The 1983 New York City Marathon was a first in stormy weather, as wind and rain was experienced by the marathoners for the first time over the five borough course. It also brought about another first in American Marathoning; an African frontrunner! Tanzanian Gidamis Shahanga blasted through the early miles of the race at a sub 2:07 pace, employing a tactic which would be seen henceforth in many a marathon and road race ever since by African talents. Yet it was not going to be his day. On First Avenue, British runner Geoff Smith, in his first marathon, caught the speedy Shahnga and blasted through with what was reported as a sub 4:20 mile! But, hovering way in the back (literally a blur on the televison screen) was New Zealander Rod Dixon, trying his best to be patient and hoping they would come back. “Thankfully I didn’t know they did that,” said Dixon. “What I did know is that they were getting away from me…again !!!”
Rod Dixon’s racing the marathon posed a tantalizing question. Probably the happiest Bronze Medalist in the 1972 Munich Olympics, the young Dixon surprised many as he sprinted hard to snatch the Bronze behind Kenyan Kip Keino and Gold Medalist Pekka Vassala of Finland. His talents, which included a 3:52 mile, led to him, over the years, to move up in distance. “I successfully stepped up from the 1500m to 5000m in 1975 to 78 (where he finished a heartbreakingly close 4th to Lasse Viren in the 1976 Montreal Olympics) , then 10,000m 1979 – 1980, and then the 1/2 marathon between 1980 – 1982.
Running through the years at top level on the track and the roads against the likes of fellow countrymen John Walker and Dick Quax, Filbert Bayi, Marty Liquori, Steve Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, Steve Ovett, Eammmon Coughlin, along with a whos-who of world distance running, it seemed logical that for Dixon, his next step would be to conquer the Marathon. “In America, you’re either the fastest Man in the world or the best miler or the best marathoner”, he said in an ABC interview. “Anything else in between didn’t count.”
Of course, being from New Zealand, Dixon, like others, would use components of the Arthur Lydiard system. As Dixon explained:
“Lydiard had a huge influence on New Zealand running. His “Principles and philosophy” were the very foundation of every runner and coach during that time. My brother was my coach (a very accomplished runner himself) but witnessed in me something “special” that was not evident in his running. He was influenced by Lydiard and adapted his methods of the “P – P” to me, based on our location, mountains, Xcountry, trails, beach, golf course and recovery. Very big on core and X training. John Dixon, knew me better than I knew myself, he was tough, required 100% focus, time and effort in training based on the schedule, with NO short cuts, and he had his vision for the year as well as next year and the future! He had a plan.”
As far as modifying his training as he took on new distances :
“There was more weekly aerobic running, (that is from 80 – 90 miles even as a miler – 5k – 10k athlete). For my ‘marathon’ I stepped up to 100 – 115 weekly miles consistently during the build phase. Training and focus for the marathon did not include tempo or intervals or speed during the conditioning phase. Remember I was a training consistently all year round in “Summer” in NZ, Europe and the USA from 1973 through 1983. I always had a strong aerobic base on which to work with, which was important for a runner to maintain summer conditions and long daylight hours + recovery between training sessions.”
In those pre-internet – no forum days, one would think that some would question the idea of a jumped up miler taking on the marathon, Yet, according to Dixon, ” No, I successfully stepped up from the 1500m to 5000m 1975 – 78 and then 10,000m 1979 – 1980, 1/2 marathon 1980 – 1982
Road racing 1980 through 1982 (3) seasons dominated 10k 15k, 10 mile and 1/2 marathons (world record 1981) and 3rd at World Xcountry Championships in 1982. Most knew if I ran a marathon, and I “fired”, it would be somewhat impressive. Alberto Salazar had much the same progression just 7 years younger. “
With his plan,”I ran the New Zealand Pasta Marathon in early 1982 as a “quiet” trial of the distance and that was successful in 2.11.21, in the next 4 weeks I ran sub 29 10k five times !!!! My “quiet” trial confirmed we knew what we were doing. “
But as mile 20 approached, and Dixon was trying to race and massage his tight hamstrings, one wondered if he had taken on too much.He eventually passed the tiring Shahanga, but Smith still looked far away to him. Cutting the tangents of the course also helped Dixon slowly catch up to Smith.
“It was also a time when I was going through my adjus
tment to stepping up my pace, and quite possibly I was in transition and had to understand the marathon presents these aspects,” Dixon said.”I was still on my pace, hitting my splits within just a few seconds, so running my race plan was the most important component. I would have to deal with the “gap” once I got to 20 miles.”
By the 23 mile mark, it was apparent that the gutsy Smith was slowing, but so was Dixon to an extent. It was a question now of who would slow down the most. But Dixon kept to his focus, plan, and his belief. Simply put, “I always believed I was running to win the 1983 NYCM.”
In one of the most dramatic finishes in Marathon history, Dixon passed Smith right at the 26 mile mark in Central Park, and astounded ABC commentator Jim McKay. To his co-host Marty Liquori, he said “Where he found the kick Marty, I just don’t know.” Liquori replied, “I think he found that kick from 12 years ago at Munich from the ’72 Olympic 1500!”
As Dixon crossed the line he was overwhelmed. Going to his knees he raised his hands to the air, joyously weeping and celebrating his great vistory. Oblivious to him was the finish of Smith a few seconds later who fell right to the ground, having given it his all. Amidst the finish line chaos, race director Fred Lebow was frantic, yelling at stunned finish line volunteers to help Smith, while simultaneously congratulating a weeping Dixon, who hugged him with all his remaing strength. Immediately interviewed by ABC at the finish, Dixon was asked how he pulled off this dramatic victory. “A Miler’s kick does the trick!”, he said.
These days, Dixon is involved in spreading the word to kids about how rewarding running can be through his KIDSMARATHON Foundation. Starting in Los Angeles, the foundation has spread to Connecticut and other parts of the country!
As it says on his website:
“Our mission is to create a life-long commitment to good health and fitness habits in children at risk of obesity-related health problems. Our program educates, empowers, and inspires 7-12 year old children to become and stay fit.”
With that kind of goal-setting and enthusiasm, one can never doubt Rod Dixon. Just look at his results!