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Benoit Samuelson debut a keeper

Joan Benoit Samuelson, like many people in their 40s, wonders where the years have gone. But the running legend from Freeport, Maine, remembers what happened 25 years ago as if it were yesterday.

It was 1979, the year the unknown Bowdoin College senior entered the Boston Marathon feeling clueless and overwhelmed by the world's most famous footrace, and went out and won it. It was instant stardom for the no-nonsense, plain-talking hero of the women's sports world who now balances her time among competition, family life, and a half-dozen child-oriented charities to which she devotes countless hours.

"Before I came down here I'd never seen the race, never seen the course," said Benoit Samuelson of her first Boston Marathon. "So I stepped into an event I'd only heard great things about. I didn't know what to expect. I asked a man who was running next to me, `Where are these so-called Heartbreak Hills?' and he looked at me like I was crazy and said, `Lady, you just passed them.' "

She will not be running Boston this year, though she threatens to again before she reaches 50 -- three years from now. While preparing for the US Olympic Trials April 3, she suffered an Achilles' tendon flare-up and had to pull out. She will be on hand as a TV commentator, though, and yesterday attended the press conference for elite runners at the Copley Plaza Hotel.

Two questions hang over this year's race: How will the expected high temperatures affect northern-climate runners and will the segregated starts for women and men change the nature of the race? For African runners and others who have trained in hot weather, Benoit Samuelson does not see a problem with the temperature, but for others, including the local runners, she says it will have an effect.

"It will obviously be a jolt to the system," she said. "It's a shock. We've had a very cold and long winter. It's been gray and damp and dank, and now we're looking at 80 degrees on Monday. For the local runners, it's going to be a factor."

Benoit Samuelson says when she began running Boston, elite women runners were scarce, and so it made sense to have both men and women running the same race. But this year, the women will start half an hour before the men.

"I think it's great that the women are being showcased here in Boston," she said. "For years we've run with the men, and they've been accommodating and it's been great, but sometimes there are excellent races among the women that are lost among the men. This year we'll be showcasing their abilities. It's a doubleheader: two great races in one."

For some runners, such as Lee DiPietro, who says she likes to pace herself using men running near her, an all-women field takes that possibility away. But the trade-off, said Samuelson, is worth it.

"If during the men's race there's a good duel among the women, it tends to play second fiddle to what the men are doing. Personally, I've always benefited by keying off men," she said. "You can look at targets ahead of you. But when I was running at the height of my career, there wasn't the competition among women runners that there is today. There weren't any competitive marathons, and just a handful of us. And sometimes we were split up and not racing head to head. So sometimes it was hard for me to find another woman to key off of. But now it's become a competitive enough field that they will push each other."

After her initial Boston success, Benoit Samuelson had many more heroic moments. Four years later, after Achilles' tendon surgery, she won Boston again. In May 1984, just 17 days after arthroscopic knee surgery, she won the US Olympic Trials marathon, bringing her into a head-to-head showdown with the favored Norwegian, Grete Waitz. Three miles after the start, Benoit Samuelson surged into a lead over Waitz and beat her by 1 1/2 minutes. Only a few gray hairs suggest the years that have passed since Benoit Samuelson was termed a pioneer of women's marathoning, and her record as the only American woman to win Olympic marathon gold does not seem in jeopardy any time soon. And yet in this race, the role of women has come a long way.

"To think that women are running as fast as they are now -- you know, it's not uncommon to have a woman in the top 55 or 60. I think that for the [Boston Athletic Association] to allow the women to have a separate start says a lot about the evolution of the sport and this marathon in particular. A marathon is always a metaphor for life and the way we are moving."

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