Athletics: Smith is 'our finest woman runner'

By David Leggat

Eight current NZ records and Smith now has sights set on London Olympics

Kimberley Smith. Photo / NZ Herald
Kimberley Smith. Photo / NZ Herald

In 1981 Alison Roe won the Boston and New York marathons, shooting herself into the pantheon of New Zealand's most celebrated sports people.

In one of those quirks, it was also the year Kimberley Smith was born. A few days ago, Smith finished eighth in the London marathon, in the process eclipsing Roe's 29-year-old New Zealand marathon record from that Boston run.

Given the calibre of the field, it was a seriously impressive performance. In just her second marathon, having failed to finish in New York last year, she clocked 2h 25min 21s, eclipsing Roe's 2:26.46.

In Roe's mind, Smith is New Zealand's finest woman runner.

The London time gives Smith eight current New Zealand records.

But her sights are set on longer targets, and the marathon is shaping as her game for the immediate future, particularly the London Olympics in 2012.

And yet while Valerie Vili and Nick Willis of the current crop of athletes are the names most easily recognised, Smith's is not, outside the athletic community.

Why? Two reasons.

Smith went to Providence College in Rhode Island in 2002 and she hasn't looked back. A string of substantial achievements since entering the American college system have made her one of the big drawcards in women's athletics there.

She's got agents, and Reebok sponsor her. Life is pretty good.

On top of that, the Papakura-raised Smith hasn't emulated Vili and Willis and been on a world champs or Olympic podium. In that respect, she has a tough job, given the calibre and depth of her rivals.

Roe is a big fan of Smith and was thrilled her record was gone - "Let's face it, no record should last that long".

Roe agreed making a blue riband podium is key to Smith's profile rising into mainstream New Zealand sports consciousness.

"Anybody who understands athletics and has seen the times Kimberley has run would have to acknowledge how brilliant she is," she said.

"I'm sure it's going to happen. It's quite clear to me she's going to do it. It's just a matter of time because she is the best runner New Zealand has ever produced."

Smith was initially unaware she had eclipsed Roe's record until she crossed the finish line 3.21s behind Russian winner Liliya Shobukhova.

"I didn't even know what it was. I wasn't too concerned with it, I just wanted to finish.

"It's crazy New Zealand hasn't had any faster marathon runners [since 1981] but hopefully I can take the mark down a little further than that," she said from Providence yesterday.

"For me it was definitely a step into the unknown. You don't know how you'll feel after 20 miles and can't really train for that feeling. But I was quite surprised; I was expecting a lot more pain; now I can't wait to do another one."

Which is most likely to come at either Chicago or New York in October-November.

Smith is targeting 2h 20min. That mark has been eclipsed just 20 times, and by only nine people. Englishwoman Paula Radcliffe's stunning 2:15.25, set seven years ago, is the current world record.

Moving from the track to the road has involved a significant mental shift, adjusting to a longer, slower training regime.

"The training is definitely harder, doing long runs by yourself is pretty mentally draining, and trying to wrap my head around the distance and longer workouts has been a struggle sometimes. But this is a new focus for me and it's been exciting."

African dominance on the track does not transfer quite so markedly to the road, where Europe is loaded with plenty of top class runners. But Smith likes the challenge.

"It's a little more open. Anyone can win on the day and depending on how people are feeling."

She was feeling good when she broke her own national half-marathon record at New Orleans last February, finishing second in 1:07.55. Only 22 women have completed the distance faster; it was only 3s off the quickest half ever run in the US.

London will be Smith's third Olympics. She was 11th in the heats of the 5000m at Athens six years ago; ninth in the 10,000m final in Beijing in 2008. Next stop the marathon. There is a clear pattern.

Not that Smith sees herself abandoning the track altogether. Call it a sabbatical for now. But you get a feeling Smith's best may yet be ahead of her.

RECORD HAUL
Kimberley Smith's New Zealand record haul

* 3000m: 8min 35.31, July 2007, Monaco.
* 5000m: 14:45.93, July 2008, Rome.
* 10,000m: 30:35.54, May 2008, Stanford.
* Half marathon: 1h 7min 55s, February 2010, New Orleans.
* Marathon: 2:25.21, April 2010, London.

INDOOR
* One mile: 4:24.14, February 2008, Boston.
* 3000m: 8:38.14, January 2007, Boston.
* 5000m: 14:39.89, February 2009, New York.

- NZ Herald

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