CAPE ELIZABETH — As a girl growing up on Wood Road in Cape Elizabeth, Joan Benoit Samuelson often sought refuge in Fort Williams as a place where she could run without fear of scorn from passing motorists. Back then, vehicles were not allowed in the fort.

On Saturday morning, nearly 7,000 runners will stream into Fort Williams as part of the event she founded two decades ago, the TD Beach to Beacon 10K road race.

A majority of them will be women.

Samuelson, who famously won the 1979 Boston Marathon while a student at Bowdoin College and the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984, is part of the reason why women now outnumber men in road races across the country.

“She was one of the women to pave the way, to be an inspiration,” said Heidi Haynes of Scarborough. “It used to be primarily a male field, a male sport.”

Haynes, 45, is one of 37 women who plan to run their 21st consecutive Beach to Beacon Saturday. Twice as many men are legacy runners, or those who have run all 20 editions. Women comprised 44 percent of the inaugural field of 1998 but climbed to 54 percent of finishers last August, a trend mirrored nationally. According to research from Running USA, women accounted for 59 percent of all U.S. race entrants in 2017.


“It’s an individual sport, but I see so many women running in groups on the weekend, like I do as well,” Haynes said. “It’s a good support group. It’s therapeutic.”

Samuelson, 61, said group runs have replaced “coffee klatches” for busy women with limited social time. Conversing while jogging comes naturally for multitaskers.

“I think women understand the importance of regular exercise, especially when it comes to raising children in a world of technology,” she said. “They’ve made this a part of their life and a part of their routines.”

Six years after Samuelson struck gold in Los Angeles, women still made up barely a quarter of all road racers, according to Running USA statistics. Locally, men outnumbered women in each of the first 10 Beach to Beacon races but fell into the minority in 2008 and have remained there since.

Willie Sproul, 60, of New Gloucester has run every Beach to Beacon along with his wife, Maureen, 62.

“Sometimes we don’t recognize a trend because it happens through the years,” he said. “But now that you mention it, there’s a tremendous amount of women now. Most of them are beating me, too.”


Median finishing times have steadily climbed at Beach to Beacon, from under 50 minutes the first year to more than 58 minutes in each of the past three years. Women, who tend to be slower on average than men, are part of that. Another factor is as the field has grown in size each year, most of that growth has come from older runners.

Nearly 17 percent of the field now is 55 or older, up from less than 6 percent in 1998.

“It’s really neat to see,” said Haynes, picking up on both trends. “There’s so many women who have picked up the sport in their 30s or 40s or even 50s and caught the running bug. They just love it and start training and start progressing each year. They’re inspiring.”

Michelle Dedian, 55, of Scarborough was one of eight girls on her high school cross country team in Massachusetts. Boys still outnumber girls nationally on high school cross country teams, but the gap is shrinking.

“Running is an easy way to have a healthy lifestyle,” said Dedian, another legacy Beach to Beacon runner. “You just need a pair of sneakers and comfortable clothing and you can do it anywhere.”

Dave McGillivray, race director for both the Beach to Beacon and Boston Marathon, remembers a time when men made up 80 percent of entries.


“Then you have this woman growing up in Cape Elizabeth, running around the streets,” he said. “She’s a little gun-shy. Are people going to notice her? Then she breaks through that barrier, wins the gold, and becomes an example of what can be done. (Samuelson) and a handful of other women create that inertia for other women to be involved, and now it’s gone over the top.”

Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or

Twitter: GlennJordanPPH

Comments are no longer available on this story