Still running: Documentary retells history of women’s marathon record-setter

Joan Benoit Samuelson

After the 50-year-old Joan Benoit Samuelson ran a sub-2:50 marathon in the 2008 Olympic Trials, she announced that she was “retiring.” However, a former Olympic champion still logging more than 50 miles each week does not simply stop running.

Still in “retirement,” she arrived at the start of the Chicago Marathon on Oct. 10, 2010. The line was that she entered to only commemorate the 25th anniversary of her performance at the 1985 Chicago Marathon, when she set an American-record time of 2:21:21. She ran through the first 10 kilometers in 37:32, 13.1 miles in 1:21.09 and finished in 2:47.50 — taking 43rd place and setting a marathon record for women 51 years and older. For the runner who four-time Boston Marathon champion and former world-record holder Bill Rodgers calls in an upcoming documentary on Samuelson “a Jedi master,” the finish line doesn’t always signal the end.

This new documentary, titled There Is No Finish Line, catches up with Samuelson decades after she was one of the most prominent female distance runners in the world. The film catalogues the historic moments of Samuelson’s improbable 1984 Olympic gold medal, and her record-setting performances in Chicago and Boston during the late 1970s and early 1980s. A competitive runner before Title IX, the film also talks about her role in changing the perception of female running potential — breaking barriers and inspiring both women and men.

But those involved in the filming say that the heart of this project follows Samuelson well after the achievements that made her synonymous with women’s competitive running. It shows Samuelson as she is today, tending to her organic garden, advocating for environmental conservation, spending time with family and still setting records in the marathon.

“This exceptionally crafted documentary is more than just a gold medal running saga,” says two-time Olympian and women’s running pioneer Doris Brown- Heritage. “Joanie’s life is a continuing expression of how one person’s passion can change the world.”

Erich Lyttle, director of running documentaries on Steve Prefontaine and Bill Bowerman, is this film’s director. The film runs for 48 minutes, and Lyttle says he wishes he could have stretched it to 75 minutes. An aspect of Samuelson that he wishes he could have delved into more was her influence among African runners.

“Her name is worldwide famous, and there are some African runners who looked up to her. We did one interview with one of the African female legends in our movie, but we just wanted to get over there and find the young girls who were working to get out of their dire situations through running, and that part of the movie just never happened and that’s how it got released as a 48-minute film,” Lyttle said.

There Is No Finish Line is also produced by Lyttle with fellow filmmaker Sarah Henderson and Geoff Hollister, who was one of the first employees at Nike and who passed away in 2012.

“Geoff Hollister, our producer and longtime friend of Joanie’s, brought us this project because he knew it was a story that needed to be told, ” Lyttle said. “Joanie’s mantra is that there is no finish line — you are never done doing your best no matter what it is you set out to accomplish.”

The film concludes with Samuelson breaking her age-group record at the 2010 Chicago Marathon, but she has not stopped running since then. Lyttle says that only a few weeks ago, he met with Samuelson in Portland and discussed trying to add more of what she has been currently doing to the film.

In 2011, she entered the Boston Marathon, her first time since 1993, to pace her daughter, Abby, during her first run at Boston. Abby finished at 3:30:36, and her mother clocked in at 2:51:29.

When asked about future races by reporters after the race, Samuelson coyly responded, “Well maybe a marathon in the fall. I said no more competitive marathons. I never said what constitutes competitive.”

There Is No Finish Line is screening at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 16, at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St. Visit for tickets or for more information on the film.

Hear an audio recording from the interview below.


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