Competitor Classics: Rod and Pre

One legend remembers another.

Their first meeting came after the 1972 Olympics. At those games in Munich, America’s young gun, Steve Prefontaine, took fourth place in the Olympic 5000 meters while New Zealand’s Rod Dixon took home a bronze in the 1500.

For the man called Pre, finishing off the podium was a bitter disappointment. Check that. The guy could have cared less about being on the podium. If he didn’t leave Germany with the Gold Medal, the trip to Europe in his mind would have been a horrific waste of time. Kenny Moore recalls running into Pre in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium after Moore had finished fourth in the marathon.

“I was struggling with how I should feel about the experience,” Moore recalls. “I had had a great race, but I hadn’t medaled.” Pre put his hands on Moore’s shoulders and told him that he was the fourth best marathoner on the planet and that he should be incredibly proud of his achievement. Moore then asked Pre how his 5000 meter event had turned out: “I took fourth,” he said, fairly spitting out the number. “Fourth is awful.”

The message was clear: While fourth place was just fine for the Kenny Moore’s of the world, fourth is certainly not up to the standards or expectations of one Steve Roland Prefontaine. At one time Pre held every American record for the seven distances ranging from 2,000 through 10,000 meters He was the James Dean of American running with his long hair, mustache and always-race-from-the-front attitude.

Rod Dixon also had long hair and a mustache, but his style of racing differed from Pre: “I raced to win,” admits Dixon. “I didn’t want to prove that I could push the pace harder or longer than anyone else. I wanted to be the first person across the line.”

Four years earlier, in 1968, Dixon was sitting on a river bank near his home in Nelson, New Zealand listening the finals of the Olympic 1500 meters from Mexico on his transistor radio. “The signal was coming in and out and the static made it hard to hear,” he remembers. In the finals the two leading men were running legends Kip Keino of Kenya and America’s Jim Ryun. “I was glued to the radio listening to the finals and hoping that one day I would be the one running the 1500 at the Olympics. That was my dream.”

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How about this for a dream come true? Four years later, Rod Dixon lined up for the first round of the 1500 in Munich. “On my left was Kip Keino,” he says, “and on my right was Jim Ryun.” Not only did he run the 1500, he took home the bronze. A few weeks after Munich, he was in London at a post-Olympic track meet at the Crystal Palace and both Dixon and Pre were entered in the two mile. “Pre was coming down from 5,000 and I was stepping up from the 1,500,” says Dixon. “I sat on him and outkicked him at the end. He broke the American record, I broke the Commonwealth record, but Pre was upset at me for not sharing the pace. I walked up to him after the race to shake his hand and he called me a f—ing Kiwi and he stormed off.”

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.”

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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.”

This piece first appeared in Competitor magazine. 

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Bob Babbitt is the founder of Competitor Magazine.

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