Fennelly: Joan Benoit Samuelson has made room for family, but her passion for running remains

Joan Benoit Samuelson is the greatest American women's marathon runner of all time. Period. She might be the world's greatest when you come right down to it. And she has come down from her home in Maine to take part in Gasparilla weekend. She might run...

Fennelly: Joan Benoit Samuelson has made room for family, but her passion for running remains

Joan Benoit Samuelson is the greatest American women's marathon runner of all time. Period. She might be the world's greatest when you come right down to it. And she has come down from her home in Maine to take part in Gasparilla weekend. She might run as many as three races, including Saturday's 15K and Sunday's half marathon.

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Samuelson, 59, will appear at the Publix Gasparilla Health and Fitness Expo, and be as friendly as she can be. Running is only part of her life. She is married with two grown children.

Then the races will start — and she will be on her game, laser focused.

"My times are slower, but I'm still as passionate about the sport as I was then," Samuelson said.

Samuelson has run at Gasparilla before, and loves making a return.

"It's one of the original road race and its lasted 40 years," she said. "There's something for everybody. There's something for everybody and it helps the community. It has stood the test of time."

Samuelson is a running icon. She won the Boston Marathon in 1979 and 1983. In 1984 in Los Angeles, she won the first Olympics women's marathon. Winning the Chicago marathon in 1985, she set an American record that stood for 18 years.

As much as any woman, she fed the running boom in this country. Her work with Nike to promote the sport has been steadfast for more than 30 years. At Gasparilla, there will be more female competitors than male.

Bill Rodgers, 69, one of the great long-distance runners in history, loves talking about his longtime friend and fellow New Englander.

He begins with one word.

"Unimpeachable."

He added, "Joan, she's for real. She's as real as it gets. She, better than any other runner who I can think of, has kept that going. She's a role model. The way she has worked with women's runners, with everybody. Joan is down to earth. She's also a ferocious competitor. When I was younger, I was ahead of her. Then there was a period of time when we were close, we were neck and neck. Now she's gone, she's out of sight."

"It's whatever floats your boat," Samuelson said. "Everybody needs to be unique. Everybody needs different passions. Everybody challenges themselves in different ways. This is the way I challenge myself. I've sort of turned my ability to motivate myself into storytelling. I try to go out and think of something that will make me train for a particular event or try to run a certain time and I try to write that into a story that maybe motivates me and perhaps inspires others."

She celebrated the 25th anniversary of her American record by finishing that same Chicago Marathon in 2:47:50, the fastest performance ever by a woman over 52.

Samuelson thought of some other stories:

"Running within 30 minutes of my Boston Marathon time 30 years after my last win in Boston, or doing the same thing with my time in Boston or trying to run sub-2:50 marathons in the three major U.S. marathons. I thought the Olympic Trials in 2008 were going to be my last competitive marathon, because I wanted to do a sub-2:50 marathon at the age of 50, and I did it.

"One of my fondest memories is running the Boston Marathon with my daughter, stride for stride. Then, the year after the bombings in Boston, both of our children ran. We all ran together, 30 years after I won at the Olympics."

The woman loves telling stories with her legs.

"I'm just trying to build an awareness that prevention is to health what conservation is to the environment."

She added, "I want to win against myself. It's all about setting a goal for myself and going after it. You run your own race. You can't run anyone else's race. Nike ran an ad campaign with me 27 years ago, 'There is No Finish.' At the time, I didn't understand what that meant. I've come to find out I'm living that adage. With every finish line, there's another reason to go out and run another race."

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