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Joan Benoit Samuelson: The Greatest American Distance Runner of All-Time

This week, LetsRun.com released a bracket of 64 runners to determine the greatest American distance runner of all-time. It had 32 men’s nominees and 32 women’s nominees. They’ll play it out over the next couple weeks to determine who the greatest of all-time is. I thought, ‘This is a really hard thing to determine because there are so many different things, especially when you’re looking at distance running.’  We have outdoor track, indoor track, road running, cross country and the Olympics get the limelight of attention. I believe just six Americans have been Olympic champions at distances of 1,500 meters or longer in the last 100 years so that’s a big deal. But there’s so many other things and so many ways of looking at it with times, competitions, winning streaks.

Let’s talk about some of these things.

One of these nominees set world records for every road distance from the 12K all the way up to the marathon. That’s incredible dominance.

One of these nominees had a three-year win streak at all distances farther than 10,000 meters. That’s incredible dominance to be able to win that much against the best in the world for three straight years. 

One of these nominees had both tremendous longevity and ability across a wide range of distances because this nominee earned Track and Field News world rankings (that’s top 10) at every distance from 3,000 meters up to the marathon over a 25-year span.

You could look at records. One of these nominees held both the American and half marathon and full marathon record – each of them for more than 20 years.

How about odd and unusual accomplishments? One of these nominees won a major marathon and set the collegiate 10,000-meter record both in the same spring.

One of these nominees was the leading runner on a U.S. team that won gold at the world cross country championships – there haven’t been very many of those either.

So how do you determine which one is the best? It does become a lot easier when you realize that there’s one person who has combined all of those things that I talked about.

That person is, of course, Joan Samuelson.

This is the Track and Field History Podcast with Jesse Squire. Subscribe and catch all the latest episodes on Apple PodcastsSpotify and Anchor. Got anything you’d like to hear on the show? Shoot us an email [email protected] or tweet at @tracksuperfan.

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