Training

Rod Dixon’s Best Race and How He Achieved It

Rod Dixon won the 1983 NYC Marathon by focusing on periodization, recovery, balanced training, and a little beer.

New Zealand’s Rod Dixon won the bronze medal in the 1972 Olympic 1500 meters, and four years later missed another bronze medal by .12 seconds in the 1976 Olympic 5000 meters. In the early 1980s, he turned his attention to the American road scene, and won dozens of major races including Falmouth, the Virginia 10-mile, the Midnight Run in Central Park, the Philadelphia Half Marathon, Boston’s Freedom Trail, the Pepsi Challenge 10K National Championships, and Bay to Breakers. 

Dixon entered his first 26.2-miler in May, 1982, winning the Auckland Marathon in 2:11:21. That fall at the NYC Marathon, he rode in the race director’s car for an up close view of Alberto Salazar’s thrilling, down-to-the-wire victory over Rodolfo Gomez. “It was so exciting to see the two of them duke it out like that,” he recalls. “I was overwhelmed by the experience. The next day I told Fred Lebow and George Hirsch that I’d back to run New York in 1983.”

He won that race in 2:08:59, crossing the finish line with arms and eyes raised heavenward while Geoff Smith lay sprawled on the road just behind him. It remains one of the most iconic photos in marathon history.

Years later, Dixon would use the exultant feeling of victory as reason to form his nonprofit Marathon Kids Foundation. It’s an in-school program designed to encourage “all kids to be active and make healthy choices in life,” and has served 38,000 youngsters since its inception. 

Few will be surprised that Dixon rates the NYC Marathon as his Best Race ever. He puts the Olympic 1500 in 1972 in second place. “But I’ve had many other memorable races,” he adds. “I still remember my first race, a 100 meters at a Sunday-school picnic when I was 10 years old. I beat all the rugby kids. They couldn’t believe it.”

Why Dixon Ranks the 1983 NYC Marathon as His Best Race?

“I knew it would eventually define my entire running career,” he says. “I committed to it a year in advance, and made it a full-year project. I’m a big believer in periodized training, and I spent all of 1983 getting ready for a peak event in late October.”

How He Trained for His Best Race

Rod Dixon in 70s running clothes.
Photo: Jacqueline Haynes / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Dixon never logged his training in miles, but rather in minutes. From the beginning of the year, he gradually increased his long runs until he was reaching up to two hours and 45 minutes at a time. Overall, converting from minutes, he figures he averaged 100 to 110 miles per week “but not 120.” 

Dixon took a “down week” every fifth week, cutting back on his running, and doing more strength training, plyometrics, yoga, and massage. “I didn’t try to make my training better and faster every week,” he says. “I concentrated on making my recovery better.”

He often thought of his training in terms of Sir Edmund Hillary’s first Everest summit, with Tenzing Norgay, in 1954. Hillary lived in Dixon’s hometown, Nelson, and was Dixon’s childhood hero. “First you’ve got to get to base camp 1,” Dixon explains. “Then base camp 2, then base camp 3. You’ve got to keep moving forward, never slip back, and save a reserve for the big final push.”

Peaking and Pre-race Taper

 In the month or two before the marathon, Dixon raced frequently to sharpen his competitive skills and leg speed. The Virginia 10-Mile was a personal favorite, but he also ran small, local races around Wyomissing, Pa., where he was based in the U.S.

From the beginning, he had planned his training program to have one of those every-fifth-week “downs” two weeks before the New York City Marathon. So he only had to stick another taper week on top of that one.  

He often did a two-mile time trial on the track as a final tuneup and confidence builder. For some reason, before New York, he felt more like a one-mile. Dixon didn’t wear a watch, but asked a friend to time him without calling out splits.

After the mile, his friend asked, “What do you think your time was?”

“I don’t know,” Dixon answered. “But I felt very powerful tonight, so maybe I was close to four minutes.”

“Well, you ran 3:58.7.” Dixon knew he was ready.

Race Goal

Dixon wrote his goal splits on his hand, planned to run his own race, and hoped his fitness would carry him to a win.

Key moment 1: the unexpected bus ride

Rather than taking an elite-athlete limo to the start, Dixon opted for one of the public buses. This helped to set a relaxed mood for the biggest race of his life. “I wore a hoodie over my head, so no one recognized me,” he says. “ All around me, people were telling stories, singing, drinking their coffee and sharing their doughnuts. I felt like I was being entertained the whole way.”

Key moment number 2: a slip and a grip

The marathon was run in a steady rain. At about the 8 mile mark, Dixon stepped on a slick, white-painted stripe on the road. He slipped momentarily, and felt a stab in his right hamstring. With 18 miles to go, he could have panicked. Instead, he simply shortened his stride, and reached down to attempt massage and trigger point. “Amazingly, it worked,” he says. “ I felt an actual release. It really helped.”

How He Won

Rod Dixon stands at finish line of NYC marathon in victory with harms up to the sky while the second place finisher is crumbled on the ground behind him.
Iconic photo of Rod Dixon after winning the 1983 NY Marathon. Photo: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images

In the early going of the race, Dixon had trailed well behind Geoff Smith and Gidemas Shahanga. That was okay. “In track races like 1500 meters, you can never let anyone get even 10 meters ahead of you, because you’ll never close the gap,” he observes. “But I had learned from several years of hard road racing that this was different on the roads. If you run your own best pace, you can catch the guys who go out too fast.”

At 23 miles, Dixon calculated that he was running three to four seconds per mile faster than Smith, but trailing by 20 seconds — not enough time left! He felt that he couldn’t go any faster, so he focused on maintaining pace and taking all the tangents in Central Park, having noticed that Smith was on the blue line in the center of the road. Dixon passed his rival at the 26-mile mark, the thunderous roar of the finish-line crowd pulling him home. Smith finished in 2:09:08.

Biggest Contributors to His Best Race

“Throughout the year, I assembled all the thousands of pieces of training knowledge that I had learned,” Dixon recounts. “It was like a big puzzle that I had to fit together. I also concentrated on reaching my best physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I needed to have all four factors come together in perfect synchronicity on the day of the NYC Marathon.”

What’s important for a Best Race, according to Rod Dixon 

New York Marathon winners meet the media the night after the marathon. At left is Rod Dixon of New Zealand and at right is Grete Waitz of Norway. Photo: Getty Images

 1. Focus on two or three major races a year. You can’t run your absolute best every weekend. “It’s just not going to happen,” Dixon says. “The other races are part of the journey. Enjoy them.”

2. Keep your lows high, and your highs low. This is Dixon’s way of saying not to take big risks. Don’t over-do anything in training that might throw you off of equilibrium. Strive for a fully-balanced approach.

3. Write everything down in a training journal. Your good days. Your bad days. Your workouts and your feelings. “Look for patterns,” Dixon says. “Learn by doing. Keep doing what works for you. Discard what doesn’t.” 

4. Build regular recovery weeks into your training pattern. Dixon favored every fifth week, but that’s not as important as the general rule: Plan recovery periods. “I always say that recovery is where the magic happens,” he notes.

5. Align yourself with good people. Good training partners, good coaches, good massage therapists. And listen to everything they have to say. Evaluate it. “But understand that you have to make big decisions on your own,” says Dixon. “That’s your responsibility.”

What’s not important

1. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Let go of the non-essentials. Dixon discussed just about everything with his older brother, John. One day he was explaining a small training detail when John stopped him by asking, “Do you think that’s important?” 

“No, but I thought you did.” 

No, I don’t,” said John. “Let’s just forget about it.” So they did.

2. Don’t race in training. Stay in your comfort zone in training. You don’t have to brag about every workout on social media. 

3) And don’t train in races. If you’re going to race, race hard, even in small, local races. You want to get a good gauge of your fitness, and also to practice everything you’re going to do in your biggest races.

4) Don’t eat foods that contain an ingredient you can’t pronounce.

5) Don’t consume too many sugary drinks. Especially as you get older — it’s too easy to gain weight and even become pre-diabetic. 

6) On the other hand, don’t worry about a couple of beers. “I enjoyed a few in my day,” Dixon admits. “Nothing wrong with it.”