1980 – Joan Benoit

Source: New Zealand Runner Issue #10 Jan-Feb 1980 – photo by Trevor Coppock

3-Feb-1980 – Choysa Marathon – 2:31:23 – Nike Bermuda
Date of birth: 16-May-1957
Nationality: American
World Record duration: 7 months, 3 days

The athlete:                
Joan Benoit only took up running to help recover from a skiing accident that left her with a broken leg. She was initially uncomfortable running in public, noting that despite the progress made in the previous decade women’s distance running was still being held back due to ingrained sexism.

Her inspiration came from a friend in college who ran in public regardless of the reaction she got. Benoit was inspired, and her running career took off. Her training regime at its peak had Benoit running over 200 miles per week. In fact, she had to sprint two miles to the starting line of the 1979 Boston Marathon due to being stuck in traffic. It made no difference, and she won the notoriously challenging event and set a new course record in the process.

Following her string of early successes, Nike decided to sponsor Benoit starting in 1977. They later offered Benoit the opportunity to race in New Zealand in several events including the 1980 Choysa Marathon in Auckland. It was hoped this would improve her chances to qualify for the 1980 Olympics. In any case, she would win the event in 2:31:23. Due to the issues with the New York City Marathon course used at the time, more on that here, the time she set was a new world record. This is based on the Association of Road Racing Statisticians, an independent group created years later by many former racing officials and supported by researchers from across the world, who pointed out the course run by Grete Waitz was effectively the same as that which disqualified Alison Roe in 1981.

This is not the last we will hear of Benoit on this list. She would go on to find even more speed in her future marathon exploits, which you can read about here and here. There is also the not insignificant matter of her winning gold at the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984, which you can read about here.

The shoes:                   

Thanks to Don Jacobs at the Facebook group Distance Running NZ, I’ve finally found a clear photo of Benoit from the 1980 Choysa Marathon, taken by Trevor Coppock. I had initially made multiple guesses as to what Benoit could have worn, given she went through many different pairs of Nikes in her earlier years including the Elite, the LD1000V and Skylon Racer.

The shoes are Nike, identifiable from the blurry swoosh on the tongue that matches the logo on Benoit’s running singlet, but two features of the overlay mark them out. The first is the toebox, which is one-piece, and next is the black line going from the end of the laces down the side. The only shoe Nike made at the time that matched this silhouette was the distinctive Bermuda model made between 1979-1980.

The seamless toebox was designed to reduce blisters and variable width lacing, the Bermuda designed to give runners comfort over longer distances. It was extremely lightweight, coming in at 145 grams. The design of the Bermuda would influence Nike shoes for decades to come. Although the standard colourway was light blue, this would not have been captured on the black-and-white photograph we have of Benoit.

It was her weapon of choice for the only other marathon she ran during 1980, the photo we have from the 1980 Avon Women’s Marathon in London showing overlays that also match the Bermuda. That race was highly significant in itself, the culmination of years of effort by the legendary Kathrine Switzer to get the women’s marathon into the Olympics which you can read more about here. The event was also a trail run for the now famous London Marathon that began in 1981.

Nike brought back the Bermuda in the exact same form in 2007, as well as the other colourways. It may be difficult, but these newer pairs will be floating around there.

Running Tide by Joan Benoit
Nike Chronicle Deluxe 1971-1980s
Marathon Woman by Kathrine Switzer