Joan Benoit Samuelson’s entry in the half marathon at Sunday’s Capital City Marathon was celebratory, but it wasn’t ceremonial.
Thirty-five years ago, Joan Benoit made a quick comeback from knee surgery to beat Julie Brown to the finish of the first American women’s marathon Olympic Trials by 30 seconds on the streets of Olympia. She went on to claim the first Olympic gold medal in the event at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
She came back Sunday to honor the anniversary of those Olympia trials. She also came back to race.
Matching her daughter Abby Samuelson’s challenging pace, as the two often do, Benoit Samuelson, 62, finished fourth in the women’s half marathon in 1:32.19, less than three minutes behind the winner, 26-year Sarah Johnson of Shelton.
Benoit Samuelson was twice the age of those who beat her. Runner-up Lindsey Rohde of Olympia is 30 and Abby, timed at one-hundredth of a second faster than her mom, is 31.
“I was just trying to keep up with my daughter. She wanted to run a 1:45 and we ran a 1:32. Abby’s good, she keeps me honest,” Benoit Samuelson said. The pair were coming off a 3:04 finish in the full Boston Marathon last month.
“At my age, I have to pick and choose races carefully,” she said.
Benoit Samuelson feels the history of what happened in Olympia exactly 35 years and a week ago.
“To be able to come back 35 years later and run stride-for-stride with my daughter was a pretty memorable thing. To come back here all these years later and hear cheers and be amongst the pioneers in our sport was great,” she said. “Olympia’s still warm and welcoming.”
On the other hand, the fog of competition erased most specific memories of her win in 1984.
“Some of the course looked familiar, but as I said to a woman who came out to celebrate the 35th anniversary, I don’t remember any of that race,” she said. “All I remember is wanting to get to the starting line and wanting to get to the finish line as quickly as I could.”
Johnson, who won the NAIA National 5000 meters championship in 2014 while running for the College of Idaho, is training for the Super Cascade Marathon in June and hit her target time of 1:30 just about exactly at 1:29.49.
“At the fifth or sixth mile I knew there were a couple of runners close. My dad was driving around behind me, he said ‘you’ve got to break away now.’ I had a couple of guy friends pass me after that and they said ‘there’s no one behind you,’ so I just tried to hit a solid pace,” Johnson said.
In the main events, the men’s and women’s full marathons, a newcomer and a three-time winner claimed gold.
Roman Kirkov, a 25-year-old former Concordia University runner, won the men’s race in 2:33.49, six minutes ahead of runner-up Jesse Stevick, a 10-time winner of the race in 13 tries.
On the women’s side, River Ridge High School track coach Linda Huyck won her third Capital City Marathon, beating her closest competitor by more than two minutes at 3:16.51 despite suffering leg cramps across the final 10 miles.
Kirkov, a Chehalis resident, noticed very early he had a chance to win.
“Honestly, a mile in nobody was really running with me anymore,” Kirkov said. “I had a feeling going into the race I might win. I trained pretty hard for this.”
Stevick knew he would have a lot to handle trying to beat Kirkov, who he’d seen win a five-mile race in January and who has run a 1:08 half marathon.
“I knew he’d be going out quicker than I’d want to go,” Stevick said. “It’s fun to win, but I know there are a lot of guys faster than me. If they came and ran here, I wouldn’t win. Today I said I’d rather run a 2:36 and lose than a 2:46 and win.”
He ran 2:39.58.
Both Stevick, the boys track coach at Olympia High School, and Huyck had their preparations challenged by having to coach all day Friday and Saturday at district meets.
Huyck is 47, but still able to compete at a high level in part thanks to a unique 22-year coaching relationship with Pope John Paul II High School coach Larry Weber. Weber guided her to the 2000 USA Olympic marathon trials, where she ran a 2:47, and he still plots her efforts today.
“He gave me the perfect race plan.” Huyck said.
“The idea was for her to go out conservative for the first four miles and save a lot for the last few,” Weber said.
The only glitch came when cramps hit at the 16th mile and Huyck’s IT band tightened, numbing her knee. That’s where her running IQ saved the day.
“If you change up your stride and go a little faster you use different muscles,” she said. “And the women kept changing up the lead. It was kind of scary but it kept me focused,” she said. “I run best when I’m scared.”
By mile 18 she was pulling clear of the pack.
Stevick’s wife, Jenny, was fifth among the women at 3:21.10.
In the earliest races of the morning, the five-milers, former Curtis High School standout Dennis Keith won the men’s race in 26:05 while former University of Minnesota runner Sarah Klecker claimed the women’s race in 32:24.