Joan Benoit Samuelson And Frank Shorter Discuss The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials

The only two runners to have won both the U.S. Olympic Trials and the subsequent Olympic Marathon.

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Joan Benoit Samuelson And Frank Shorter Discuss The U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials 1

Joan Benoit Samuelson and Frank Shorter are the only two runners to have won BOTH the U.S. Olympic Trials and the subsequent Olympic Marathon.

They recently spoke together on the podcast “Running: State of the Sport” hosted by Amby Burfoot and George Hirsch. Here is a condensed and edited version of their comments, presented with permission.

Burfoot and Hirsch: How much running and other fitness work are you doing these days?

Samuelson: Well, I’m still alive and kicking here in frigid Maine, where I grew up. I’m still running, and I’m doing a lot of cycling when the weather’s warm enough or inside on a bike when it’s not.

We’ve finally got snow on the ground, so I’m also doing a lot of Nordic skiing. I’m trying to maintain some semblance of fitness and jumping into races periodically. We’ll see what 2024 brings, including the 40th anniversary of the L.A. Olympics.

Shorter: My wife, Michelle, and I moved to Falmouth, Massachusetts, several years ago, but I’m in Colorado now, where the wind chill was minus 19 a couple of days ago. I’m working out as much as I ever have in terms of time.

But when I’m out on the roads or paths, I do a jog-walk now. I do elliptical training indoors–intervals–to get my heart rate up. Like Joanie, I also ride the spin bike indoors. I don’t ride outdoors. I’m 76 now, and I’ve decided I’m not going to fall and hit the highway any more. 

Burfoot and Hirsch: What’s special and unique about the Marathon Trials?

Samuelson: The thing that makes the Trials really different is that it’s a smaller field. It’s hard to get lost in the field, so to speak. I like to get lost. I don’t want anyone to know where I am, but you can’t hide in the Trials. I think that’s one reason I went out as fast as I did at the Trials in 1984. I had no business doing so after the knee surgery, but I decided to go out hard because there was no hiding. 

Shorter: My experiences were different from Joanie’s because I always chose to run in a group. In 1972 and 1976, I actually ran intentionally with someone else–first Kenny Moore in 1972, then Bill Rodgers in 1976. 

Bill and I ran together until 800 meters from the finish when he pulled his hamstring a bit. I said, “Do you want me to slow down?” But he said, “No, I can make it. You go ahead.” So we finished that way. 

I always admired the way Joanie could run at the front all by herself, especially after the injury in 1984 when she had to do some training with a hand ergometer while she was in bed. I would have been panic-stricken if I couldn’t run. So I always admired her mental strength.

Burfoot and Hirsch: Joan, could you tell us more about 1984?

Samuelson: Yeah, because, unfortunately, all those memories are still very vivid. The original injury was on St Patrick’s Day, and it was so bad that I couldn’t run afterward. I saw a great doctor in Boston and then flew out to Nike, where a wonderful massage therapist worked on me. After a couple of days, he threw up his hands and said he couldn’t do anything more.

So then I let Dr. Stan Jones do the arthroscopic knee procedure 17 days before the Marathon Trials. When I woke up and saw that I was covered in bandages from toe to hip, I figured: “Okay, the marathon’s out. Maybe I can be ready for the 3000 meters at the Track Trials.”

But Stan said, “Don’t call it quits on the marathon yet.” So I waited a few days and tested the leg. It really didn’t hurt, but I had no confidence it would hold up for long. So, on the Wednesday before the weekend Trials, I asked Lisa Martin to run 17 miles with me. And I managed to cover the distance. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t pretty. And it wasn’t fast. But I covered the distance.

So I traveled up to Olympia and just ran my heart out. I’ll tell you: If anyone had come up on me in the last part of the race, they would have passed me. I had absolutely nothing left. I was running at that point on prayer. 

When people ask me now, I say the L.A. Olympic Marathon was the biggest win of my life. But the Marathon Trials was the race of my life. I really can’t explain how I was able to do it.

Burfoot and Hirsch: Frank, your first Marathon Trials was in 1968 when you were an unknown cross-country runner from Yale. Why did you run it?

Shorter: I was living about 100 miles away in New Mexico, and I thought it would be fun to watch the Trials. I had never seen a marathon. So I drove there in a pickup truck with my younger brother, and we camped for several days in a city park.

I went down to race headquarters one day and found out anyone could enter by simply signing up for $3. So I did that even though I had never run more than 10 miles at a time. Then I went to borrow a pair of road running shoes from Amby Burfoot, who I had raced against in college in Connecticut.

He loaned me a pair of his shoes that were a size too small for my feet. That didn’t work well, and we both ended up dropping out at about the same point, around 17 miles. Then we stood and watched the finish.

Burfoot and Hirsch: Four years later, you were a marathon champ and favorite at the 1972 Trials. How did you come so far in just 4 years?

Shorter: It started the spring of my senior year at Yale when I finished all my degree requirements early and decided to begin training twice a day and increase the intensity of my intervals.

In just a couple of months, I had improved enough to win the NCAA 6-mile and double back strongly in the 3-mile. That was enough to get me interested in pointing toward the 1972 Olympics.

Next, I attended graduate school at the University of Florida in Gainesville and trained with Jack Bacheler and John Parker, author of Once A Runner. At the time, Jack was the best in the country. I always liked training with others and using them as mentors.

The training was good, but I got bored when I was just running and doing nothing else. So I enrolled in the law school, and used that as my stress relief from running, which was my main focus. John Parker was already in law school. We roomed together in a windowless room in the field house. 

Jack Bacheler taught me about recovery. We never timed our easy runs. Jack just ran them very slowly. So I realized that was the way you get your recovery.

Burfoot and Hirsch: How about your training back in the day, Joan and Frank?

Samuelson: Unlike Frank, I like to train by myself. I like to hold my cards close to my chest. Like Frank, I think the best approach is to run easy on easy days and hard on hard days.

The difference for me is it always seems I have something to do right after I finish my run. So sometimes, an easy run gets pushed a bit harder because of the next thing on the docket. 

My training mantra has always been: Run the way you feel. If you feel like running hard, run hard. If you feel tired, then run easy. The three workouts I’ve always subscribed to were the easy long run, the medium long run that I’d often push hard, and track workouts, pushed hard. 

Burfoot and Hirsch: Joan, did you care about the shoes you were wearing?

Samuelson: Oh, yeah, I cared about the shoes for sure. My training shoe before the Olympics and as long as they lasted was the Nike Daybreak. And then I usually raced in the Nike Skylon.

Burfoot and Hirsch: And Frank, how about you? 

Shorter: I think I trained similar to Joanie in many ways. What we shared that people might not realize was an interest in training fast on the track. I always tried to do a significant amount of running at a pace much faster than I would be running in the marathon.

I figured the larger the gap between my training pace and racing pace, the more comfortable I would be in the marathon itself.

It turned out that I trained a lot like a 5000 meter runner. My favorite training partner became Steve Prefontaine, who I met when he was a senior in high school. We enjoyed doing a workout of six times 800 in 2:01 with a 200-meter jog. 

As for shoes, all I cared about was wearing whatever was the lightest. In 1972, I wore a pair of track spikes with the spike plate removed and a thin rubber outsole applied to them. Lightness was the key. We wanted our shoes to be as light as possible. We didn’t worry about pounding. I joked that we had four years to recover after the marathon.

I think Joanie and I were blessed with what exercise physiologists might now call a low coefficient of friction. We didn’t put much energy into the ground as we moved across it. 

Burfoot and Hirsch: Joanie, what do you admire about Frank’s career?

Samuelson:  He was such a pioneer for modern-day distance running. Frank and Bill Rodgers were my heroes, along with Roberta Gibb, Katherine Switzer, Jacqueline Hansen, and so many of the pioneer women.

I remember Frank’s race in the Montreal Olympics. I was so psyched by what Frank had done that I couldn’t help myself–I went out and ran in the night on the road where Winslow Homer’s studio was.

I owe such a debt of gratitude to the men and women in our sport who were out there before me, and then supporting me in my career.

Burfoot and Hirsch: Frank, same question about Joanie.

Shorter: I was so impressed that it never occurred to Joanie that she couldn’t do it. There was something in the way she carried herself before, during, and after competitions. 

She was a model of how to do it. I mean, none of us are perfect. But Joanie was as good a representative of women’s sports as anyone could have hoped for. A near perfect example for others to emulate.

Photo of author
Amby Burfoot stands as a titan in the running world. Crowned the Boston Marathon champion in 1968, he became the first collegian to win this prestigious event and the first American to claim the title since John Kelley in 1957. As well as a stellar racing career, Amby channeled his passion for running into journalism. He joined Runner’s World magazine in 1978, rising to the position of Editor-in-Chief and then serving as its Editor-at-Large. As well as being the author of several books on running, he regularly contributes articles to the major publications, and curates his weekly Run Long, Run Healthy Newsletter.

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