New Zealand athletics legend Bill Baillie, recognised as one of the most versatile distance runners this country has ever produced, has died aged 84.

Baillie, who was one of the famous group of athletes coached by Arthur Lydiard, passed away on Christmas Day.

He came to prominence during the greatest era of New Zealand athletics, alongside Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, John Davies and Barry Magee, among many others.

Widely reported yesterday, Baillie's son Russell confirmed to the Herald his father peacefully passed away in his sleep.

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The family had been celebrating Christmas in Cooks Beach in the Coromandel, and Russell said over those few days his father appeared "very alert and (relatively) healthy."

"He had spent a few days with 3 generations of family there," Russell said. "There were about a dozen of us around the dinner table on Christmas Eve and dad appeared to be fine, although was feeling slightly off colour - a tell tale sign - (and) he didn't feel like finishing his glass of red wine. He went to bed as usual that night, read for a while then went to sleep and peacefully passed away in his sleep some time during the night."

Baillie competed at four Empire and Commonwealth Games — 1954, 1958, 1962 and 1966 — as well as the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, where he reached the 5000m final and placed sixth in a strong field.

Perhaps his most notable achievement was breaking two world distance records in one day in August 1963 at Lovelock Track in Mt Roskill.

Baillie decisively bested the mark for the 20,000m (he recorded 59m 28.6s, to slash the former record by 23 seconds) and also the one hour distance record (20,190m), which were both held by renowned Czech Emil Zatopek, considered by many as the greatest distance runner of the 20th century.

"I'd missed the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games and hadn't got an Olympic medal so the next best thing was a world record so I set myself for this and I looked in the record books and Zatopek still held two world records and they'd been there for 12 years," recalled Baillie at a commemoration event for the 50th anniversary of his famous feat in 2013.

"Zatopek was possibly the world's greatest distance runner in this last century and I thought 'Bill you've got to have a go at those and that was it'. I marked down the date of Saturday 24 August and worked back from that date in my training. I knew I was going to go out and do it that day,"

As recalled in Peter Snell and the Kiwis Who Flew, Baillie later visited Zatopek, who had won three golds at the 1952 Olympics, three decades later in Prague where they swapped stories over a beer before Zatopek took the New Zealander for a drive around the city to visit his local track.

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Baillie's ability over a range of distances was legendary. He won 12 national titles, from 880 yards to six miles.

One contemporary remembers Baillie winning a 20 mile (32 kilometre) race from the city centre to Papakura on a Saturday, then beating the Auckland champion over 400 metres the following weekend.

Another former runner said Baillie was one of the toughest competitors in New Zealand, or the world, renowned for pushing himself to the limit in every outing.

"He was the ironman of New Zealand athletics ... a true lion heart who simply loved running, and loved competing. And he beat Olympic champions and world champions all over the world."

Away from the track Baillie was a larger than life figure.

"He was one of the biggest characters in life you would ever met," said another contemporary. "There was only one Bill Baillie ... no one who met him would ever forget him."

Baillie worked as a builder, a salesman and was for a period was a very popular taxi driver around Auckland, always ready with a story for his passengers.

He also competed at masters level duathlons and triathlons, including several over the gruelling Ironman distance.

Baillie was inducted into the New Zealand Sport Hall of Fame in 2011.

A funeral date has yet to be finalised, but Russell said the family were looking at Saturday January 5 or Monday January 7 due to "a lot of venues not having key staff around."