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Rod Dixon — June, 2016
Rod Dixon is an amazingly versatile distance runner who qualified to represent New Zealand at four Olympics, racing 1,500 meters in 1972, 5,000 meters in 1976, missing 1980 due to the Olympic boycott and, finally, racing the marathon in 1984. Rod is the 1972 Olympic Bronze medalist at 1,500 meters and his fourth place in the 1976 Olympic 5,000 meters missed the Bronze Medal by 0.12 seconds. He was tenth in the 1984 Olympic Marathon. Rod has represented New Zealand at several World Cross Country Championships and won Bronze medals in 1973 and 1982. He won his first attempt at the marathon at the 1982 New Zealand Marathon Championships in Auckland in 2:11:21. Rod was victorious at the 1983 New York City Marathon in 2:08:59. He won many major U.S. road races including the Falmouth Road Race (1980), Bay to Breakers twice (1982 and 1983), the Virginia 10-miler twice (1981 and 1983), the Maggie Valley 5-miler (1981) and twice at the Philadelphia Half-Marathon (1980, 1981). At the 1974 Commonwealth Games his fourth place finish in the 1,500 meters in 3:33.9 was the fifth fastest time in history. Rod won the national 1,500 meter titles of New Zealand, France, the USA, and Great Britain. His personal best times include: 1,500m – 3:33.9; mile – 3:53.6 ; 3000m – 7:41.0; 2-mile – 8:14.32; 5000m - 13:17.27; 8k - 22:33; 5-mile - 22:44; 10,000m (track) - 28:35.69; 10,000m (road)- 28:11; 15k – 43:13; 10-Miles – 46:50; 20k- 59:39; Half Marathon – 1:02:12 and Marathon - 2:08:59. Rod is the founder of the KidsMarathon program. He was kind to spend an amazing three and a half hours on the telephone in late June, 2016.
GCR:Let’s start with your tremendous versatility of accomplishments in the sport of distance running. You won the New York City Marathon, an Olympic Bronze medal at 1,500 meters, two World Cross Country Bronze medals and numerous other road races and track events. Very few runners have succeeded over such a spectrum of distances and on a variety of venues and running surfaces. With the perspective of over twenty-five years, can you sum up your running career, what this all means and where it puts you in the plethora of great runners?
RDI do thank people when they acknowledge my performances and my accomplishments. But I actually just love running. I joined a running club when I was just twelve years old. I couldn’t join a running club before that age, so I did on the day I turned twelve. On July the thirteenth I signed up for a running club. It was for ages 12 to 18 and it was brought about by the English harrier clubs. When I went to England for the first time and met the Black Heath Harriers the club was over one hundred years old then. So it’s got to be over 150 years old now. I was fascinated with all of this. My first running book I read was, ‘The Kings of Distance.’ They weren’t called runners back then – in fact, they were called ‘pedestrians.’ I like the running attire, sort of like the young kids today like baggy shorts down to their knees. The running uniforms had the British Coat of Arms on them which captivated me. In the 100 meters I remember watching the sprinters running in lanes separated by string lines.
GCR:Speaking of your getting started running, it is much different in British Empire countries than in the United States where people tend to start in middle school or high school or sometimes at road races. I know you were coached by your brother, John, who was a great New Zealand athlete. Could you discuss how you progressed as a runner from age twelve to 18 and what you did in training to move from a novice to an elite level athlete?
RDMy brother, John, is three years older than me. John was my hero. He had three words for me, ‘Learn by doing.’ Once it was climbing the highest tree. John convinced me to climb it and I looked all around. Then I looked for him and he was already halfway down the tree. I called out to him, ‘How do I get down?’ And he said, ‘You figure it out.’ All of this was laying a foundation. He was in the running club so before I was twelve at times I used to run with him. I was always following John.
GCR:Did you start to become a good runner fairly quickly, did you step up your training or did it take a few years?
RDOf course we would have some races and run cross country and things like that. But the great thing was that they had quite a few handicap races. So, at some point you got to win a race. It was a chance to cross the finish line first. That was kind of cool and you got a ribbon. I decided I liked that. During all of those years I was running and having fun. I also delivered newspapers.
GCR:In the United States we typically get out of high school around age 18 and go to college until about age 22. How did your training progress during this time period as you became an Olympian at only 22 years of age?
RDAt 17 and 18 I was maturing and developing. My big breakthrough was truly at age 18 when I won the New Zealand Junior Mile Championships. Three of the guys had faster times coming in than me. But it was a very tactical race and John had me train with different tactics. He had the system and philosophy and principles of Arthur Lydiard. A 1948 Olympian from New Zealand, Harold Nelson, had won the 1950 British Empire Games Gold medal at six miles and silver medal at three miles. He would show us his medals which was kind of cool. So we had excitement in our running club. There were fifty or sixty of us close to my age in the running club and we ran all sorts of distances from the mile to three or four miles cross country. On training runs we would run for forty-five minutes and then we’d stop. Then we would split into groups that would go on further or go back, so we always had a choice. My brother had asked me what race I wanted to do and I wasn’t quite sure, but the defining moment came when I was sitting and listening to the 1968 Olympic Games and I was fascinated by the 1,500 meters with World record Holder Jim Ryun getting beaten by the great Kip Keino. There was all of this history, even going back to Louis Zamperini and Jack Lovelock, so I was fascinated by the 1,500 meters. It was all of that excitement of the mile and 1,500 meters that drew me to it. When I saw Jim Ryun running, I jumped up and said, ‘That’s me! I’m going to the Olympics!’ It’s amazing that was in my head.
GCR:In 1972 you were a top New Zealander in the middle distances, but not one of the favorites to make the team. Could you take us through the Olympic Trials and selection process and how difficult it was to make the team?
RDI went to my brother and told him I knew what I wanted to do and he asked me to tell him about it. This is when I said that I wanted to go to the Olympics. John’s philosophy was that it was my decision and he would help me. If I had a bad day training or racing and wanted to quit, then John would tell me I was making a bad decision, but that he would stand by it. Training started at 7:30 in the morning and he said I should be there or it wasn’t his problem. I had to make decisions and he would be there. As we progressed I made the World Cross Country team for New Zealand and finished eighth in the world. I finished second in the Belgian Championships too. With that kind of base it was quite extraordinary. It gave me the confidence that my speed came from strength. Lots of people were saying that I should run the 5,000 meters. John told me we would train for the mile and 1,500 meters, but we could run the 5,000 meters. We laid out a plan of races and, a few of the races I wanted to get into, the runners I wanted to race weren’t going to be there. So, we had to figure out where they were racing so that we could go there. At that time there were three or four top New Zealanders. There was Tony Pohill, who won the British Championships in 1969, Dick Quax, Chip Taylor and Kevin Ross, the National 800 meter champion who indicated he was stepping up to run the 1,500 meters.. It was a challenging period and was very exciting. I latched onto Nelson, my hometown training partner, and we were able to do some good training.
GCR:When you made the New Zealand team can you take us through the race, and how exciting it was to make the Olympic team?
RDWe ran on a grass track where the great Peter Snell had set the World Record in the mile, so it was a very fast track for fast times. In those days grass tracks were fast unless there was a shower of rain. But we had great conditions. New Zealand had amazing grass tracks and Snell had run a 1:43.5 on a grass track for 800 meters which was quite phenomenal. Trying to beat Tony Pohill was something as he was so accomplished. When the Olympic Trials came up Tony Pohill had won the Nationals and had done enough that he didn’t have to run the Olympic Trials. That left me and Kevin Ross who was the 800 meter runner and some others. My brother, John, moved out in lane two on the back straight and said, ‘go you little bastard!’ And he yelled it at me and I just took off. Then he ran across the track and on the home straight he was yelling to me and I made the team.
GCR:At the relatively young age of 22, you stepped up on the world stage and earned a bronze medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics at 1,500 meters. What were your goals going into the Olympics to make the final or to try for a medal – what was your mindset?
RDPre-Olympics we got some races in Oslo and Sweden and some other meets and none of those races gave me the confidence to go for a medal – it was the first round and then getting to the next round. That was the goal. It was again those three words – learn by doing. Each experience I had I made sure I put them in my diary and I thought about them. I read them and had them in my thoughts.
GCR:You had quite a tough draw in your heat. How did you approach this as you had a challenging task just to get to the next round?
RDCertainly the first round, let’s face it – I had the Olympic Champion, Kip Keino; the Olympic Silver Medalist and World Record Holder, Jim Ryun; and there were two runners to go through to the next round and then the two fastest losers from all of the rounds. So when that draw sheet came out I went to the station manager and he said there was not much chance there. So, I avoided him. I went to the international calling center and called my brother, John, who had read about it in the newspaper. He told me I had to stay with my plan, what we talked about and what I had to do. I had to have confidence. Then there was this man back when we were talking about my race and he said, ‘who is running in the 1,500 meters?’ It was Laszlo Tabori, the Hungarian who was the third man to break the four minute mile. So, I jumped up, ran over and sat next to him. He asked me, ‘now how do you think you’re going to run the race?’ I told him about my training and he told me ’your speed is in your strength, so you must be with the leaders.’ That kind of was John and my thinking anyway. So when Laszlo, the great Hungarian, shared the same philosophy, that little moment gave me confidence.
GCR:So how did your heat and semifinal play out?
RDI was on the track for my first Olympic race and beside me was Kip Keino while on the other side of me was Jim Ryun. How about that?! With about 1,000 meters to go Kip got out and I went up on the side of him and thought it was perfect for me. And the further I ran, the better I felt. I knew there were runners all around me but I didn’t look at them. History shows us that Jim Ryun fell and his hand caught my right calf muscle. I told Jim twenty years later that I could still feel the sensation of his hand hitting my calf as it was such a strong memory. As it turned out, we finished with Keino first and Dixon second and I was into the semifinal. That was pretty powerful. I got my bag and was walking back to the Olympic Village. There were my teammates, including Dave McKenzie, the 1967 Boston Marathon champion, Jack Foster, who broke the Master’s marathon record in the 1970s and more of my mates. So, we went and had dinner and one beer. This was the surrounding environment that kept me focused and from getting too nervous. There were New Zealanders who stopped by that were in other sports which was mind of cool. And then the next day was the semifinal. I warmed up and prepared. I had run 3:41 in the first round, which was close to my fastest ever as I hadn’t run faster than 3:41. The race went pretty good actually. I felt good with the pace. Brendan Foster was running and he made sure the pace was up. Franco Arese, the Italian, took it out pretty strongly. It was a strong pace and we ran 3:37.9 which was a three second improvement on my time. The top three went and then the next two fastest. There was no rest day and the final was the next day. That was a good thing for me. John said that I was far stronger than anyone else. I may not have been as fast, but I was strong.
GCR:Of course you learned quite a bit during the heats and semifinals, but can you take us through how the final developed, what you were thinking and the critical points that led to your finish?
RDWhen I look back now at the tapes, on the back stretch I let Keino and Foster go. Mike Boit, the Bronze Medalist in the 800 meters, came past me and I had a little lapse in confidence. Later I thought that at moments like that you just go. I didn’t have that instinct which is based on experience and learning by doing. When I came off of the turn I knew that was where I usually went hard. The next thing I knew, I felt power. Boit was struggling and I was actually gaining on Keino a little bit.
GCR:What were your emotions after this surprising Bronze Medal finish?
RDGoing across the finish line was just extraordinary. I believe I was ranked 42nd in the world. I think someone said to me, ‘You were the happiest Bronze Medalist ever.’ I remember the first week of the Olympics our rowers won the Gold Medal and, when we welcomed them back at the Olympic Village, Athol Earl let me hold his medal. I thought it was pretty cool. And now I had one of a different color. It was just extraordinary. From that time on my life changed, just like that. I was standing there and we were waiting for the marathon finishers to come through. I had already met Frank Shorter, and to watch him come through after I had raced him, was cool along with seeing my countryman, Jack Foster, come in. Then we had the medal ceremony and that was amazing to hear your national anthem. In those days, each country had their anthem played. I was smiling, had tears in my eyes, everything. There was the swirl of 80,000 people in the stands, the swirl of emotions, the thrill. I held the medal and gave thanks to my brother and all of those at the running club – everything. There were a thousand thoughts a second in my head as I realized this wasn’t achieved on my own. All of these amazing people gave their time and love along the way. It was a very strong spiritual moment – very powerful. Then it was off to the Hofbrauhaus!
GCR:The Munich Games were marred by the terrorist hostage taking and killings. Describe your memories of this tragedy and its effect on you, your teammates and others, especially since you were still getting ready to race your event.
RDWe were right next to the Israelis in the New Zealand quarters. There was maybe a fifteen meter gap between the two. I was rooming with Dick Taylor and Gerry Manners. I ran out on the balcony to say good morning to the world and I looked across to the Israeli quarters. We had heard a pop-pop sound earlier and didn’t know what it was. Then shortly after there was a knock on our door that terrorists had gotten into the Israeli quarters. We grabbed our passports which is all we had time for and vacated the building. Then after the terrorists took the hostages to the airport it settled down in the village. The killings at the airport were terrible and the Games were suspended. Then the Israelis said that we can’t give in to terrorists and that the Games must go on. It was such a tough time when we realized what some people would do.
GCR:In early 1973 you scored another Bronze medal, this time at the World Cross Country Championships. It is such a touch race as you compete with runners who specialize at 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters, the steeplechase and the marathon which makes it more difficult than earning an Olympic medal even though the general public doesn’t recognize this.. Was this somewhat surprising to you, and what were you doing in training to be so versatile?
RDPeople ask me today what your favorite event was and I tell them it was between the 800 meters and cross country. I love the history of the 800 meters and the mile. In cross country I loved how we ran across rivers and streams and up hills and jumped over barbed wire fences. It was real cross country. I loved cross country. In 1973 New Zealanders ran the English Cross Country Championships in preparation for the World Championships. Dave Bedford was the reigning English and World Cross Country Champion. So, Bedford was the guy. I got my footing, got a good start and was up with the top runners very early. Dave Bedford and some of the other British boys were leading the way and then on the second lap I came up alongside of Bedford, ran stride with him and ended up winning the English Cross Country Championships. That was a huge boost for what was going to happen at the World Championships. Dave Bedford said, ‘I don’t think anybody can beat Dixon.’ So we went on to World Cross Country and I knew I was in good shape. I was just confident enough in my training as all of my confidence came from knowing I had done all that I could. The race begins and less than half a mile into the race all of these runners jumped out of the crowd and started fighting us. In those days Northern Ireland was banned and not allowed to compete because of politics. So, they tried to tackle us and to stop the race. I remember pushing one into a bush and giving an uppercut to another one. And of course I was looking around, wondering if they were going to stop this thing, and they let it go! There were about three guys ahead that got through the melee and the rest of us were behind. I was running with ten or twelve guys and broke away to chase the leaders. I got one of them, but the others were away and I was on my own. I tried as much as I could to catch them and I couldn’t bridge the gap. I was stuck in the middle and just couldn’t get up to the leaders and so I finished third. It was a little disappointing because if I had been up there I would have had a very strong chance to compete for the win.
GCR:So the Bronze Medal was nice, and we don’t know if you would have got the Gold Medal, but you would have had a more fair chance?
RDYes, it would have been a level playing field.
GCR:The 1974 Commonwealth Games 1,500 meters was most likely the fastest and deepest mile or metric mile to that point as Filbert Bayi’s 3:32.2 and John Walker’s 3:32.5 both broke the previous world record, and Ben Jipcho’s 3:33.2 and your 3:33.9 were the fourth and fifth fastest times ever. Could you take us through that race, how fast it was, Bayi’s front running and how competitive all of you great runners were that day?
RDIt was certainly a very familiar race and I drew strength from that as I liked a very fast pace. I knew what Bayi would do and he jumped out there. We didn’t really know how fast we went out because splits weren’t as available. Looking at the race, Bayi was out front and we were in a chasing pack. Coming up to the bell lap I knew I didn’t want to wait until 200 meters to go so I actually led everybody in the chase pack around the top bend and into the back straight. Then Jipcho passed me. I had a sense that others were very, very close. Coming off of the last turn I started my last big kick and I got past Jipcho. But then I was really starting to fade and Walker went past and was catching Bayi. Then Jipcho got past me. Afterward I looked up and the scoreboard was flashing ‘New World Record,’ which I had a sense had occurred. Then the times came up and walker had broken the previous World Record with Jipcho just outside of Jim Ryun’s World Record. I was looking at the times and was thinking with some shock, ‘I just ran the fifth fastest time ever and finished fourth in the race! How the heck did that happen?’
GCR:So was that your most satisfying fourth place ever?
RDI hate fourth place. You don’t get anything for fourth place. I still look at it and feel that I didn’t lose the race as it was my personal fastest time and the fifth fastest time in history. It was extraordinary – one of the greatest races ever. I had a feeling that my great friend, John Walker, was going to really do something and he did in winning at the Olympics two years later and in being the first to run the mile under 3:50. He was racing so well in Europe that it was just a matter of time before he came though on the big stage.
GCR:You moved up to the 5,000 meters at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and in a tough four-way battle with 100 meters to go finished fourth, less than a second behind winner, Lasse Viren, and only 0.12 seconds behind Bronze Medalist Klaus-Peter Hildenbrand. Could you describe the last lap surges and tactics and how tough it was to medal in such a strong field?
RDI was ranked number one in the world at 5,000 meters in 1975. But then I had a pretty bad bout with tonsillitis that really put me up for a few days, though I was running well. The racing was still learning by doing. In that Olympic 5,000 meters from lap to lap I was never in the same position. I was fourth or fifth or back to fourth and there was a lot of wasted time. My brother had told me that I had to be in control with 300 meters to go and that with 300 meters to go I should remember all of the times I ran 300 meters in training. So here I had 300 meters to go and I saw Viren just ahead of me. I was in second. I said, ‘I’ve got this,’ and I actually did say out loud, ‘I’ve got this.’ The next mistake I made of course is that I was hearing John saying, ‘go, go, go’ but I had too many laps where I was out in lane two or lane three and had run more distance than I should have. So I had run too far and lost the race because of that. I kicked and crossed the finish line and right when I hit the line I was thinking that at least third place was some consolation. But just as I crossed the line I saw this flash on my left and Hildebrand dove and I was fourth. I must admit I was pretty shattered. I wouldn’t talk to anyone. I picked up my bag, ran back to the Olympic Village and up the stairs to my room. I sat on my bed in tears and I was devastated. The only thing that I ran for and trained for, or so I believed, hadn’t happened and I kind of lost my mind. I believed in myself and hadn’t done what I came to do. From that point on, if you look at the European season, I won every race. I beat the Olympic Champion, I beat Moorcroft. I beat them all, but it didn’t really matter to me. Four years of training for the Olympics and it was frustrating to not come through in that race, but then to do so in the other races.
GCR:After your two Olympic experiences, how disappointing was it to have a chance for an Olympic medal taken away by President Carter’s 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics with which New Zealand stood?
RDFour years later at one meet in Europe, John Walker and I were on the track after racing and a reporter came up and said, ‘Too bad you guys aren’t going to the Olympics.’ I looked at Walker and said, ‘What?’ Then the reporter told us that New Zealand had joined the boycott. I again looked at Walker and said, ‘I can’t believe we found this out from a journalist.’ It was absolutely devastating. Some of my friends from New Zealand only had one Olympic chance and it was taken away. And in the end we know that the boycott didn’t mean anything. Because I wasn’t in the Olympics I did some other racing. I went down to Philadelphia and ran a 10k and Gary Fanelli won it. He is such a character. I finished third and it was my first U.S. road race ever. Two years ago New Zealand honored all of the 1980 Olympic team members which was good in some way.
GCR:The United States road-racing circuit became popular and a way to make a living in the late 1970s and early 1980s. You had many top finishes including victories at the Falmouth Road Race (1980), Bay to Breakers twice (1982 and 1983), the Virginia 10 miler twice (1981 and 1983), at the Maggie Valley 5-miler and twice at the Philadelphia Half-Marathon (1980, 1981). Did you enjoy transitioning to road racing and the camaraderie with your fellow runners after racing?
RDAfter that first race in Philadelphia, I was looking around at all of the racers and spectators and thought this was really something and that I could do this. So I stayed another two weeks and broke a race record on a very hilly course by two minutes. I decided that I loved this road racing. I ran the ARRA races, which was the American Road Racing Association. I followed the lead of Frank Shorter with prize money and used a trust account. I saw some of the runners who just wanted to take the money outright. We did bring about change with the way money was awarded in the sport and Frank Shorter was very skillful at that. Money was put into the trust funds and drawn out for expenses which seemed reasonable. Lorraine Moller and Anne Audain got banned for taking money directly, but that didn’t last long. They made a stand and challenged the athletic bodies and ended up winning. The athletic governing organizations had a lot of power and could do things like suspending an athlete for six months for having something on their shoes. But we had a right to live and for human maintenance. It was a breach of human rights and earning a living.
GCR:When I interviewed Craig Virgin several years ago he talked about the 1981 Peachtree Road Race and that after he caught Adrian Leek just past four miles, ‘Rod Dixon was trailing me by ten yards like a heat-seeking missile. He had beaten me before and had great mile speed. He tracked me but when I passed Adrian I surged hard and gained a bit on Dixon. When I entered Piedmont Park with less than a half mile to go Dixon was too close for comfort. I would surge every time there was a turn and he couldn’t see me, so I stretched the lead out to 30 yards.’ That must have been quite a duel in Atlanta’s summer heat. What do you recall of that race where you finished in second place just seven seconds behind Craig, and how tough a competitor was Craig Virgin?
RDI respected him and one of my mistakes was that I didn’t drive the course ahead of time. There was a time when we were in the park on a slight hill and I was looking up and the road was turning more to the right. Craig was on the left and I went over into the middle of the road to run my tangent. The next thing is we came around to the top of this little rise and barriers were up. People were shouting, ‘That way, that way!’ I was in the middle of the road and swung left. I could see that Craig’s turnover was about the same as mine and I wasn’t going to catch him. I knew that there wasn’t much time left in the race and that, even if I was a 3:50 miler, I wasn’t going to catch Craig. After the race I called him ‘The Burglar’ because he snuck away from me like that.
GCR:Let’s go forward a few weeks. One other race I have to single out is the 1981 Maggie Valley Moonlight 5-miler as you won in a strong 22:44 with Robbie Perkins, Herb Lindsay and Craig Virgin all ten to fifteen seconds behind you. I have first-hand knowledge as I was about 90 seconds behind you back in fifteenth place. How tough and different was this race since it was run at night and out-and-back with the first half downhill and the second half uphill?
RDI will run uphill any time. I love that race. In New Zealand there is a road race where I set the record of 53:20 maybe forty years ago. On the fiftieth anniversary of the race they brought in the world mountain running champion to try to beat my time. No one had gotten with three minutes of my course record. And so they offered $10,000 to beat Rod Dixon’s record. I told them that I would also come to the race and that if my record was broken they could also give me $10,000. The world mountain running champion couldn’t get within 45 seconds of my time. So, back to Maggie Valley, I knew that course was my kind of course – absolutely. When we reached halfway and started up the hill I adjusted my stride. I pulled away to victory. It was a great race – a perfect race for me.
GCR:It seems like Craig Virgin and you were such great racing rivals and did a lot to make road racing exciting as it was growing by leaps and bounds.
RDI don’t know if I said enough about Craig, but I love that guy. I met him in 1978 or 1979 and we raced in Europe. He was there in Europe when I missed a World Record by a tenth of a second. When I started running road races Craig was number one. He was the one to beat. So I knew I had to race Craig. Every race was down to the wire. We had some amazing times. He was the Bay-to-Breakers winner one year and I had won the race so we came back to square off. I remember he was so up as he was a bit of a showman. We put boxing gloves on and the media loved it. I came up with a right and he came up under my chin for the press and they were catching all of this and it was amazing. It brought so much more attention. Craig and I knew our qualities and how we could build this up and promote it and bring another dimension to running. People could see that we loved what we did and we were having fun so that running wasn’t just this boring sport of running around in circles. Craig was fabulous with that. He started his own company, Front Runner, Incorporated. I remember him being a showman before the Boston Marathon one year and everyone laughed, but he was bringing attention to himself. He was a perfect self-promoter and was passionate about what he was doing. He loves the sport and everything about it. Craig and I had some great races. I don’t know who won more than the other and it doesn’t matter. Just the fact that every time we had a race, Craig knew he had a race and I knew I had a race.
GCR:Of these big wins and also some near-misses, do a few stand out due to memorable competition, a kick to win or other factors?
RDThe Virginia Ten-Miler was a great race for me because of the hills. I loved those hills. And I had some really good races on that course. I broke that course record more than once and people would ask me, with all of the hills, how I could break that course record. It was a great and very competitive race. The race organizers also made it a fun weekend. I stayed with a wonderful family – the Albertsons. It was one of those great community races that had the heart and soul of the people. That is missing quite a bit in today’s racing. Falmouth was great also with a great race committee and community. Nowadays much has been lost as racing is all about the almighty dollar.
GCR:In 1982 you reprised your Bronze medal from nine years earlier at the World Cross Country Championships. How tough were those championships since you were racing the best runners from the mile to the marathon and why didn’t you race it more often?
RDI didn’t race the World Cross Country Championships many years for several reasons. In 1974 there were the Commonwealth Games and the European track circuit. In 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978 and 1979 those years were all because I was racing in Scandinavia or other places. Also, in 1975 I was transitioning from 1,500 meters to racing 5,000 meters and many runners don’t make the transition smoothly. I had run a lot of cross country races in New Zealand in 1975 with my training, but reconsidered and didn’t go to the World Championships. What also was happening was that I had two track seasons – in the New Zealand summer and the European summer. So, I was training and racing at a high level all year around. After forty races a year it got to a point where my brother said I had to be ‘raceless,’ to stop racing and do training. John said I needed to go back to my 100 mile training weeks, run in the mountains and do my time trials. So I worked on skeleton strength, running cross country in the mountains and put money back in the bank. I worked on my conditioning. That year I worked up to number one in the world. Nobody beat me. I repeated much the same for 1976. Really the only race that didn’t go right for me in 1976 was the Olympics. I was realizing that trying to go to World Cross Country would be another trip that wasn’t easy as I would be flying in from New Zealand across the Pacific. It would take me twenty hours just to get to Los Angeles and then another twelve hours or more to get to Europe. We couldn’t go back and forth easily, so it was decided that I would do cross country only in New Zealand. I kept running cross country in New Zealand for twenty years.
GCR:Fred Lebow, the New York City Marathon Race Director, famously recruited you to race in New York. Had you been thinking about racing a marathon, or was it primarily Fred’s insistence that steered you in that direction?
RDI had been racing 10k races in New York City in Central Park and Van Courtland Park so Fred and I knew each other. Of course he would also come to Europe during the racing season and I met him with Bill Rodgers in 1978 or 1979. He was a great friend of Grete Waitz and got her to run in New York. So Fred came and I was running so well – I did a 1:02 half marathon in Philadelphia which was the World Record. Fred said to me, ‘Now you have to think about a marathon.’ I said, ‘Fred, I’m not thinking about a marathon. I’ve just run my first half marathon.’ But when I finished that half marathon I thought, ‘I could run that again.’ That’s how I felt about it. In 1982 I was at World Cross Country in Rome. Fred kept telling me, ‘You got to run New York. You’ve got to run the marathon.’ I again said, ‘Fred, I’m not thinking about it now.’ Of course he wouldn’t let it go, so I said, ‘Fred, if I win a medal here at World Cross Country, we’ll talk about it.’ So at the end of the race I’m coming toward the finish and it was completely clear except for the officials. I cross the finish line in third place for the Bronze Medal and I bump into this guy in the finish chute – and it’s Fred Lebow. He climbed over the rope and was shouting; ‘Now we talk! Now we talk!’ He was such a cool guy. Of course, we talked afterward. I told him I had about thirty races scheduled for the year and was under contract for quite a few races, and there wasn’t really any time to think about it. I told him I couldn’t run the New York City Marathon in 1982, but I would leave the door open because you never say no.
GCR:You did a tune-up and raced the Auckland, New Zealand Marathon. Before we discuss the race, weren’t there some pre-race shenanigans involving your friend and fellow racer from the U.S., Gary Fanelli?
RDGary Fanelli came down for the marathon and he was on television talking about it. He said he had a strange dream that spaghetti was boiling in a pot on the stove and it started to swirl out of the pot and it came down across the hallway and got me around the throat. Gary was on national television telling this story and writing around on the floor saying that woke him up. Everyone in the country thought it was a wonderful variation of all of these serious runners. Gary was a very funny guy.
GCR:Back to the race, amazingly, you won the Auckland, New Zealand Marathon in 2:11:21. How did you adjust to the distance, pacing and holding yourself back over 26.2 miles both mentally and physically?
RDAfter the World Cross Country Championships I won Bay-to-Breakers and then went back to New Zealand. They asked me to be spokesman for the New Zealand Marathon and so I did. About a week before that the sponsor company asked me if there was any chance I would run the race. I told them that I wouldn’t because I had many races coming up. My brother told me that I had a 23-mile run scheduled for that week so why don’t I go out and run the race at my pace that I would be running in training which is about a 5:45 or 6:00 minute mile pace. But I thought that since it was a race I would run faster. So John told me to run 5:30 pace for 15 or 16 miles and then to assess. Then I went back to the sponsor and told them I would run the race. Of course I went to Jack Foster and asked how I should warm up. I didn’t see why I should do a three mile warmup and end up running 29 total miles. Jack told me to use the first mile as my warmup. He suggested I run the first mile with him and just take it easy. So I ran with him for the first mile and we ran around 5:10 or 5:15. It just seemed natural. He said that if I wanted to get up with the leaders I should do so as it seemed like they were picking the pace up. So I went and joined the leaders and we got to the 20-mile mark with Kevin Ryan. When we turned to come back, the final five or six miles were something. I kept feeling better and ended up winning. The next thing was that Fred Lebow found out I ran 2:11 and was furious, but not furious. I told Fred that I had to understand what it was like to run a marathon race. I had to know and have confidence before I ran in New York and he understood that. I ran that marathon, was on a plane on Monday to Philadelphia, did a press conference during the week for the Diet Pepsi 10k and went out the next Sunday and won it in about 29:04 only seven days after a marathon plus my travel from New Zealand. That is when I called Fred Lebow and told him I was going to run his marathon, but it would be in 1983 and not in 1982. I told him I would come to the 1982 New York City Marathon to watch, learn and take it all in. It turned out to be one of the greatest marathons with Salazar and Gomez battling each other for the win.
GCR:When you saw the 1982 Salazar-Gomez duel and that great spot when the dust came up off of the grass in Central Park, were you riding on the lead vehicle?
RDNo, I was watching most of it on TV, but went down in person as I wanted to see them coming out of Columbus Circle. Then I went down and watched them as they crossed that little dirt patch. But everything else was on TV. I was fascinated. I was staying in the city and I went out the next morning and ran the last couple miles of the course. I stood at the 26-mile mark and said to myself that I was coming back.
GCR:You had the opportunity to race Alberto Salazar numerous times. What are some thoughts on his racing ability?
RDAlberto Salazar had the ability to run himself to death. He was prepared to go to the extreme and end up in an ice bath. Why would you want to race against this guy? Alberto was a totally different guy to race against. He was so focused. He would just destroy you and it was like he was saying, ‘catch me if you can?’
GCR:With your mind set one year ahead on the 1983 New York City Marathon, what did you do in training and racing to be as ready as you could be?
RDI went back to New Zealand and had put in my mind that I was going to train for the New York City Marathon. So, I had in the summer in New Zealand probably my best training time ever. I didn’t do any racing. I did time trials of course. Some were on the cross country course where I ran a minute faster than the national winning time. I was in great shape and was absolutely in the best shape of my life. I knew I had to hold that and keep training. It was one of the best foundation years I had. I went back to New Zealand from November of 1982 for the next 16 weeks until I came back to the States. I did run Bay-to-Breakers in 1983 and I won that. I also ran a few more races that fit in as part of my training. The Virginia 10-Miler was one of my key races as was the Boston Freedom Trail. Bay-to-Breakers was a tough hill run. The Boston Freedom Trail was a tough course and I liked that course. The Virginia 10-miler was a real good one for me and I broke my course record. All of these races were building my endurance. It’s like the pyramids in Egypt where somebody stacked all of these stones on top of one another and you can feel the incredible power. That’s how I saw my training – you having to put the cornerstones, the building blocks, the building stones down. If you want to get to the top of the pyramid that is what you’ve got to do. This was all coming together. I even went to a high school track and did a 13:46 for a 5k time trial while I was doing a hundred miles a week. So, all of these little moments were ratcheting up. I was going to do a 3,000 meter time trial and switched it up to a mile. I ran 3:58.7. That was the big candle on top of the cake. It was the top of Mount Everest.
GCR:As amazing as the 1982 finish was, the 1983 New York City Marathon was epic in the way it played out with Gidamis Shahanga and Geoff Smith building a lead and you reeling Geoff in and passing him right about 26 miles to eek out a nine second victory. What did you do to mentally prepare for the race when you got to New York and what was your race plan?
RDWhen I flew in from where I was training in Pennsylvania, the pilot started differently. He did a loop to gain altitude and flew over all of my training places in Lancashire and the Amish country. I looked down and I could see where I had done all of those three hour long runs. For the first time I thought in my mind that I had trained to be at the best I had at any time in my life. This was the defining moment. I was comfortable with where I was at. It was a rare moment of confidence. I got to New York and spent time with some friends and went for a little jog down in Central Park. And then I just stayed low the whole time. I didn’t catch the elite bus to the start. I just took public transport with everyone else. They were eating bagels and drinking coffee. There was energy from all of those people on the public bus and it was energy I was happy and comfortable with. Rather than sitting in an elite area staring at one another, they were moments that were adding to my experience. They were a part of what I was going through and a very powerful time because I knew exactly how I was going to run. For the first time in my life I was going to stay with the plan and what I was comfortable with. I had done everything right. I actually wrote on my little finger my five mile split I wanted to run. On the next finger was my ten mile split. Then the next three fingers had my splits for fifteen, eighteen and 23 miles. I never thought about 13 because that wasn’t relevant to my. I did those splits on a two hour and nine minute finishing time. I ran 2:08:59, so I got it right. I see-sawed along the way but was right with my split times within a few seconds.
GCR:What was it like out there letting Geoff go, trying to figure out how your strengths and those of your opponents would come into play and just biding your time in the chase group?
RDI was with John Graham and Ron Tabb and other guys in the chase group. I looked around and was comfortable with these guys. The rain was starting to bother me a bit because I hand made my shoes and there were lots of puddles to avoid. Also, the white lines could get slippery like ice and there were places where oil slicks built up. So there was quite a bit of stuff going on. I was able to deal with all of these little things and nothing shook my confidence. I just stuck to my split times and I wasn’t going to deviate no matter what. When I got to the 59th street bridge my split time called for me to pick up my pace a bit and I did. In fact I shook the group I was with. I picked up my cadence. Then on Fifth Avenue I was drawn into picking up the pace because of the crowds and I could also see the leaders up ahead. I didn’t try to pick them up. I found out later that Geoff ran his fastest mile there – a 4:45. If I had been trying to catch him and he threw in a couple miles like that at me, I would have been wondering why I was losing ground. I wasn’t told he was running 4:45.
GCR:What did you do in the last 10k to adjust your race to try to track down Geoff?
RDWhen I got to twenty miles I felt a twinge in my hamstring from a slight slip earlier where I had tweaked it a bit. I was starting to get tired and had to concentrate on keeping my cadence up. I was able to push and squeeze a bit on a pressure point in my hamstring and I felt it release. I was trying to figure out where Geoff was in relation to me and with the remaining distance and I realized at this pace I wasn’t going to catch him. So, I had to decide if I should hope that he slowed down. But I knew that I had to be more proactive. I knew I couldn’t squeeze out more than a little bit, so I tried get my cadence down, work my abs a bit more, roll my shoulders and try to change up my energy. I ran on the right side of the road and then the left side. I mixed it up to share the work load on my muscles. About 23 miles I started to realize that I could cut the tangents a bit more even those I was real close to the crowd. They would swell out and recede back again. I thought that if I could cut that fine line on the tangents a little bit finer I might be able to save a few yards. There were twenty or more corners so if I could save a few yards on each one that could add up to eighty yards, and how long would it take me to run eighty yards at this point? It might be 14 or 15 seconds. I was about 18 seconds behind Geoff and so I just ran the tangents better and didn’t try to speed up. You can get into trouble when you try to speed up and you’re running on the fine line anyhow.
GCR:As time and miles were growing ever shorter, when did you think that you had a chance to catch Geoff and win?
RDComing up to the circle I could see him, I shortened my stride and surprisingly I picked up my pace. Every time I looked up he was becoming more defined, so I was catching him. As we got closer and closer to the circle I could pick him out and he was close. We went around the circle and, because it had been raining, this was a spot where it could get slippery. I noticed Geoff was quite cautious and had slowed down. I shortened my stride so that I scurried along. That’s where I thought, ‘I’m catching him, I’m catching him.’ But the other part of the thought was wondering if he was waiting for me to catch him. Because that is how I had won races. I waited until I was caught and then I hoped that a runner had spent more energy catching me than I had to spend getting away from him. It never bothered me when runners caught me in a race.
GCR:When I interviewed Geoff a couple of years ago he said you were very shrewd, went to the right-hand side of the road and he didn’t know you were coming up. By the time he glanced up you were a couple of strides in front of him and before he could react it was already over because you was proactive and there were only 365 yards to go. What do you recall of your tactics as you caught and passed Geoff?
RDAbsolutely, that is what happened. I was catching him by running the tangents, he was running in the middle of the road on the crown of the road and I was thinking that these were all good points for me. I was thinking that these points mattered and I was gaining confidence from them. I was still wondering if he was waiting for me and would then run away from me after I spent all of that time catching him. Then I noticed a couple of little moments where I felt he was bloody tired. I didn’t think he was waiting for me and that he was just trying to hang on. The only way to really test that wasn’t to come up on the side of him and then push. It was to go down on the low side of the road, wait until I was just at his ninety degree peripheral vision and then run as fast as I could for twenty yards. And that’s what I did. I went down when the road went to the left and then to the right. When he went to the left, I went to the right and went like a sling shot on the right side of him. As soon as I did I picked up my pace for a good twenty yards and ran with my heart. When I came across the apex of the next turn, then we turned again slightly and I could see the finish line. He hadn’t come with me, so now I had to get across the finish line. I saw the time was getting close to two hours and nine minutes and I knew I had done what I imagined I could do. It was unbelievable.
GCR:The finish line photo of you raising your arms in triumph while Geoff lay on the ground after finishing second is one of the most iconic marathon photos ever and reminded me of the old ABC’s Wide World of Sports tag line, ‘The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.’ Did you know it at the time, or not until you saw it later? And can you describe your emotions after this victory?
RDSometime later I got the chance to meet Roone Arledge from ABC who presided over the Wide World of Sports and he presented me with a book. It was from his twenty-five years at ABC, and the twenty-five defining moments of his twenty-five years. He signed the book and he gave it to me. I asked him if I could have a look to see if I was in it. He told me to turn to the back page. It was the final picture. He said to me that it was really the crowning moment for the book – my race against Geoff Smith. I tell people that without Geoff Smith that race would not have been possible. And without Geoff Smith that finish photo would not have been possible. It would have been just another race. I just shared some time with Geoff at the Litchfield Hills Road Race on the 12th of June. It was their 40th anniversary. So we shared some time and there were some cool pictures someone took of us when we saw each other and our eyes lit up. We always had one another because we share a moment in time and it was a very special moment. It was very personal for us both.
GCR:Geoff Smith told me that since he ran a low 2:09 in his debut behind you in New York and then he won the Boston Marathon the next spring, it wasn’t as if coming in such a close second was a terrible moment for him. He saw that he ran a great race and you just came out the better man that day. What are your thoughts on Geoff’s comments and how did the 1983 New York City Marathon victory compare to your other top running career moments?
RDGeoff’s experience in New York is the same as my Olympic experiences. I ran a great race in 1972 and I ran a great race in 1976. One got me a medal though I didn’t win it. Then in 1976 I really wanted to win and I didn’t win. So, perhaps in New York in 1983 it was the defining moment of my running life. That final mile stretch was more than just winning the race. It was my whole career. It all came together in that one mile. This was the moment. Perhaps, 1976 wasn’t my time. This was. I went to the awards and to the Tavern on the Green. Everyone was buying champagne and it was so overwhelming. I remember Phil Donahue coming up and he had ordered another case of champagne. Arthur Ashe was eating lunch there and he came over. It was unbelievable. What it was just was overwhelming. It was still raining and I zipped up my hoodie and put my jacket on. I went out and just started walking down to the finish line. I was about a hundred yards down from the finish line and nobody knew who I was. I couldn’t believe it as there were hundreds and thousands of runners still coming in. I looked at the clock and it read 4:43. It had been two and a half hours since I finished and they were still pouring in. I walked up towards the finish line and here were people doing exactly what I had done – kissing the ground, hugging one another, high fives. I think I even saw some guy get down on his knee and propose to his girlfriend at the finish line. I was so filled with emotion and I was thinking that it was unbelievable. I thought something then and I still say it to this day – ‘I wasn’t the only winner here today. Everybody who finishes wins.’ That is why with my kids running program I tell the kids that finishing is what it is all about.
GCR:The next year you finished tenth in the marathon at the 1984 Olympics against a very strong field on a hot Los Angeles day. Were you ready to challenge for a medal and what had transpired in the months after your win in New York City as you prepared for Los Angeles?
RDThe whole of 1983 was just incredible. I was asked to run for another sponsor after New York, but I said, ‘no,’ because Saucony had been so good to me. They sent me around the world and deserved me to run for them. They had a big series of 10k races around the world and gave me a contract to run in these races. So they gave me my base income. This allowed me to train for the Olympic Marathon. I got big bonus checks and a shoe with my name on it. I got to go to the White House and met President Reagan which was cool. I took my Olympic medal with me when I was invited to see him and of course security found it. He got talking to me for a long time until security finally told him he had to talk to others as he was spending too much time with me. Sir Edmund Hillary was my hero because he inspired me. My brother was my hero, but Hillary was my inspiration because he came to my school when I was ten years old. He inspired us kids to go for goals and dreams and aspirations that were higher than us. I visited Sir Edmund Hillary and he held my medal. The Dalai Lama held my medal. There is energy in my medal. I let the kids in my programs touch it. Over half a million kids have touched it. All that energy is there. That medal has never been in a box or a trophy case. It’s always with kids to inspire them. I was travelling a lot in 1984 and a bit short on my training. When I got into my training for the Olympics I got a couple of injuries. I wasn’t disappointed at all at the Olympics. 1983 was my year.
GCR:Did you attend the 1972, 1976 or 1984 Olympic Opening or Closing Ceremonies, watch other events at either Olympics or tour Munich or Montreal as part of your Olympic experience?
RDThe Olympic experience to me was amazing. Of course in 1976 there was an Olympic boycott by some African teams because of the New Zealand rugby team competing in South Africa. I was invited to run in South Africa, but only against white runners, so why would I want to do that? I wanted to run against all people, so of course I didn’t go. In 1976 we were told that New Zealanders shouldn’t go to the Opening Ceremonies because of the boycott, so we didn’t go. In 1984 I had a hamstring problem and didn’t go to the Olympics until a couple days before my race. I wasn’t staying in the Olympic Village because I was still getting treatment. The hamstring was just a twinge, but I thought it was better to stay where I was, to run in the forest and to get my water therapy. I think I was about five weeks short of being in really good shape. In 1996 I was the coach for the Fiji Olympic team in Atlanta and I absolutely loved every moment there.
GCR:You mentioned Grete Waitz earlier – didn’t you know her as a runner and friend before she became so well-known for her New York City Marathon victories and World Records?
RDI knew Grete since she was Grete Anderson running with pigtails. One day this 18-year old girl wanted to come for a run with us and the guys thought she wouldn’t be able to keep up. But I mentioned it was an out-and-back run so why don’t we just go out and let her run with us. We ran for an hour and Grete was the only one that didn’t drop from the group. I said, ‘Watch out for this little pig-tailed girl, little Grete Anderson.’ She was such a sweetheart and it is so sad that she passed away.
GCR:Let’s talk about training a bit as everyone is interested in the training of top runners. What were some of the similarities and differences in your training when the focus was on 1,500 meters, then 5,000 meters, then road racing and finally the marathon? What were some of your favorite track sessions?
RDI was very Lydiard influenced. Our distance running was often at the pace where we could carry on a conversation so it was running aerobically. At that effort I could run along at 6:00 mile pace or 5:30 mile pace and talk about what we watched on TV the last night. During the week I would do workouts that resulted in the required heart rates. I would run toward the red line and then recover my heart rate before the next one. My philosophy is that you don’t improve when you train, you improve when you recover. So recovery was a huge factor in how training moved forward. I always looked three days back and two days forward in my training cycle. What I did before influenced what I would do that day. It was simple. We didn’t have heart rate monitors. All you do is take your pulse for 15 seconds and multiply by four times. My thought is that you have to know yourself. You have to be instinctive. Everything was built on instinct and you only built that through understanding what you were doing and learning by doing. I could go out and run ten quarter miles in 63 seconds with a minute and twenty second recovery and I wouldn’t have a difference of point two or point three seconds on all of them because I knew what my pace was. I just instinctively knew what to do…We learned by doing and by understanding.
GCR:Do you find that with all of the increased knowledge and information on running that a relatively simple act is being made too complex?
RDNow everyone’s got to have it all written down. They have to have personal coach who is there every minute of the day and an exercise physiologist and trainer and agent. Sometimes I go to the track and the athletes do a workout and then they stop and talk for a half an hour. What is that? We would talk when we warmed down. Our training was mainly off road. We would on very few roads. We would run on farm land, golf courses and on the beach or mountains. I would do a lot of hiking. I was always developing and strengthening connective tissue. Running was always the answer to progress. I got a bit caught up in my nutrition for a while and then I realized to keep it simple and keep it organic. If you can’t read one of the ingredients or can’t pronounce it, then don’t eat it. I got to where I was avoiding simple sugars because I was diagnosed as pre-diabetic. The sports drinks and gels are just simple sugars. When you train, you’re training, and when you race, you’re racing. Don’t race your training or all you’re doing is training when racing. There are certain things you learn that are the cornerstones of what you do, but the main thing is to keep it simple. Some people come to me and their training program is way too complicated
GCR:Who were some of your favorite competitors and adversaries on the track, in cross country, on the roads and when you first started in youth competition?
RDIn my track days the toughest were those people I had to train with. My brother, John, was the toughest. He was relentless. Racing was a lot easier because the training with him was a lot harder. Certainly Dick Taylor was another. Dick Quax – .a great competitor, tough competitor. Tony Pohill, another New Zealander who was a good racer. Peter Welsh who was our steeplechaser and 1970 Commonwealth champion was a very good competitor as was Euan Robertson, 1976 Olympic finalist in the steeplechase. I didn’t race Dave McKenzie, who was our only Boston Marathon winner and a fabulous guy. His brother, George, was a big influence on my brother. My brother, John, could train at 30% and race at 90%, while I could train at 50% and race at 70%. I call it genetics or DNA. I really enjoyed my time with Steve Prefontaine. He was tough. I remember one time when John Walker and I were doing some training. Pre had two by one mile to do. He went out and did the first mile in 4:01 or 4:02. He took ten minutes or twelve minutes to recover in between and came back and ran 3:59. He was good. I liked him. He was tough. He was a good trainer and he had a strong heart. It was sad he died.
GCR:Speaking of Steve Prefontaine, I did a tribute interview on what would have been his 65th birthday earlier this year which included a long talk with his sister, Linda, and other material from books, magazines and film. Since you did know Steve, watch him and see him training, what are some of your memories of Steve Prefontaine?
RDI raced him before the Olympics in 1972. We ran at 3,000 meters. All of the New Zealanders knew of Steve Prefontaine and thought he was a great racer at 5,000 meters. When we ran that 3,000 meters, he told me after that I was an asshole because I sat on him the whole way. He didn’t spare any words with me, and there were a few others. We caught up again in 1973 in Europe in Stockholm and I beat him at two miles. Next I beat him in one of the smaller country meets. Then John Walker and I were down in Milan, Italy to race and Pre had come down to race. We both ran in the 3,000 meters. Before the race he said to me, ‘I’ll lead if you lead.’ I said, ‘Why would I do that?’ Then he said, ‘I’ll lead two laps if you lead two and we’ll run these guys off their feet.’ I told him I would think about it. He was mad I hadn’t committed to go with that plan and when we started the race he took off. We had to run hard. He was very strong. I think Franco Arese took over on the third or fourth lap and then Pre took over. Then I came past. I felt that I had dropped most of the runners, but I knew someone was right behind me. Going down the back straight on the last lap, Pre went past. I was kicking and he blew past me. We were kind of locked as he didn’t get away. We came off the turn and both sprinted as fast as we could. I won the race and Pre was right behind me – not more than a body length back. Afterward he came over and we shared a moment. Then we learned that I had set a New Zealand Record and he set an American Record. The next guy was five seconds behind. We ran I think a 7:41.
GCR:Did you and Steve do any socializing or training runs together?
RDThat night we went to the reception and then we went and had a few beers. Pre said, ‘You’re not going to have only one?’ So we had two. Then he said, ‘We aren’t going to stop at two. We’re going to have three.’ I think on the third beer I said, ‘Okay, let’s get one thing right. I’ll keep drinking with you, but we’re going out for an hour and a half run tomorrow morning at eight o’clock. You can drink whatever you like, but if you don’t turn up for the run, you’re a wussy.’ Sure enough at eight o’clock in the morning he’s down there, I’m down there and John Walker’s down there. We went outside to run and it had to be ninety degrees. We went out there and basically raced. We ran for an hour and a half and not a meter separated us. I would push, John would push and Pre would push. We came back and at that moment I think it was the moment that we just connected. We became mates. We became friends that day. We ran a lot of races in 1973 and 1974. We became great friends. I saw him at the L.A. Times Indoor Games in 1975 and we were talking about racing in Europe after the Finnish team came to run in Oregon. He wanted to get a house that year and we were all going to live together and train together for the 1976 Olympics. The last time we talked we said we’d see each other in a couple of months. When I received word in 1975 that he had been killed it was devastating. It was just a shame. It was absolutely devastating.
GCR:Let’s switch gears and discuss your Kids Marathon program where you are a staunch advocate of children's health, fitness exercise and nutrition. Could you tell us how this program got its genesis?
RDIt all really started when I had met Sir Edmund Hillary after I won the Bronze Olympic Medal. I went to his house, knocked on the door and told him how he had inspired me twelve years before when I was a ten year old in school. So Sir Edmund held the medal and asked one thing of me – that I would inspire the next generation. Then I said I would. He gave me the medal back and the door closed and I didn’t know what I would be doing except that I would be doing something. As my mother says, ‘Just be patient and it will come to you.’ In 1990 I started the kids’ program in my community. I started what I called the long distance challenge family 5k and 2k. I knew that if I wanted to get the kids to train I had to teach them that if they ran slow that they could run forever. The kids did their training and they were getting their parents out to run with them early in the morning. It was the kids that made the event successful, not the parents. The parents were inspired by what the kids were doing. So the parents came out to run with the kids. I did that for ten years. In 2003 I was asked to coach road runners and I said I would if they also supported my kids program. I went around to schools and got more and more schools in the district and at the height had 23,000 kids running. Then it went to more school districts and thousands of more kids. One of the strongest programs I had was in Connecticut where there were about ten thousand kids running. I’ve got some great people I work with and Saucony has been very supportive.
GCR:What are you doing now with the Kids Marathon program and what are your future plans and goals?
RDI’ve got the Kids’ Marathon program going in Dublin and they want me over there. The Berlin Marathon wants to figure out how to bring the Kids’ Marathon program there. You have to take it in stride. The family dynamic in very important, but family unity is losing its way, so the next best environment to teach the kids is in school. The most overworked person in the school is the P.E. teacher who is trying to get families involved. Once I find out that there are parents who run or do triathlons, I ask to talk to them. Once I get them enthused, motivated and inspired, they do a lot of the work. I’ve been working with Lorraine Moller to get more of these people the proper training classes and certificates so that they understand the basic principles of training and exercise. The kids know they are born to move, but they need proper instruction so they don’t get overwhelmed. In the early grades we just need to get the kids moving physically and then let the competitiveness come out when they are in middle school and high school. Kids now like running. The program isn’t about first, second and third place. It is about them feeling they can accomplish something in their own time. They accumulate running miles over many days to get to 25.2 miles. Then they run the last mile of celebration. They get their medal and they get their t-shirt and they get their work book. Kids love that and feel accomplishment. Some of these overweight kids go on to all sorts of achievement. There are kids who ran in the program ten years ago who are now top athletes in their high schools. They go down to the elementary school ad do volunteer work helping kids to exercise as part of their community service. It is an incredible enthusiasm for getting kids to run. In Connecticut some of the high school runners go back to the elementary school and say it was a big difference since when running was punishment.
GCR:Beyond all you do to help and inspire the younger generation, what is your current health and fitness regimen?
RDI’m probably in the best shape of my life right now. I’m running thirty-five to forty minutes every second day. That’s all the running I’m doing. I might go out for an hour which I like doing every now and then. The World Masters Championships are in New Zealand this year so I’m going to do the mountain bike and cross country running. Its age groups so I’ll do the best that I can. I was going to do the British version of mountain biking where the usual Sunday ride is three and a half or four hours. I got invited to do a 100 mile bike race, but I’ve got too much going on.
GCR:You mentioned how meeting Sir Edmund Hillary inspired you. Are there any other meetings with legendary athletes that really stand out for you?
RDI had the privilege of meeting Louis Zamperini at USC when Pete Carroll was the football coach. Pete hosted me and all of my coaches from the USC road races at a game and we were on the sideline. I saw the Louis Zamperini Pavilion and I said to Pete, ‘Wow! I didn’t know that Louis Zamperini came from here. My history is that Jack Lovelock from New Zealand was a rival of his.’ I then said, ‘That’s a great memorial’ and Pete said, ‘he’s not dead.’ I noted that he must be in his nineties and Pete said, ‘He’s ninety-four.’ I said, ‘Do you know him?’ Pete said he did and I said, ‘That would be pretty fantastic for me if I could ever meet him if you would tell me where and when.’ And Pete said, ‘How about right now over there?’ And he pointed and Louis was over with this softball team doing a motivational talk. When I got over there I said, ‘Mr. Zamperini, you are my hero. I read all about you as a kid. I know you knew Jack Lovelock from New Zealand.’ And Louis said, ‘Yes, I knew him well at the 1936 Olympics.’ We got our picture taken and he actually came and spoke to the road runners so I had very wonderful moments with Louis Zamperini. He was a fabulous, fabulous person. I couldn’t put his ‘Unbroken’ book down when I read it.
GCR:That is a great story. Let’s wrap up and bring all of this great conversation together. When you are talking to a group and give them a summation of the Rod Dixon philosophy of the major lessons you have learned during your life from your youth in New Zealand, your many years as a top notch athlete, the discipline of running and sharing your knowledge and experience with others, would what do you say?
RDMy philosophy is that winning is finishing. Focus on yourself and believe in yourself. Know that individually we all have different talents. Be true to yourself and be honest with yourself. That’s what I try to say. We learn by doing and experiences we have such as heartaches and disappointments are just things to get over and to learn from and we move on. I don’t blame people for what is beyond my control. I just let it go and at some point the energy will come back. So, believe in yourself and stay with your energy and your spiritual self.
 Inside Stuff
Hobbies/InterestsI love mountain biking and water sports and hiking. I really enjoy history. I was always fascinated about the history of my sport and the kings of distance. New Zealand is a love of mine, but I’ve got this mission in the United States to impact a million kids, so that’s the mission I’m on
NicknamesI was always called ‘Rabbit’
Favorite moviesAnything with Robert de Niro. All of the James Bond movies as I’m always fascinated with them. I enjoy some of the Tom Cruise movies. I like ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’
Favorite TV showsI like ‘Elementary’
Favorite musicIt’s a bit of a mix. I can listen to rock and I can listen to jazz. I like meditation music and just go with the flow
Favorite booksI’m a bit slack on my reading of books. The book I’m reading right now is Laszlo Tabori’s book and I’m loving it
First carThe first car I had was a Model A. It was a 1929 Ford Model A. I paid twenty dollars for it. That car could go anywhere. I could go up hills that four wheel drive vehicles couldn’t climb. We even tried to cross a river when it at a low level and got swept away
Current carIt a little Audi 25
First JobsDelivering newspapers and delivering milk. I also got lawns to mow by asking people along my routes, ‘Would you like me to mow your lawn?’
FamilyMy grandfather and I talk a lot. He lives in the Milford Sounds of New Zealand – a great, great guy. I have a fabulous sister. We went to Australia for a three week holiday a few years ago. She is a great woman. I have two daughters, Cate and Emma. They are an amazing two girls. Then I have twins, a boy and girl, Hugo and Cecille. I also have four grandchildren. Henry is going to be seven and he loves BMX and running and cross country. He always calls me to tell me how he’s doing. Then there’s George who is a rugby man – he loves his rugby. Skyler is like a clone of my daughter Emma and likes these weird things. The youngest is Charlie. Henry just did a big talk at the school about ‘Pod,’ which is what they call me. He talked about how Pod doesn’t like kids having sugar. I’m always holding up my finger with a zero for no sugar and telling them to get rid of soda. Apparently all of the parents called and asked them to not serve any sweet beverages in the cafeteria. The school got rid of all of the vending machines and all of the soda. So, my baton is being passed to Henry
PetsOn the farm we had sheepdogs and cattle dogs. My mom always had a cat that the dogs used to terrorize. I’m very comfortable with animals, cats and dogs. I’ve had birds like parrots and cockatiels
Favorite breakfastI always start with organic turmeric, ginger and lemon that I put in the juicer. I sometimes sprinkle a bit of cayenne pepper on top. It wakes me up. Then later I’ll sometimes have a smoothie with whole organic milk and mango. I like coffee
Typical lunchSalad with lettuce and maybe some carrots, cranberries and walnuts. Sometimes I’ll have a wrap with beef that is organic, grass-fed, free range, New Zealand raised. If I can’t get it, then I don’t eat beef
Favorite mealI like Bison lasagna. The meat is all grass fed and free range. I eat organic chicken and Bison. I eat rice and fruit and vegetables - at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day
Favorite beveragesWater with lemon juice. I make my own juice with oranges, apples and pears in my juicer. If I have a real treat I have a glass of red Meritage wine. The only beer I drink is a white, Hefeweisen beer. I have one of those once or twice a week. With the alcohol a while back I had built up a tolerance, so I had to stop and get rid of it. Now I’m mature about it
First running memoryRunning up along the Maitai River in New Zealand. It was just the most picturesque valley. You could run forty or fifty kilometers in the mountains. Of course, I never ran that far when I was a younger guy
Nature running memoriesI was in in my twenties when we finally did the big run from Nelson to Pelorus. That was fantastic. It was very, very spiritual, very powerful. Running in the countryside when you are twenty miles into the mountains is amazing. It just winds through the mountains. Now it is one of the most famous hiking trails. We used to run it every weekend when I lived in Nelson. There are three National Parks and we would run up to thirty miles on the weekend. We used to run the Able Turner which is now one of the most famous trails in New Zealand. We would do that once a month from Marahau right to through Awaroa which was about forty kilometers. We’d take a boat out with a keg of beer perhaps. We’d swim out in the ocean and work our muscles. Then we’d have a big feast with a couple beers and we’d go back. Those defined who I was. When I was travelling the world I would go back, meet my mates at the pub and then go do these amazing things. I’ll do them when I go home to New Zealand this year
Running heroesI used to have on my wall, when I was growing up, pictures of Peter Snell, Murray Hallberg, Ron Clark and Jim Ryun. Jack Lovelock, Ron Clarke and my brother, John, were also my heroes. To us kids, Jim Ryun redefined the four minute mile. We couldn’t believe a high school kid could run a four minute mile, so that was pretty cool. I see Jim quite a bit, and just love the guy. He is fabulous. Peter Snell is amazing and I’ve told him that he is my hero. Sir Edmund Hillary was a huge spectre in my life and my inspiration. I met Sir Wilson Whineray, who was one of the great rugby players who sadly died last year. He was a great New Zealand leader in business and sports. Someone I admire is Cameron Brown, a triathlete who has won twelve New Zealand titles. He just keeps going and is amazing. The great Jack Foster, who really defined masters running back in the 1970s, was just an absolute gentleman and such a beautiful man – poetry in motion. Tom Sullivan, who is blind and runs and is a fabulous friend. He teaches us that blindness is just a word and doesn’t define him
Greatest running momentsOf course races we have talked about at length earlier including the New York City Marathon and my Olympic Medal race. I think it was the day that I ran that mountain race and when I thought I was tired and then I reached another level and kept going faster and faster and faster on that mountain. I set a record that no one has come within a minute of it. If that had been an Olympic day I would have won the Gold Medal. That was one of those days. I’ve done a lot of road runs where things did go well. I’ve had some amazing runs. But when I won the Jack-in-the-Box Indoor Games in the mile against Filbert Bayi and just missed the World Record that was a surprise to all. I was supposed to be running the two mile, but John Walker had an injury and they asked me if I would run. I ended up winning it and almost setting the World Record. Winning the English Cross Country was another great run – one of those days where you could just run all day
Worst running momentThe 1976 Olympics was both a down moment and a defining moment about moving on. Those moments shape you because you have a greater role down the road. When you lose you take that and you move on. So, the 1976 Olympics was a huge disappointment, but who knows if I would have the life I have now if I had been successful?
Childhood dreamsPeople will support me on this, that what I’m doing now with my kids’ program, I’ve actually realized a dream I had as a kid. I’ll tell you that I learn more from kids than I do from older people. I love engaging kids. They can accomplish amazing things. I appreciate their spontaneity, their honesty, their improvisation. It’s like when you line up three or four kids and have one tell something to the next and the next and so on. By the time you get to the end of the line, the kid doesn’t know what he’s supposed to say, so he improvises with something else. It’s just beautiful and I love it. I know am fulfilling the dream of an eight year old to not progress from eight years old. I am still an eight year old. I love it
Funny memoriesThat one I mentioned with my Model A car when we got swept away in the river was a funny memory. I had another time when this guy was trying to demonstrate how to get this Nissan four by four up this grass slope. He couldn’t because it was a little bit wet. His car retailed for $27,000. I went up with my Model A that had cost me fifty dollars and made it straight to the top. The guy from Nissan came over and told me, ‘If you ever do that again I’ll kick your ass!’
Embarrassing momentI realized when I jumped out of this woman’s window that I was on the third floor and not the ground floor. Fortunately there was a bush below. I jumped out of her window because guess who came home? I’ll leave you with that
Favorite places to travelNew Zealand. It is the greatest country. I love Scandinavia and Italy. I loved training with the Italian national team up in Asiago and racing and travelling with them. There was a great passion and enthusiasm. In England with the scrappiness of the British I always like all of the history. In the United States I really enjoy my time when I go to Connecticut. I love New York City. It is a great city. Every time I go there and I’m walking along I could swear I still see Fred Lebow. I like Pennsylvania and liked the time I was training there in the 1980s. I certainly liked all of the races I went to - Los Angeles, San Francisco
Funny wrap up of our chatI said to Rod, ‘This is my 98th interview and you didn’t catch Craig Virgin, who did the longest interview, or Bob Schul, who did the second longest. But you have broken ahead of Billy Mills into the Bronze Medal position form the third longest interview.’ Rod’s response was, ‘We can do another hour if it breaks a record! I noted, ‘You’d break Bob Schul, but you’ll never catch Craig!’ Then Rod was very nice as he said, ‘Thank you for allowing me to open up. You’re a very good person. I can tell. I’ve read some of your other interviews so I know you’re a very honest and genuine person. You allowed me to express myself and to speak from my heart, so thank you for that. We’ve been talking for three hours and thirty minutes, so I get the Bronze Medal – I love it!’