Two weeks ago, I read a Facebook comment that implied that New Zealand runners, John Walker, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax were part of a well-planned Athletics New Zealand centralised training program. The most superficial knowledge of their careers reveals that opinion to be rubbish. For a start, the three runners had different coaches. Walker was coached by Arch Jelley. Dixon was coached by his brother, John. Quax had John Davies giving him coaching advise. No Sport New Zealand centralised programme would allow athletes to choose their own coach – especially if one of them happened to think his brother should fill that role.

Probably the most vivid example of the runner’s independence was the row Rod Dixon had with Athletics New Zealand and the New Zealand Government when the African nations threatened to boycott the Montreal Olympic Games. Dixon felt the New Zealand government had no business meddling in the Olympic Games. In pretty clear Nelson vernacular, he made it known that the athletes should have been consulted and been part of the decision-making process. Dixon was right, of course. But can you imagine any centralised training puppet explaining the facts of life to the Government these days? Sadly no. That spark has long been put out by Sport New Zealand obedience and money.

Especially when Dixon’s Wikipedia page tells me the following story.

After winning the New York Marathon, Pan Am put his name on the side of one of its 747s and gave him a “self-write ticket” – for first class. He used to say to his “friend”, Want to go to Zurich tonight? And off they’d go, for dinner.

Bloody hell, first class to Zurich on Pan Am. That sure beats the days spent driving thousands of kilometres with Alison and Rod, between meets in Europe in a blue 1975 Audi 80.

But the story I remember most happened fifty years ago, on the 26 January 1972. I was working for the meat company, Thomas Borthwicks. I didn’t have enough time to swim any more and so I set myself the task of running Lydiard’s 1000 miles in ten weeks.

About halfway through, things were going well. I was becoming quite interested in this running business. I noticed an article in Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper. Wellington Athletics was going to host a track meet on the Hutt Frazer Park. An up-and-coming young runner from Nelson was going to run. I was told Rod Dixon was showing potential. His ambition to run in the Munich Olympic Games was admirable but possibly a step too far. Perhaps next time. I suggested to Alison we should go and watch the meet.

And so, we joined quite a good crowd at Frazer Park. Alison pointed out the guy from Nelson jogging around, clearly doing his warm-up. I was impressed. The good ones, whether it is swimming or running, run and swim taller than mere mortals. Good swimmers take a stroke less to swim each 25 meters. Good runners run taller. Rod Dixon ran tall.

I was impressed but did not expect anything special from the mile race. After all it was being run on a grass field, far better known or hosting contact sports. Even today the Hutt Council website tells me the park is home for rugby, rugby-league and soccer. I had been told Dixon was very good at cross country. I suspected tonight we would find out whether that was true.

My first impressions proved correct. Dixon was a class above. I have always been fascinated by the seemingly endless gears locked inside the very best. Someone in the race goes faster and runners like Dixon find another gear as well. The field goes faster again and so do the very best. It is quite incredible to watch. How many gears are there?

It was only years later when I noticed exactly the same quality in the best swimmers, that I realised, sure they were talented, sure they had been born with a natural gift. But the skill to use that gift had been developed over thousands of miles running or in a swimming pool.

I have frequently been asked by parents, “Can you make my daughter swim like Toni, or Jane or Nichola?”

I have never explained that if she has the talent and swims 10,000 kilometres then she might swim like one of those talented few. No one displays that talent without the 10,000 kilometres

And in Lower Hutt on the 26 January 1972, I was clearly watching one of the talented few. One of the even fewer who had spent hours on the hills at the back of Nelson. One of the few who could change gears.

 I watched Dixon run for as long as I could. It turned out to be not that long at all. The announcer told us his time for the mile was 3:59.6. Rod Dixon had run his first sub-four-minute mile. And as is usual for the very good, he had made it look so incredibly easy.

I said to Alison on the way home. “You know, I think two things. That Munich dream might not be a step too far after all, and the guy is bloody good at cross-country.”

PS – I did finish the 1000 miles in ten weeks. Thank you Rod.   

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