Robin Emery smiles for the camera while competing in the 2014 Tour du Lac race in Bucksport. PHOTO BY HUGH BOWDEN

Part 2: Finish line not yet in sight for Robin Emery

Click here for Part 1.

ELLSWORTH — The first award Robin Emery won in her running career was a trophy adorned with a male basketball player.

That was the prize offered to the first-place woman in the 1973 Bangor Labor Day Race — or in Emery’s case — to the only female competitor for the second straight year.

“I wasn’t going away,” Emery says. “So they figured they’d give me something for showing up.”

Today, Emery can be spotted at most area races wearing a bib number and a smile — the kind that shines through her eyes and lights up her face. She speaks quickly and energetically. And she giggles.

Beneath that demeanor is a fiercely competitive woman who still records her mileage and race times in a collection of notebooks dating back to the 1970s. Emery would miss out on the opportunities that eventually became available to female athletes. But she’d pave the way for one of the world’s most inspirational runners, Maine’s Joan Benoit Samuelson.

“Robin was a real pioneer,” says the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon gold medalist. “She was running well before women were accepted in the sport.”

Throughout the early 1970s, Emery helped integrate women into countless road races across the state, including Maine’s oldest — the Portland Boys’ Club (PBC) 5-miler. In 1972, Emery and another pioneer, Diane Fournier, registered to run the PBC race. Directors initially vetoed their applications, but eventually conceded and admitted women for the first time in the event’s 43 years.

“People weren’t used to seeing women running,” says Fournier, then a Rumford teacher who had recently met Emery through road racing. “Robin really made a difference because she was so outgoing. The thing I remember most about her is that smile.”

Before the race, Emery and Fournier lined up with hundreds of male runners in front of a city health official, who proceeded to probe their bare chests with his stethoscope. One by one, the men took turns lifting their shirts for inspection — a pre-race ritual that never made any sense to Emery.

“The doctor had to listen to their heart, for some weird reason,” Emery says. “No one could figure out what they were listening for.”

When the doctor reached Emery, she grabbed for the bottom of her shirt and watched the color drain from his face.

“Oh no, dear,” Emery mimics his embarrassment. “That’s OK.”

At that instant, the practice was dropped forever.

Female runners faced additional challenges in the early 1970s. Because women’s running shoes didn’t yet exist, Emery ran in either topsiders or ballet slippers, and she endured countless blisters and undiagnosed stress fractures. Her mother often watched Emery limp into the house after runs. While her daughter peeled away wool socks from the open wounds on her swollen feet, it became increasingly hard for Emery’s mom to see the alleged health benefits running offered women.

She wasn’t alone. Seared in the world’s collective consciousness were the tales told about the 1928 Summer Olympics held in Amsterdam — the first Games to include running events for women. Journalists described female competitors collapsing at the finish line in the 800-meter race. The New York Times reported that six of the nine runners were “completely exhausted and fell headlong on the ground” and that “several had to be carried off the track.” Other publications across the world echoed the same sentiment, with some including quotes from doctors claiming women who participated in such feats of endurance risked infertility or premature aging.

Film of this 1928 race later emerged and refuted these alarmist accounts, but the damage was done. The International Olympic Committee ruled that the half-mile distance was too strenuous for the female body and prohibited all women’s running events longer than 200 meters — a ban that remained in effect until 1960.

“The attitude was, ‘Oh, we can’t do this to our ladies,’” Emery says. “Those women had no training, so naturally they were heaving and gasping when they finished a half-mile.”

Without proper training, Emery struggled through her early races. Fortunately, the coach of the country’s first women’s running club discovered her at a Colby College track meet competing in an 880-yard race, the longest distance typically available to women at the time. Jeff Johnson — coach of Liberty AC as well as Nike’s first employee and inventor of the brand’s name — began mailing Emery coaching advice and encouraging her to run out of state, as New England had become a hotbed for runners by the mid-1970s.

Johnson assisted Emery in transforming her once-secret hobby into an identity. Pre-race nerves would often make her sick. And on that pressure, she thrived.

“Once that gun goes off, all that energy is released,” Emery says. “And you just fly.”

Emery squints into space, as if examining a distant era.

“I used to fly.”

In 1974, Benoit Samuelson (then Joan Benoit) began entering road races as a 16-year-old student at Cape Elizabeth High School. She would run in Emery’s shadow for the next two years.

Emery and Benoit

Joan Benoit Samuelson (left) and Robin Emery pose together after running the 1976 Portland Boys’ Club 5-mile race.

“Robin was a live wire,” Benoit Samuelson says. “She exuded excitement and joy for the sport.”

Emery often used humor to cope with her stress before competitions. Benoit Samuelson recalls how Emery would playfully attempt to psych her out at the starting line, interrogating her about whether she was ready to go.

Emery denies this. Sort of.

“Me? Me? No… I never did that,” She says emphatically before muttering: “‘Joanie, you look like you have a limp. Are you OK?’”

Emery snickers.

“Joanie was funny — she’d start at the back of the pack and work her way up,” Emery says. “You didn’t even know she was there sometimes until she’d pass you.”

Emery watched with admiration and in horror when the Bowdoin College freshman disappeared ahead of her in the 1976 PBC 5-miler. With that, Benoit Samuelson ended Emery’s four-year winning streak in the event.

Emery would go on to win the PBC race a total of 13 times while Benoit Samuelson soared into international prominence.

“It was Robin who set the bar really high for me,” Benoit Samuelson says. “She and Diane were the two leaders in Maine.”

In 1984, Emery watched the first women’s Olympic marathon on television, by herself, in her Lamoine home. She was not surprised when Benoit Samuelson took the lead three miles into the Los Angeles course.

“All the announcers thought she was going to die out there,” Emery says, rolling her eyes. “I knew she was going to win.”

From there, Benoit Samuelson never looked back. She emerged first from the tunnel onto the track of LA’s packed Olympic stadium, smiling and waving her white cap in the air throughout her final lap before crossing the finish line in two hours, 24 minutes and 52 seconds.

“It was so awesome,” Emery says. “To see a Maine girl do it… It was just really great.”

But at 38 years old, Emery faced a sad reality that day: She would never compete at that level.

Hundreds of trophies, medals and plaques have taken over an entire room in Emery’s house. She keeps other relics from her career in stacks of scrapbooks, overflowing with photos, bib numbers and yellow-tinted newsprint. Tucked into one of these volumes is a 1976 article in which Emery spoke to a reporter about her future:

“At age 30, maybe I should be satisfied with what I’ve done, but I can’t bring myself to say that I’ve come just so far and won’t go any farther,” Emery is quoted saying. “Back there in my head, I have Olympics fever bugging me. If they had a marathon or a 10,000-meter run for women, I’d have to try. I’d take a year off from school to run.”

Emery can still recite her best times off the top of her head: for the mile (5:10), 5K (17:45), 10K (35:40) and the marathon (3 hours and three minutes).

“I get so depressed when I see how fast I was,” Emery says. “I wish I would have been young now with all these opportunities. It would have been great.”

Emery’s voice trails off. She shrugs and then grins, only this smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes.

“Oh well,” she says softly.

Emery says the advice she’d offer girls and young women today is: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.”

She pauses when she’s hit with a realization: “But nobody tells you that you can’t anymore.”

“We were discriminated against, and what’s amazing is we accepted it as, ‘that’s just the way it is,’” Emery says. “Would I accept it now? No.”

Emery has run, measured globally, around the planet one and a half times through all conditions — hurricanes, blizzards and thunderstorms, in temperatures ranging from 106 degrees to 20 below. She will never know where those distances may have taken her in a later era, but her impact on Maine’s running culture is immeasurable.

“I will always have great respect for Robin’s leadership and passion,” Benoit Samuelson says. “I’ll never forget Robin and Diane’s contributions to the sport.”

Emery, Fournier and Benoit Samuelson all have been inducted into the Maine Running Hall of Fame.

Today, the award given to the top female finisher of the Bangor Labor Day Race is named the “Robin Emery Trophy.” Emery has won the 5-miler 14 times, earning her last victory a month shy of her 52nd birthday. She still runs the race every year and presents the prize to the winner.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to die to get a trophy named after me,” Emery says.

There is no finish line in sight for Emery. She is looking forward to the next chapter of her career, which is defined by a new age bracket.

“I’ll never stop running,” she says. “When I hit the 70s, look out!”

Taylor Vortherms

Taylor Vortherms

Sports Editor at The Ellsworth American
Taylor Vortherms covers sports in Hancock County. The St. Louis, Missouri native recently graduated from the Missouri School of Journalism and joined The Ellsworth American in 2013.