of women’s running evolve and grow over decades. This year is the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
While women have far more opportunities to participate in running and other sports than they did 50 years ago, the playing field is still not even. For example, Samuelson says, “There’s not parity with the press that female athletes receive compared to what the men receive. It’s getting there more slowly than I would hope.”
Samuelson gets excited about women breaking barriers outside of running, too. “As more and more women have success—with the recent nomination of KBJ [now Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson]—that’s huge,” she says. “In any in field, in any sector, women are having more and more successes, and it’s because they are finally being given the opportunities.”
Samuelson has also helped open up the sport of running to more people directly. She founded the Beach to Beacon 10k road race in Maine in 1998. The race benefits a different children’s charity each year. “I wanted to give back to a sport and a community that has given so much to me,” Samuelson says.
She also wanted people to be able to share the roads with some of the world’s best runners. “I love watching the elites come in. But I also love watching the people in the very back come in, because they’re the ones that surprise themselves and find great pleasure in doing something that they never really thought they would do.”
Advancing the sport of women’s running over the years has been a collective effort, with achievements building on each other, Samuelson says. “Those women on the front lines way back then—they’re the stories that really need to be told. Because without their stories, my story means nothing.”