After 16 cold, drizzly miles of Sunday's New York City Marathon, Geoff Smith looped down off the Queensboro Bridge onto First Avenue and was greeted with a roar. He had all but shed one of the largest fields in marathon history—more than 15,000 starters—with a devastating 2:06:25 pace that, if he could sustain it, would give him, in his first marathon, a world record by nearly two minutes. And so, as he entered Manhattan, he was consumed by the crowd noise. Despite the rain, people had come out en masse and decorated the area with a dazzling autumn foliage of slickers and umbrellas. "It all felt so good," Smith said later, wistfully. "I just seemed able to float away."
But Smith hadn't shed everyone: Tanzania's Gidamis Shahanga, whom he'd overtaken on the bridge less than a mile before, lurked several yards behind. Shahanga, 26 and a senior at Texas-El Paso, is the NCAA 5,000- and 10,000-meter track champion; on Sunday he'd scorched through Brooklyn and Queens, pulling Smith, 29, along at what seemed a suicidal pace. Now, as Smith floated north toward the Bronx, Shahanga shadowed him.
New Zealand's Rod Dixon came off the bridge third, in desperate pursuit of the pair 120 yards ahead of him. Dixon, the prerace favorite, was already nursing a right hamstring he'd strained on slick pavement at five miles. Here, in an effort to gain on the leaders, he put on a surge—and almost lost control, stretching the muscle to the brink of tearing. "I hit another slippery patch," he said later. "My right leg shot out from under me." Dixon caught himself and then accelerated some more. He had come to the race off months of hard training in the forest near Reading, Pa., where he currently lives, hoping to shatter Alberto Salazar's two-year-old world best of 2:08:13. He had also brought to New York a streak of 19 consecutive road-race victories at distances ranging from five to 10 miles. That was his obsession: winning. A 1972 Olympic bronze medalist at 1,500 meters, a onetime 3:53 miler, a hardworking and hard-partying and hard-as-nails competitor, the 33-year-old Dixon saw New York as the capstone of his wide-ranging running career. But only if he won.
With Dixon and Shahanga chasing hotly after Smith, and with Grete Waitz of Norway running masterfully toward her fifth New York women's title—she would finish in 2:27:00, nearly five minutes ahead of runner-up Laura Fogli of Italy—the 1983 marathon was at last dispatching some considerable prerace worries: that its field was too weak; that fan and media support might consequently wane; that a new challenger, the rapidly growing America's Marathon/Chicago, which offered $135,000 in legal prize money and was held only one week before, might be taking over as the major race of the fall. "I welcome the so-called competition from Chicago," New York Marathon Director Fred Lebow had said. "Chicago is throwing all kinds of money around to buy top runners, but they cannot buy the vitality of New York. New York is magic."
October 31, 1983
But because of Olympic training and offers from Chicago, most big-name marathoners had performed a vanishing act on Lebow. Salazar, the three-time defending champion, canceled out because the race didn't fit into his training schedule. Four-time New York winner Bill Rodgers chose to run in Chicago, as did 1983 Boston champ Greg Meyer and a score of other good runners. Neither world champion Rob de Castella of Australia nor women's world-record holder Joan Benoit had any interest in New York. Says a Lebow acquaintance, "Fred was panicking."
What made Chicago more attractive to some of the runners was not just its purse but also its numerous under-the-table appearance payments; New York is said to hand out $200,000 in sub rosa prize money but very few appearance fees. "We spread our money around," said Chicago Marathon Coordinator Bob Bright, adding, "I think Fred's program is showing a little wear." Bright also said, "They're getting a reputation for going roughshod on athletes there, and it's starting to hurt them."
But the only hurts showing on Sunday were Dixon's right hamstring—he kept reaching down to grab it every few minutes—and both of Smith's hamstrings, which began to spasm in the Bronx, at 20 miles. "They started cramping up so bad I didn't know if I could finish," said Smith, who had put away Shahanga at about the 17-mile mark. Smith, a native of Liverpool, England, is a senior at Providence College and a relative latecomer to running. If nothing else, he's gritty—and now he had to be.
Dixon was closing fast, moving into second place at 18 miles and shaving Smith's lead steadily as the two crossed back into Manhattan. Smith's pace was slowing. At 20 miles he led by 500 yards; by 23 miles, the gap had been narrowed to 75. Through Central Park and around its border Dixon stalked his prey—"Better the hunter than the hunted," he would say—until with half a mile to go he was only 30 yards from the lead. Dixon had cannily run tangents on the turns along the windy park road, thereby saving yardage. Smith hadn't. "My mind wasn't there," Smith would say later.
At precisely 26 miles, Dixon caught his rival and surged past. "He didn't respond, and that gave me a charge," said Dixon. Smith was wobbling, his legs causing him what he later called "complete agony." He would stumble across the line in 2:09:08 and collapse.
Dixon hit the finish at 2:08:59, a two-minute, 22-second improvement over his only previous marathon, in Auckland in 1982. Exuberant, he fell to his knees, blew a two-handed kiss to the Lord, bowed his head onto the New York pavement, stood up and then jumped as high as he could—arms thrust upward in triumph. He planted another kiss on Waitz when she crossed the line.
Smith, having run the fastest first marathon ever, 33 seconds better than Salazar's 1980 New York performance, sat motionless in the pressroom, his hamstrings so sore he could not touch them. "This was the hardest thing I'll ever do in my life," he said softly.
Dixon explained what the race had taught him about marathoning. "That it's bloody hard," he said with a laugh, leaving one lesson unspoken: A marathon can also be bloody satisfying.