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Competitor Classics: Rod and Pre

  • By Bob Babbitt
  • Published Jul. 15, 2011
  • Updated Jul. 22, 2011 at 3:44 PM UTC

In 1973, Dixon was in Milan, Italy to race the summer circuit with his good mate, fellow Kiwi and the World Record Holder in the mile John Walker. “Pre was traveling with Ralph Mann and we ran into the two of them at a bar before one of the races,” he recalls. “Mann asked us if we knew Pre and we all ended up drinking beer for most of the evening. There were probably 13 or 14 empty quart bottles on the table when we called it a night. We set up a time with Pre to run two hours the next day.”

Walker and Dixon took turns making Pre’s life miserable. Walker would surge, Pre would respond, Dixon would relax. Then Dixon would attack, Pre would answer and Walker would catch a breather. Their game of two on one lasted for the better part of the run, but by the time they were finished sweating in the mid morning sun, the three were friends for life.

“We had spent two hours dripping sweat and it was a great run,” remembers Dixon. “We told him afterwards that if he ever wanted to be a Kiwi, he was it, that he’d passed the test.”

Even though Pre never beat Rod Dixon indoors or out, there was a sense that Pre was going to be unbeatable by 1976 and the Montreal Games. “I remember watching one of his workouts,” Dixon says. “He did two one mile repeats with ten minutes of recovery between them. Mile one was 4:01 and mile two was 3:58. He was just so tenacious.”

Pre and Dixon would race mainly the 1500, two mile or the 3,000. “Pre was constantly working on his speed because he knew that in 1976 he wouldn’t be able to run away from the other guys at 5,000 meters,” Dixon continues. “In 1960, a Kiwi named Maury Herbert took off with three laps to go and ended up winning the Gold Medal in the 5,000. Pre and I talked about that race and he figured that if he pushed the pace with three laps to go, he could make it really tough for the other guys and then he could sit in and wait until 600 to go to make a final move.”

There was a sense of arrogance that came with Steve Prefontaine. But, according to Dixon, if you felt you were one of the best in the world, how could you help but not feel a little above the other guys. “People said that Pre was arrogant,” admits Dixon. “But remember, I lived with John Walker, who was pretty arrogant himself. Pre knew that if he had doubt, that the other guys in the field had it as well. Pre didn’t really have that killer instinct, but he knew what it took to be the best. He was never afraid of the pain. We played hard… but we trained harder.”

Steve Prefontaine died in a tragic car accident in on May 30, 1975 at the age of 24. Rod Dixon went on to have an amazing career and to win the New York City Marathon in 1983 with a 2:08:59. He came from behind to catch England’s Geoff Smith in the last quarter mile in one of the greatest marathon moments in history.

As honored as he had been as an Olympic medalist, the win in New York City was the defining moment of his career and changed his life forever. But when he is with the high school kids who he works with around the country through his Kid’s Marathon Program, kids want to talk to him not because of what he did in New York, but because of the young man from Coos Bay, Oregon who they have read so much about, the guy Rod Dixon used to train and race with. “They want to shake the hand of the guy who raced with Steve Prefontaine,” he admits. “He was special. Thirty four years after his death,  Pre’s legacy lives on.”

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Bob Babbitt is the founder and editor-in-chief of Competitor Magazine.

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Bob Babbitt

Bob Babbitt

Bob Babbitt is the editor of Competitor magazine.

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