Dick Quax was never one to go down without a fight. Not as an athlete or as a politician.

He faced the cancer that was diagnosed more than four years ago and that claimed his life overnight the same way. He'd had all available mainstream treatments and paid for Keytruda - "about $2000 a week" - himself.

During visits for a feature article and video early this year it was Quax's attitude that stayed with me. He said, "It's tough, but I'm not dying from cancer, I'm living with cancer."

The reason for the interviews then was nothing to do with his health but he was happy to talk about it.

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His luck had been rotten. What started as head and neck cancer was caused by the HPV human papilloma virus which most sexually active adults have. In about 1% of cases it turns into cancer.

Eighty per cent of neck and head cancer cases are cured - clear for five years. "For about 5 to 10% it goes to the lungs which has happened with me," Quax, 70, said "so percentages mean absolutely nothing to me any more."

Quax was always pragmatic. He could do nothing more than all that was possible.

Listening to those recorded interviews, I realised his responses to a question about the future were short term. He would like, he said, to see his youngest son Theo, a talented athlete, run a sub-4 minute mile and get to a good university in the United States. Theo will attend the University of Northern Arizona in the new US college year.

We talked about records. Quax ran the fastest debut marathon in the world and in Stockholm in 1977, with another flying Kiwi, friend and rival Rod Dixon, acting as pacemaker, broke the world record for 5000m.

"I was pretty confident I could do it [but] it was a close-run thing," Quax said.

Quax was at his peak when New Zealand was at its peak in distance running. He, Dixon, Walker, were all confident, straight-talking types who were sometimes labelled as brash. They were dominant figures at world level in their sport and they walked their talk.

"You don't think about records," Quax said. "You think, how do I run faster?"

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He realised only later that he and others of the era were part of a training revolution thanks to the training regimes of Arthur Lydiard.

The most famous race Quax ran was the 1976 Olympic 5000m final in which he was second to Finn Lasse Viren.

In a roundabout way that race prompted me to first meet Quax 17 years ago. The Finns had been associated with blood doping, a practice that enhances endurance but about which little was known in the 1970s. It was banned in 1985.

While on a fellowship in England to study sports doping I'd emailed Viren to arrange a visit but got no response. Quax emailed Viren to say hello but got no reply either. Some Finns of the era have admitted transfusing blood. Viren has consistently said he did not use the technique.

At his Howick home in December and January, Quax was great company.

The impetus for the visits was a proposal to scrap all world records - including Quax's - before modern drug-testing regimes were in place. We talked about that, about life, about how he might be "Sir Dick" but for the metre that separated him from that gold medal.

At my insistence he pulled his dusty scrapbooks from a basement closet and we revisited not just his glory days but a golden era of New Zealand distance running.

I remarked on an incredible photo of Quax in full flight, leg muscles rippling, a running machine. Theo, who had never seen the photo, said he had many miles yet to run before his legs resembled his father's.

Quax seemed to be a man content with his achievements.

He enjoyed his family to the end. One of his last Facebook posts was a photo with wife Roxanne and sons Jacob and Theo enjoying dinner a week ago at Sky Tower restaurant Orbit. He is also survived by his daughter Tania, who lives in Australia.