An Interview with Rod Dixon

Rod Dixon was eating lunch at a table full of running gurus the day before the 1982 World Cross Country Championships in Rome, when Fred Lebow told him it was time he ran a marathon.

"I was sitting in this wonderful luncheon, and there was Fred Lebow, Bob Bright (of the Chicago Marathon) and Chris Brasher from the London Marathon - a lot of the great marathon directors - and there were a lot of the former athletes, like Franco Fava, the Italian cross country runner.

"We were all sitting around talking about where road racing was in the United States, and Fred says to me, 'It's time for you to run the New York City Marathon,' and I said, 'Fred, I have no interest in running a marathon. I don't think I'll be running any marathons in my time.'"

Lebow, New York's race director was undeterred: "If you finish in the top 10 in tomorrow's World Cross Country Championships, would you consider it?"

To satisfy Lebow, Dixon nodded and said he'd consider running through New York's five boroughs. Not certain the New Zealander was serious, the assertive Lebow told Dixon, "If you finish in the top three, I'm sure you will."

The next day Dixon took the bronze medal in the championship behind Ethiopian Mohammed Kedir and University of Oregon alumnus Alberto Salazar.

"I had barely recovered my breath walking though the (finish) gate," Dixon recalled, "and Fred was on me immediately - as he would - and he said, 'So, we'll see you in New York.'"

Dixon told Lebow he would see him in New York that fall - as a spectator. "Then if I decide that a marathon is going to be for me," he told Lebow,"it will be New York City."

After Rome, Dixon traveled to the United States to win the San Francisco Examiner Bay to Breakers. Dixon continued his coursework by entering the City of Auckland Marathon, held in late May 1982, to test himself at the distance.

He passed with flying colors, winning the race in 2:11:21.

"It was a Sunday run for me, with all due respect to the other runners - and there were some fine runners," he said. "I knew how good I felt. I was very comfortable."

So comfortable, in fact, that he jumped on a plane on Monday to return to the United States for a 10-kilometer race in Philadelphia. He won in 28:57 and proceeded to run that distance in races the next four consecutive weekends. "I don't think I ran slower than 30 minutes," recalled Dixon.

"After that I felt very capable of running a good marathon," he said. "Of course, that surprised even me and some of my friends who were milers that here I was looking at running a marathon

And while he had begun to give the marathon serious thought, it was what he was about to see that fall in New York that would change his life and make up for the bitter disappointment of a fourth-place finish in the 5000 meter finals of the 1976 Montreal Olympics.

Dixon arrived in New York and immediately plunged into all of the events surrounding the race. "I attended the press receptions, the international breakfast run, spent time at the marathon expo and generally immersed myself in everything that was 'marathon,'" he said.

That Sunday, he watched wide-eyed as the race unfolded into a memorable marathon dual. "It was an incredible race to watch, with Alberto Salazar and Rodolfo Gomez running stride for stride." Finally, Salazar out-kicked Gomez to defend his victory by four seconds in 2:09:29.

"To me," said Dixon, "the most important aspect was the race and what it took to win it."

The day after the Salazar-Gomez dual, Dixon hopped in a taxi to catch a flight back to his homeland, and as the cab wound through the streets of Manhattan, away from Central Park on the way to the JFK Airport, Dixon made a vow: "I was sitting in the back of that cab and I said out loud, 'I will return next year, and I am coming to win the New York City Marathon.'" He decided then and there that all of his training and racing would be focused on winning in Central Park in one year.

Soon after his experience of watching New York, Dixon caught the Commonwealth Games Marathon in Brisbane, Australia, where Rob de Castella made up a two-minute deficit to win. "It was just an extraordinary experience and race, so different from New York," he said.

Both marathons "gave me perspective on how I could compete," explained Dixon, who immediately immersed himself in a crash course on marathon running. He collected tapes of previous Boston, London and New York marathons, and read articles on the 26.2-mile race by his friends Frank Shorter and the great Jack Foster of New Zealand, "so I could kind of put together what I was going to do," he said. The two races that continued to permeate his planning, however, were the Salazar-Gomez dual and DeCastella's come-from-behind victory he had witnessed that fall (or summer if you're a Kiwi).

Throughout the next several months, Dixon stayed focused on the plan he had begun devising as the New York cabbie whisked him to the airport the previous October. He raced the Pepsi 10K series and defended his Bay to Breakers victory with a course record. He continued to put in long runs through the hilly forests near Reading, PA, his home base.

As the elite field began to be finalized for New York, Dixon maintained his focus on his own preparation. "As much as I respected the whole field, and as we started to get the elite field gathered, there wasn't any one person I focused on other than myself," remembered Dixon. "I had raced Geoff Smith in 10Ks and 5-milers and on the track, and so I knew his ability. There was (Jukka) Toivola, the Finn, who had always run very well. There were names you saw, and looking through the best times you knew they had been known to perform very well.

"But I just knew I had to do everything in my power to prepare the best I could so that on race day, when I was competing against 20,000-plus other runners, there would only be a handful who would be there after the halfway mark."

Race day arrived with cloudy skies, temperatures in the low 50s, and a drizzle that intensified as runners gathered at the Fort Wadsworth starting area.

Dixon, who would be starting only his second marathon, sat on the floor of a gymnasium, surveying the elite field gathered around him. He was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "It's a whole new bloody world. They look hungry, they look mean. I wonder if I've got that look."

He was about to find out about that new world as he left the gym and had to scramble through the bushes to reach the front of the line on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

The drama unfolded quickly as Geoff Smith, a senior at Providence (RI) College, and Tanzania's Gidamis Shahanga began recording splits that were faster than the pace of Alberto Salazar's record run in 1981. They blew by 5 miles in 24 minutes, were 29:47 at 10 kilometers, and 48:06 at 10 miles. The dual continued, with Shahanga passing the half marathon in 1:03:12, still on record pace.

Dixon hung back in the second group of runners (which included Ron Tabb, runner-up at Boston in 2:09:31), telling himself to concentrate and remain patient. But with Tabb having won a marathon in Peking the previous month and lacking the strength to race to the front, Dixon decided to leave the American and the other runners in the group, and to pursue the two leaders.

Smith had spent months recovering from injuries and was admittedly hungry to win New York. He took the lead and opened up a 12-second gap at 17 miles with a 4:43 mile up First Avenue. He then widened the margin to 40 seconds with a 4:44 mile.

Meanwhile, Dixon had come off the Queens Borough Bridge onto First Avenue and looked up to see the two leaders a half mile away.

He said his first thought was, "Oh, my God, that's a big margin!"

But Dixon looked at the clock at the 17-mile marker and figured he had 47 minutes to make up the deficit.

He fairly quickly reeled in Shahanga, who eventually faded to sixth place, and set his sights on Smith. At 20 miles, running through the Bronx, Dixon was 35 seconds behind Smith. He focused on the leader and began some mental calculating.

"I realized that at my rate I was going to have to run a 'shorter' distance to catch him," recalled Dixon. "I wasn't going to be able to run any faster, so I had to stay within my cadence, and I just had to believe that Geoff was going to give me some seconds."

Smith's splits became progressively slower - 5:02, 5:08, 5:15 - as Dixon continued to cut the gap as they headed down Fifth Avenue and turned into Central Park at 23 miles.

"For sure I had observed Geoff long enough to know that he was getting a little wobbly," said Dixon. "He was being cautious by staying in the center of the road and I took the risk of running the tangents, closest to the crowds."

Dixon was now just one block - 18 seconds - behind Smith.

Neither, however, was running comfortably. Smith was fighting spasms in his hamstrings while Dixon periodically grabbed his right hamstring. It had tightened twice earlier in the race.

Just after Columbus Circle, between the 25- and 26-mile marks at Central Park South, runners had to turn off 59th Street, step up over a curb onto a grassy stretch, and then run onto West Park Drive for the final twisting stretch toward the finish at Tavern on the Green.

That proved a critical point in Dixon's race.

"As we went across the grass, Geoff almost balked at the curb and I ran as hard as I could across that part, trying to make up some time," he said. "I felt Geoff lost a lot there, and my plan was to make up as much as I could."

Dixon's plan was working and his math skills proved impeccable. "I did actually catch him right on the 26-mile mark and that was what was incredible," he said.

The race, however, had 365 yards to go.

"I caught Geoff at 26, but I was still . . . perhaps you could use the phrase 'running scared,'" said Dixon.

Smith appeared to gather himself, so Dixon cut the tangent as the course twisted. "I was almost able to slingshot past him so he didn't attach himself to me," he said. "It became almost a Salazar-Gomez dual."

And it wasn't until he was 10 meters from the tape that Dixon believed the race was his. He crossed the finish in 2:08:59.

Dixon dropped to his knees, kissed the wet asphalt, raised his arms and put his hands to his head. Still and television photographers caught the image of Dixon's ebullient display of emotion.

Nine seconds later, Smith, who had stumbled four times during the last three miles, tumbled across the finish line.

"As I approached the finish," Dixon remembered, "my thoughts were, 'It's amazing. I'm leading this race. This is unbelievable.' And then when I went across the finish line, a million other emotions flooded me.

"It was about just believing in myself, and I looked to the heavens because I believed there was someone there looking after me. Then the earth is something too for me - earth, wind and sky, so I looked to the heavens first and then I thanked the good earth.

"Then, too, I think there was a little bit of redemption from my disappointment of the '76 Olympic Games," said Dixon, whose fourth-place finish in the 5000 meter finals had been personally devastating.

"I was sitting up there with Geoff Smith, facing the media and all the questions, (after finishing New York), and I had these little quick visions back to '76 and the Olympic Games where it didn't go right with me, and yet I felt I'd worked hard and had a right to victory this time," said Dixon.

"This time I had worked harder and, in a sense, was more at peace with myself. I knew that I had done everything I could possibly do that day."

Twenty years later, people remember Dixon's emotional victory.

"I still get an incredible amount of e-mail (about the race)," he said, "and I've seen so many photos of me in the race and at the finish that people want me to sign."

Dixon's 6-year-old twins, Hugo and Cecile, also know about their father's accomplishment 14 years before their birth. In his garage (rhymes with "carriage" the way the Kiwi Dixon pronounces it) and home office in his hometown of Nelson, NZ, were he returned after 26 years, are large promotional photos of Dixon produced by Pan American World Airlines.

"The children recognize me," he said. "And, of course, Hugo, when I race him, I always let him beat me. He always puts his hands up and goes down and kisses the ground."

New York Athletic Club and NYCRRC to highlight Dixon's '83 win

The New York Athletic Club and the New York City Road Runners Club will remember Dixon's 1983 marathon win with a 20-minute video retrospective of his career at the race eve dinner. His daughter Kate will travel from London to join him.

"I feel very honored to have them remember," he said of the events surrounding the race on November 2. "They have said to me that that picture of me at the finish is the signature moment of their race. They've had some incredible finishes and some great, great efforts, and yet wonderfully, they feel that one moment stamped an image on New York."