25 years after the event, Nelson runner Rod Dixon tells the story of his amazing 1983 win in the New York Marathon.
I remember having lunch in Rome before the 1982 World Cross Country. (New York City Marathon director) Fred Lebow talked about the fact that I was clearly the best road racer in the world. He said, “But Rod, could you run a marathon? Most Americans relate road running to marathons. The marathon is the measure of a man.” So I said, “Fuck you! What does that mean? I’ve got to run a marathon to prove myself?” I thought ‘I’ll show you bastards, I’ll run a marathon.’
After all I was an Olympic 1500 metre medalist [bronze, Munich 1972], I’d run cross country, indoor track, 5000 and 10 000 metre, and set the world record for the half marathon. I want to be the best. I’m constantly challenged by new events. That was certainly reflected when Runner’s World magazine voted me the most versatile runner of the last 25 years.
As a track runner, when the gun goes if you’re not within ten metres of the lead you may as well step off the track. What I saw with the great marathons through history was that you don’t need to be. That was the opposite mentality to what I had always had as a runner, where it was important to stamp your authority on a race. I learned quickly about patience… in fact I looked up the Oxford dictionary to define the word. I wrote it out on a little card which was nailed to the wall. The marathon called for almost isolation, and the absence of wanting to get out there and race on a weekly basis. It was all about money in the bank, putting money in so on race day you could draw it out. Another thing I learned from my brother, who was my coach. He said you must be prepared to be confident about your preparation and where you are, not compared to someone else.
Leaving Reading, Pennsylvania, over the countryside in which I’d trained I must admit for the first time in my athletic life I was prepared to live with the consequences no matter what. I’d trained the best I ever had in my life, and I realised I was at peace with myself, which hadn’t happened before. Everything just seemed to go normally – there was lovely flow to it. It had quite a calming effect. It reminded me of the saying the calm before the storm, knowing in two hours I was going to run the race of my life. I felt in control.
On my little finger I put the five mile split, the second finger the ten mile, third finger the 13 mile, the fourth the 18 mile, and on my thumb the 23 mile split. That was what I calculated to be my running pace, and I was going to stay with that pace no matter what. I had a plan and I was going to stick to it. When I looked up after the first mile I knew I was in a rhythm that I was comfortable at, but when I looked ahead of me the leaders were way up. That was a huge thing, because my instinct told me to be up with the leaders, but common sense told me to be where I was. You’ve got to think these things out – you’ve got to have a plan. It was simple, win, lose or draw it was based on me, alone.
When you hit First Avenue there are an estimated one million people down that stretch. There’s this incredible ringing in your ears, like at a great rock concert. The thumping in the chest, the dizziness. Here I am kind of feeling as if I’m floating, looking down the street, which is incredibly long and wide, the runners didn’t look that far ahead of me. So I was comfortable enough to say I’m on target. But as we started to get towards the end of First Avenue I thought hold on, I’m catching (Gidamis) Shahanga, but (Geoff) Smith’s getting away. I wasn’t concerned, because I knew I had to get to twenty miles as the race doesn’t start effectively until then.
After that I’ve got 6.2 miles to go, which is ten kilometres, this is what it’s about. All those ten kilometre runs I’ve done, this is what it comes down to, let’s go.
At five miles it had been drizzling, and the road was very slick. I hit a yellow line divider and slipped, and just felt my right hamstring twinge a little bit. I settled back down again. At 22 miles when I started to pick the pace up knowing I wanted to get through to 23 miles in a certain time, I put extra pressure on my body. A couple of times it just twinged, so I put some pressure on it and broke down the pain.
Then I started to do the math on how far I was behind Smith, and how many more miles. When I went through of the half-mile marks I realised I wasn’t going to catch him, so I thought what if he slows down? I decided to see what the next mile produces. Sure enough, Smithy gave me four seconds, and I made up four. The next thing I thought about was not running faster, but running shorter – running the tangents, the shortest possible route. I simply didn’t have to run the distance, and that gave me my three to five seconds per mile. I was starting to think in terms of plus and minuses. Smithy was running the longest part, getting a little wobbly, and starting to look back. I knew he was worried about me.
That was good enough for me to say I am the hunter and he is the hunted. I put eight seconds on him from the 26 mile mark. I went through Columbus Circle, there’s a little grass verge you had to run over. He kind of gingerly stepped over it. I came at full speed and took it low and got off the other side at good speed, and picked up ten or fifteen yards on him just like that. He glanced over, and I thought shit, he’s only been waiting for me to catch him. The only way to hit him is to go up to him and try and out kick him, or hit him as hard as I can on the inside. I choose the latter. When he looked over and saw me going through at speed, it just destroyed him. 20 yards down the road I couldn’t run any faster and had to back off, but the damage had been done and he had to let go of me. But not by much. Just eight seconds.
It was pretty amazing. If you looked at my splits, my predicted time was right on 2.09.00. I ran 2.08.59. I was, and still am, a very passionate and emotional person about what I do. When I realised I had won the New York City Marathon, something I had dreamed of and trained for certainly the last 26 weeks, I realised I had done something I bloody well should have done in 1976 at the Olympics, and it just flooded into me. I came across the finish line and I looked to the heavens. I’m not a deeply religious person, but something up there, the spiritual, the energy of it all, I said thank you, and I kneeled down and kissed the earth.
I turned to go back and congratulate Smith, but I didn’t know he had finished and collapsed and the medics had taken him away. It’s amazing, here was Geoff eight seconds behind me totally shattered because he had lost the race, here was me almost feeling as if I could run the race again. But it was total euphoria.
Rune Arlidge, then the director of ABC’s Wide World of Sports sent me a very personal note; he said that it was the most dramatic finish in ABC Sports history for the last 25 years. He said it epitomised the ecstasy of the win and the agony of defeat. The people that came to me who said that run changed their life, that their husband had got off the sofa and decided to jog… it’s just been extraordinary, absolutely the most amazing thing.
– Rod Dixon as told to Gavin Bertram