The 40th Anniversary Of Rod Dixon’s 1983 NYC Marathon Win!
The Finale Episode!
A Race For The Ages!
By Jeff Benjamin
October 23rd, 1983
Race Day At The NYC Marathon!
Marathoners experienced wind and rain for the first time over the five-borough course.
It also brought about another first in American Marathoning: an African frontrunner! Tanzanian Gidamis Shahanga blasted through the race’s early miles at a sub 2:07 pace, employing a tactic that would be seen henceforth in many a marathon and road race ever since by African talents. Shahanga passed the half-marathon checkpoint in 1:03:12!!
Trailing in a pack of runners way back was Rod Dixon!
Prior to his goal race, the New Zealander had prepped very thoroughly for his NYC Marathon debut. Having run a first marathon in Auckland a year earlier (2:11:21) as well as racking up 20 Road Race victories going back more than a year, Dixon now entered the unknown and unpredictable world of the 26.2-mile distance. Add into that New York’s fabled course, with crowds and bridges and hills, and the marathoners that day no doubt had their work cut out for them.
Like many, even Dixon, despite the preparation work, had his moments of doubt as well.
Prior to the race, Dixon, who was trying to focus in the gymnasium of Fort Wadsworth at the Staten Island starting line, looked around at the competitors and told a NY Times reporter, “ ”It’s a whole new bloody world…They look hungry, they look mean…I wonder if I’ve got that look.” According to the reporter, Dixon said he even had to scramble through the bushes to reach the front of the line on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge before the cannon went off.
Now, as first Avenue beckoned, Dixon and the pack saw that it was not going to be Shahanga’s day. Brit Geoff Smith, a worked-class competitor himself who was a NYC fan favorite (Smith had competed in many NYRR races in Central Park prior) blasted ferociously and caught up with the African in what was reported to be a 4:43 mile around the 17 Mile mark, followed by a mile in 4:44!!
“ Thankfully, I didn’t know they did that,” said Dixon, who appeared as a distant blur on the ABC television coverage with Smith and Shahanga hammering it out. “I did know that they were getting away from me…again !!!”
Dixon told the New York Times:
”When I came off the bridge and looked up First Avenue, I saw Geoff and Shahanga a half-mile away and said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s not enough time,’ ” Dixon recalled. ”Then I looked at the pace car, and it had 47 minutes left, so I said to myself, ‘Stay within your race, stay within your pace.’ Slowly, it came, but it’s a helluva way to run a race.”
Old pal Brian Baker had a VERY different perspective of the race!
“I was pushing Rod to win from about 40 minutes behind!,” joked Baler, who was racing himself in the rain-soaked conditions.
“Unfortunately, since I was out on the course, I had no idea of just how amazing the race was”
As mile 20 approached, and Dixon was trying to race and massage his tight hamstrings, one wondered if he had taken on too much. He eventually passed the tiring Shahanga, but Smith still looked far away from him. Far from being depressed, Dixon was nonetheless feeling the excitement & encouragement of the crowds. ‘Somehow you know New York people are special,” said Dixon in the New York Times. ”From the gun to the finish, people were enthusiastic. Though I was concentrating, I was looking into their faces. They had a generous concern and thought, and that goes right to your heart.”
Back on Staten Island, this runner, with some of his College of Staten Island teammates, woke up to do the traditional Sunday run early enough to get to the television to follow the Marathon. The team buzzed on how tough and smooth Smith had looked and wondered if a world-record 2:07 World Record was in the offing!
Dixon’s “Olympic Brother” & summer training partner Eamonn Coghlan, basking in his World Championship 5K Gold he won in August, also watched incredulously and, while rooting for Dixon, knew that Smith was “one very tough runner!”
“It was a time in the race when I was going through my adjustment to stepping up my pace, and quite possibly, I was in transition and had to understand the marathon presents these aspects,” Dixon said.” I was still on my pace, hitting my splits within just a few seconds, so running my race plan was the most important component. I would have to deal with the “gap” once I got to 20 miles.”
By the 23-mile mark, it was apparent that the gutsy Smith was slowing, but so was Dixon to an extent. It was a question now of who would slow down the most. But Dixon kept to his focus, plan, and his belief. Simply put, “I always believed I was running to win the 1983 NYCM.”
Cutting the tangents of the course also helped Dixon slowly catch up to Smith, who followed the straight & narrow blue-painted lines on the road, a practice he had followed in previous Central Park races.
As Dixon was closing slowly, the Staten Island house was buzzing. Would there be enough time for Dixon to catch Smith? Could Smith throw in a race surge? What would the times be, especially in those rainy conditions???
“When I saw Rod was right by the New York Athletic Club
(25 1/2 Miles !) I could see Rod’s gritty determination,” said Coughlin. “You could tell on the television by his face.”
As the 2 warriors came into the final stretch of Central Park, ABC commentator Jim McKay proclaimed, “We may see the greatest finish in the history of Marathoning!!!”
He sure was right!
‘I could feel myself gaining as we came into the park for the last time,” Dixon said, finally challenging his shorter rival for the lead.
Dixon (“using his arms which he has been conserving,” said ABC’s Marty Liquori) would pass Smith right right at the 26-mile mark in Central Park!
“When Rod used that 1:47 800-meter speed, he had transformed from a marathoner into a quarter-miler!,” said Coughlin.
“Remembering where we had trained in Rockefeller Park I screamed out, “That’s the power of the Rockies!!!”
The Staten Island house was all a ruckus as my teammates and I cheered on both gutsy runners!
An astounded ABC commentator, Jim McKay, said to his co-host Liquori, “Where he (Dixon) found the kick Marty, I just don’t know.”
Liquori, a legendary miler/5K runner himself, replied, “I think he found that kick from 12 years ago at Munich, from the ’72 Olympic 1500!”
As Dixon crossed the line, he was overwhelmed. Going to his knees, he raised his hands to the air, joyously weeping and celebrating his great victory.
The finish of Smith a few seconds later was Oblivious to him, who fell right to the ground, having given it his all.
Amidst the finish line chaos, race director Fred Lebow was frantic, yelling at stunned finish line volunteers to help an exhausted Smith while simultaneously congratulating a weeping Dixon, who hugged him with all his remaining strength.
Geoff Smith and Rod Dixon, 40 years later, photo by John McKenna
Immediately interviewed by ABC at the finish, Dixon was asked how he pulled off this dramatic victory. “A Miler’s kick does the trick!”, he said.
“A race like that makes us want to run!, said CSI teammate Darryl Petersen at the Staten Island House!
“Absolutely!”, I replied.
Baker, at this point, was still running!
“I ended up finishing 40:38 behind Rod and 40:29 behind Geoff Smith…Unfortunately, since I was out on the course, I had no idea of just how amazing the race was.”
“It wasn’t until I got home later that evening and watched the race on a VHS tape recording that I understood just how truly epic the race up front was.”
“Even after the passage of 40 years, I still literally get goosebumps every time I watch the video.”
“But for me, the best part of all is seeing what good friends Geoff and Rod have become and that I am incredibly grateful and fortunate to call them both great friends of mine.”
As are we all!!