Joan Benoit is a woman of considerable composure, tempered by the spotlight that has followed her around since her Olympic Marathon victory. She is also a tried-and-true New Englander; her dispassion runs as deep as her resolve. Benoit rarely reveals much of herself or her emotions.
After her impressive 31-minute, 49-second victory in the Tufts 10K Monday in Boston, Benoit faced reporters in the Boston Common parking garage. She tackled their questions slowly and carefully, often pausing for several moments of reflection before answering.
Only her legs betrayed Benoit. Dangling over the edge of a plastic chair, they swayed nervously back and forth, clicking at the heels. Despite the hard race, these legs were ready for more. Today, in the America's Marathon-Chicago, they'll get their chance.
"I suppose you could say I'm anxious to run Chicago," Benoit admitted. "I think it's going to be a good race. I'd like to be watching it, to tell the truth."
Benoit's place in marathon-history books is secure, but Sunday she takes a shot at a second page.
She's not the only one chasing after the niche reserved for the first woman to break 2:20 in the marathon. Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen is equally intent on shattering that barrier.
Kristiansen is a proven pioneer --the first woman track racer to break 15 minutes for 5,000 meters and 31 minutes for 10,000 meters. The 2:21:06 she ran in winning the London Marathon last April stands as the world record. Benoit's best is the 2:22:43 she recorded at Boston in 1983.
But all these performances will be instantly forgotten the moment a woman snaps a marathon finish-tape in under 2:20. To do so has been Benoit's quietly avowed goal since her Olympic victory. It's the next logical step.
What makes the Benoit-Kristiansen matchup so fascinating is that both are notorious frontrunners. Some marathon observers wonder if they might not compete so furiously that they'll deplete each other before the 26-mile, 385-yard race is over. That would open the door for Rosa Mota, winner of the past two America's Marathons. She is noted for her consummate sense of marathon pacing.
Kristiansen isn't being at all coy about her plans. She works closely with a sports psychologist, listening to tapes designed to bolster her confidence and convince her that a sub-2:20 is within reach. Her announced plan is to run 33-minute 10K pace the whole distance. That would bring her to the finish near Lake Michigan in about 2:19:30.
How does Benoit react to this scenario? "Thirty-three minute pace sounds pretty darn fast to me," she said, "but then if you break it down into four separate races, it doesn't seem so bad.
"Ingrid's probably in better speed shape than I am, but I've been doing more fast, long runs than ever before and that's what's important for me."
The men's field is as fast as the women's and much deeper. Steve Jones has returned to defend the title he won last October with a then-world-record 2:08:05. In addition, Rob deCastella has apparently returned to the form that helped him win the Helsinki World Championship Marathon two year ago. The top American could be little-known Mark Curp, who ran a world-record half-marathon (1:00:55) a month ago in Philadelphia.
The "unknown Africans" factor is for once clearly defined by the presence of a six-man team from Djibouti. Three will run in Chicago and three next weekend in New York. These are the runners who startled the world last April by winning the Hiroshima World Cup Marathon team championship.
In addition to the $270,000 in prize money, the top runners will be chasing a $50,000 bonus for a world record. The current men's record stands at the 2:07:11 Carlos Lopes recorded last April in the Rotterdam Marathon. That mark was regarded as so astonishing that nearly everyone believed the Rotterdam course must be short. However, an independent three-person measuring team, including the U.S.'s Peter Riegel, last weekend remeasured the Rotterdam route and found it at least 20 yards long.
CBS-TV will televise the America's Marathon-Chicago by tape delay today. Alberto Salazar and Craig Masback will join John Tesh for the coverage, but the person to attend to is Toni Reavis, road running's most knowledgeable and colorful commentator.