Warrior Queen in New York City: Allison Roe 1981

Warrior Queen in New York City

The New Zealand star set a world record at the 1981 marathon

Thirty years ago was a Year of Miracles for running. In 1981, professionalism arrived, the women's marathon was voted into the Olympics, Ethiopia and Kenya first ran at the world cross country championship, and the inaugural London Marathon made charities central to the sport's mission. Running as we know it was shaped by the miracles of 1981.

At the time nothing seemed more miraculous than the sudden emergence of a wondrous talent: Allison Roe. With the looks of a blond warrior queen from a fantasy movie, Roe dominatingly won Boston, Peachtree and New York (all in course records), and broke Grete Waitz's world marathon best.

Roe was no novice. She turned down a scholarship at UCLA in 1975, staying home to run for New Zealand. (We were on the same world cross country squad in 1977.) It was the marathon, and the guidance of Gary Elliott in Auckland, that transformed her into a world icon. In 1981, she broke the world 20K record, won Boston by almost 8 minutes in a record 2:26:46, and took New York City--and a global TV audience--by storm, with her world best 2:25:29.

Later the course was found to be 150m short, but you can't argue with a performance that extinguished a star-studded field by almost 5 minutes. (Ingrid Kristiansen was second in 2:30:08.)

Roe's preparation for New York was fraught. In July she was suspended, along with others who accepted prize money at the Cascade Run Off, while the sport struggled with the professionalism issue. Fortunately, the New Zealand federation had previously instigated a review by the IAAF, and played a key supportive role in resolving matters. Roe also had a sore foot that forced her to do all her intensive work in the pool.

Then she encountered New York for the first time.

"It was a big thrill for a Kiwi girl. We were picked up by this enormous stretch limo. But I was scared about running there. TV showed New York as a dangerous city, with people murdered every day, and I had these terrible dreams about having to run fast to dodge all the bullets," Roe reveals.

She met Waitz, the race favorite, by chance when they both went in for physiotherapy.

"Grete made that race what it is--the queen of New York. But I suspected she had a problem."

On race day Roe's nervousness made her forget her bib number.

"If you look at photos, they made my F2 number by cutting down one that had 2000 something."

It did not affect her focus.

"Julie Brown took off fast and went miles up the road, but I hung around with Grete, and quite a bunch, including Ingrid Kristiansen and Julie Shea. It was my first tour of New York, and I found it a great trip, trundling along with Grete and taking in the neighborhoods." (Yes, she did say "trundling.")

Waitz dropped out at 17 miles, and from then on it was all Roe. Every male in the First Avenue crowds was smitten by her combination of feminine grace and pulsating power, majestic in her sky blue outfit and white gloves.

She was still enjoying the tour.

"Harlem was great. They shouted, 'Hey, sister, go!' Really neat."

Overtaking male runners by the handful, Roe turned the jets full on through Central Park's hills.

"I'd done a lot of reading about how to apportion speed. My last 3 miles were the fastest--5:12, 5:14, 5:12," she says, revealing a thoughtful student of the sport within that warrior goddess exterior.

She was going so fast she missed seeing the finish marshals.

"I ran under the wrong banner, with the men. Fred Lebow was running around like a chook with its head cut off. It took a while for it to sink in that I'd broken the world record."

Injuries ended Roe's marathon career before the first women's Olympic race in 1984, but she excelled in triathlons and cycling, and 30 years after her victory she remains committed to health and exercise. "Live each day with purpose and passion" is her mantra. She serves on a community health board, and takes a leading public role in breast cancer and other campaigns. At 54, a mother and stepmother, she swims, runs, cycles and works out in the gym. On the day we talked, she had been for an early morning run on the beach.

"Passing joggers like I passed all those guys in the last miles at New York. It still feels so good to run."


(Running Times, "Footsteps", November 2011; also published by arrangement in VO2Max, New Zealand, January-February 2012)

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