Above: Kim Smith in action at the 2009 Berlin World Championships. Photo by Martin Rose / Getty Images.
Multiple New Zealand distance running record holder Kim Smith has just announced her retirement from the sport. Steve Landells reflects on her lengthy and often undervalued achievements in the running world.
Kim Smith, one of New Zealand’s all-time great female distance runners, has quit the sport due to a persistent foot injury. The 35-year-old Aucklander – who is currently four months pregnant with her second child - made the decision after several seasons of below-par performances.
“Since undergoing foot surgery (after rupturing a tendon in the foot) in 2014 my feet have never been the same,” she says. “I just can’t do what I want to (in terms of training), which will allow me to race at the level I want to. My body just can’t handle it. Mentally it was very hard to race poorly. It was just not enjoyable anymore.
“Last year I was in a lot of pain running, so in some ways (to retire) is a relief. I’m also four months pregnant and having another child was important to me. So, this has made it an easier decision.”
Born and raised in the South Auckland suburb of Papakura she discovered a gift for running aged “13 or 14” at Rosehill College before later transferring to King’s College. She became quickly established as a gifted schoolgirl athlete under the coaching of Perry Cunningham and in 2001 decided to try her luck in the US Collegiate system where she attended McNeese State University in Louisiana. However, after finding the experience “a big culture shock” she quit the college only to reconsider her options and plump for a university which would best allow her talent to flourish.
“I knew if I wanted to go further I needed to push myself,” she explains. “I knew the NCAA was a very good system for developing athletes.”
Under the recommendation of Cunningham, Kim opted to go to Providence College under the coaching of Irishman Ray Tracey. It was to prove the best decision of her career.
During her three years at the Rhode Island-based university from 2002 to 2005 she went from a raw college hopeful into a burgeoning international performer.
The highlight came during a glorious 2004 when she landed the “triple crown” with gold medals at the NCAA Indoor 3000m, NCAA outdoor 5000m and NCAA Cross Country Championships. She also set national indoor records for the mile and 3000m and qualified for the 2004 Athens Olympics (where she competed in the heats of the 5000m).
“I made such a big improvement that year and I did things that I didn’t think were possible,” she says. “I qualified for the Olympics, which I never dreamed I would have done as a teenager. That year opened my eyes to the possibility of being a professional runner.”
Yet without question it was the influence of Tracey, who went on to coach Kim throughout her entire professional career, which was to prove pivotal.
“Ray is definitely the reason I had such a great career and I’m always grateful for him giving me that opportunity,” she says. “I loved it (Providence) from the moment I got there. Ray is one of the best coaches in the world and it all just worked out. I had quality girls to train with and going through the NCAA system was a huge factor in enabling me to make that next step.”
In 2005 she secured the World University Games 5000m gold medal and made her IAAF World Championship debut in Helsinki, finishing 15th in the 10,000m. At the next edition of the World Championships in Osaka two years later the Kiwi produced one of the finest races of her career to place fifth – having been in medal contention for much of the race – in the 10,000m final.
She finished eighth over the 25-lap distance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and although immensely proud of her performances in both Osaka and the Chinese capital she knows she was robbed of a higher place at both events due to drug cheats (Note, Elvan Abeylegesse of Turkey finished ahead of her in both races but tested positive for a banned substance in 2015 following re-testing of samples taken from the 2007 World Championships) and this is a huge source of frustration.
“It is hard to look at the results and see that people ahead of me have been caught for drugs and that some of the best years of my career were during pretty dirty years for the sport,” she says. “A Russian finished ahead of me at the Beijing Olympics and it is sad to look back on those years and say that. I just tried to finish as high up as I could, but I definitely wonder how much higher up the field I could have finished without the cheating.”
After a failed attempt to finish the 2008 New York Marathon due to illness she unleashed a stunning performance at her first completed effort over the 42.2km distance, when setting a New Zealand record of 2:25:21 to place sixth at the 2010 London Marathon.
In an unprecedented period in terms of the depth of global women’s marathon running she went on to enjoy three top six finishes in the New York Marathon and although proud of her marathon record she believes she had the capability of trimming a couple of minutes from her marathon best.
“When I ran 2:25:46 for fifth in the 2011 New York Marathon, I think that day on a flatter course I could have run 2:23,” she says.
Unfortunately, on a marathon course not suited for “rhythm runners” she endured a “horrible experience” at the 2012 London Games signing off her Olympic career in disappointment by placing 14th.
Picking out highlights are tough but right up there are her slew of New Zealand records – she currently owns 11 indoor and outdoor including every outdoor mark from 3000m to the marathon – and she is particularly proud her 5000m indoor mark of 14:39.89 set in New York in 2009 – which is a little over six seconds quicker than her outdoor national record for the distance.
Qualifying for her maiden Olympics in Athens was another highlight – “because I never thought it was possible.” Yet above all else it was simply “running fast” which provided the ultimate high.
Perhaps best suited to the half-marathon distance – her national record of 1:07:11 set in Philadelphia in 2011 – is the joint fifth fastest by a non-African born athlete and second fastest by a non-African born athlete on an IAAF accredited course for record purposes - is another career highlight. It is a sport which has given her everything.
“I can’t imagine what I would be doing now if I hadn’t made the choice to be a runner,” says Kim, who at four months pregnant is still running 40 minutes a day. “Running has allowed me to travel the world and to be able to do so many things.”
In the short-term her immediate focus in on raising a family – her first child Violet Mary was born in June 2015 – but further down the track she has designs on re-engaging with the sport.
“In future I hope to get into coaching,” she says. “I love the sport so much and I can’t imagine a life without it.”