Joan B Samuelson And Doug Kurtis: Two Long Running Marathon Greats

[Note: I wrote this story over several days prior to Samuelson's announcement, Wednesday afternoon, that she would not be racing in Sunday's Chicago Marathon, due to injury-limited training. I think much of the information and analysis is still interesting.]

Among marathon runners, who is the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT)? It depends, of course, on your criteria.

If you choose only by world records, things are simple. You would opt for Dennis Kimetto (2:02:57) and Paula Radcliffe (2:15:25). If you believe, on the other hand, that the Olympics are the ultimate test, you might select Abebe Bikila. He won successive Olympic Marathons in 1960 and 1964, and set world records in both efforts.
Benoit Samuelson has scratched from
Sunday's Chicago Marathon.

There are other good measures, as well. For example: continued excellence through many years. After all, the marathon is an endurance test. Let’s see what runners have produced top results over long periods of time--decades. By this yardstick, Joan Benoit Samuelson leads the pack.

On Sunday in Chicago, Samuelson hopes to continue her high-level marathon career by becoming the first woman over-age-60 to break three hours in the marathon. According to the Association of Road Race Statisticians (ARRS), the current world record for a 60-year-old woman is the 3:01:30 that New Zealand’s Bernardine Portenski ran in 2010 at the Gold Coast Marathon in Australia.

Samuelson has run many other impressive marathons, including two Boston Marathon wins, an Olympic Marathon victory, and her personal best (2:21:21) at Chicago in 1985. After that, she entered a quiet period, raising two children. But she stormed back into the spotlight at the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials, when she broke 2:50 at age 50.

Two-and-one-half years later, at 53, she set a single-age world record at Chicago, running 2:47:50. Her last fast marathon (2:54:26, Boston 2015, at one month short of 58 years) would also be a single-age world record, except the ARRS does not accept Boston for record performances. Benoit’s first fast marathon was a 2:31:23 she ran in New Zealand in 1980.

Doug Kurtis’s long marathon career followed a similar trajectory. His first fast marathon was a 2:30:31 at Boston in 1975. Thirty-eight years, six months, and six days later, Kurtis ran a 2:59:07 (at age 61) in the Detroit Free Press Marathon in October, 2013. It was his 200th sub-3-hour marathon, a record.
Kurtis ran 200 sub-3:00s.

“That last sub-3 didn’t come easy,” Kurtis told me several days ago. “I had to run 70 miles a week, and do speed work on the track with friends from my running club. Without them, I would never have made it. The older you get, the harder it is to push it alone in your training.”

The most interesting question to ask about Samuelson, Kurtis, and other long-performing runners is this one: How much did they slow down per year (or decade, etc)? The following Table shows the basic data. Samuelson has slowed only .43 percent per year (4.3 percent/decade) over 35 years and 2 months. Kurtis slowed .49 percent per year over a longer period, 38 years and six months.

Marathon Slow-Down Rates of Joan Benoit Samuelson and Doug Kurtis

First fast 26.2
Recent 26.2
Yrs Between
% Slow Down
% /year
Feb. 1980
Apr. 2015
35 yrs, 2 mos
.43 % /year
Apr. 1975
Oct. 2013
38 yrs, 6 mos.
.49 % /year

Those who remember Ed Whitlock’s incredible marathons into his mid-80s might imagine that he exceeded Samuelson and Kurtis. But, no, at least not on the slow-down-per-year metric. Whitlock’s strong late-life running began with a 2:50:22 when he was 63.

Twenty-two years later, he ran 3:56:38 at age 85. No one younger than Whitlock has ever broken 4 hours, but his per-year slowdown rate is 1.73% per year, much greater than Samuelson and Kurtis. Of course, he started much later than they did, and the post-60 years are a far tougher place to begin than the early 20s.

Samuelson’s longevity also shines in comparison to the younger U.S. stars in the generation that followed her. Meb Keflezighi will run his final serious marathon this fall in New York City at age 42, and Deena Kastor ran her last fast marathon two years ago in Chicago, also at 42. It doesn’t appear that they’ll be aiming for fast performances in another 20 years.

Thus far in 2017, Samuelson’s best race has been a 64:01 in the Cherry Blossom 10-mile in early April. That’s roughly equivalent to a 2:59 marathon. Her other races have been slightly slower, including a 3:12:27 at the Sugarloaf Marathon in mid-May. She ran there primarily to support a friend’s fund-raising.

In the early 1980s, famed physiologist-coach Jack Daniels, PhD, tested Samuelson in several Nike sport-science labs. She achieved a vo2 max level of 78.6 ml/kg/min, thought to be the highest ever obtained by a woman, and the same as Alberto Salazar, who could run a dozen minutes faster than Samuelson in the marathon. Why? Because Salazar had an exceptionally high running economy, says Daniels, whereas Samuelson’s was merely “average” for top runners. According to Daniels’s calculations, if Samuelson could run a 2:59 on Sunday, that would be equivalent to a 2:22 by an athlete in her prime. “It all depends on her training,” he adds. According to the official age-graded calculator of the World Masters Athletics association, the equivalent open division time would be 2:18. (Here’s the WMA age-graded calculator at USA Track & Field lists tops American age-graded marathons by women here. Sunday’s weather will be a big factor for Samuelson, who couldn’t be reached for comment on her preparations. The current outlook is somewhat warmer and breezier than optimal. However, Samuelson has a strong record of fast races in Chicago. And no one doubts her ability or focus. “She’s so talented and has so much drive,” says Doug Kurtis. “I think she’ll make her sub-3 goal.”