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Athletics: History beckoning Smith

In the early hours of tomorrow, Kim Smith has a chance to make history as New Zealand's third winner of a New York marathon after Allison Roe (1981) and Rod Dixon (1983).

It is arguably the world's most famous annual 26 miles and 385 yards (42.195km); it is certainly tough to win, especially against the perennial East African contingent, who have 12 of the 14 fastest women marathon runners this year.

"The toughest challenge is likely to come from Kenyan Mary Keitany, who won at London with the second fastest time this year," Smith says. "But aside from her, there are plenty of other contenders."

Smith has had a strong lead-up. She won the Philadelphia half marathon in 1h 07m 11s, the fastest time run by a woman in the United States and a time which broke her national record set at New Orleans in February.

When the 29-year-old sets out over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge through New York's five boroughs, she will be a contender. April's Boston Marathon was an indication. She led the field by 30s at the halfway point before a calf injury saw her exit 12km from the finish. She also came eighth, setting a national record of 2h 25m 21s, in her maiden marathon at London last year before finishing fifth at New York.

The distance suits her after moving on from the 5000m and 10,000m on the track but Smith will require a combination of mental strength, calculated strategy and supreme fitness to win without getting overwhelmed by what organisers estimate is a two million-strong crowd.

Dixon claims he was in the best shape of his life when he won in 1983; a result which defined his career as much as his bronze medal in the 1500m at the 1972 Munich Olympics. To watch the then 33-year-old hauling in Brit Geoff Smith over the final mile to win by eight seconds in hosing rain remains as riveting a piece of sports footage today as it was 28 years ago.

Dixon, who now operates the Los Angeles Marathon coaching programme involving more than 2000 people, says Smith's result in Philadelphia on September 18 showed she is in an excellent space.

"The key is to hold that form and be patient. The training is in the bank so she's got to nurse it and ensure the investment matures on the start line. She's had disappointment in New York last year and Boston this year but each time I hope she learns something."

Dixon says the New York course requires strategy: "New York's streets are fairly beaten up; you've got to keep an eye out for potholes, manholes and even raised white lines on the road which can tip you over. You can't run too close to the sides of the streets either - where people can touch you like on the Tour de France. The roads are also heavily cambered, which can play mind games with your balance and you've got to watch your tangents to go the most direct route."

Smith says she's previously had problems with those aspects of the marathon in major cities.

"Coming from the track, it is easy to forget about running tangents and I've tripped on those raised white lines before, like in Boston. These races also tend to have a lot of potholes with road wear and tear."

Dixon warns Smith can't afford to break away until late.

"She can run with the fastest girls in the world but she's not going to run away from them. In Boston, she gave it a go, and I applaud that, but thinking she was going to get away from them that early [21km] was a mistake."

Roe produced an epic in 1981 with a 'surprise' win (at least for American media) at Boston, despite breaking the 20km world record in the lead-up. She followed it with a world record in New York until it was annulled when someone discovered the course was 150m short. She won the New Zealand Sportsperson of the Year title for her trouble.

"Kim has the credentials but it's tough when you've got the focus of New York on you," says Roe.

"You can burn out quickly in a marathon. You need to relax early and avoid running too fast. It is all about mental preparation. You've got to convince yourself you're going slowly.

"She needs to stick to who she thinks is her key competitor. You can always make up five minutes on others until about the 18-mile mark. Until that point, the group is always stronger. It is like a vacuum that sucks you up and makes you feel you're cruising."

Both Dixon and Roe agree descending from the 59th Street Bridge back on to Manhattan Island with about 10 miles left is a key moment to keep your nerve.

"It can be up to 10 people deep and a real buzz. If you're not focused, it's easy to get distracted," Roe says.

"You've got to be composed if you're in the lead group," Dixon says. "The crowd can sweep you away. You don't hear the pitter-patter of your feet, your ears are ringing from the screaming and you can unintentionally pick your pace up - it's human nature.

"I watched Kim at Philadelphia and she does have the ability to pick up when required, she's got that determination."

- Herald on Sunday

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