NEW YORK — In 1984, Francie Larrieu-Smith failed to qualify for her fourth Olympic team and it looked as though her lengthy and record-filled career on the track was over. So she hit the road. More precisely, she hit the roads.
The record-breaking middle-distance runner, who qualified for her first Olympic team in 1972 at age 19, turned to road racing in 1985 and quickly established herself among the elite of those runers as well.
Larrieu-Smith had broken the world indoor record in the mile and 1,500 meters four times each, won 16 Amateur Athletic Union championships in distances ranging from 1,500 meters to two miles, and had been a U.S. Olympic team member at 1,500 meters in 1972, 1976, and 1980. The competition, however, was getting tougher.
"There's a lot of talent out there today," Larrieu-Smith said, explaining her switch to longer distances. "They're running times I never dreamed of. When you've been thinking for 15 years about 4:20 and 4:00 for the mile and 1,500 and they're running 4:17 and 3:53, it's tough. On the roads and in the marathon I don't have any preconceived notions as to what I'm capable of."
As it turns out, she's capable of much. In a four-week span last spring, Larrieu-Smith ran 32:14 for 10 kilometers, achieved a personal best in defeating Grete Waitz in a 3,000 meter track race, beat Waitz again in winning the 10k L'Eggs Mini Marathon in New York, and captured the USA Outdoor Championship in 10k on the track. This January, she ran the fastest first marathon ever by an American woman, finishing second in the Houston Marathon with a 2:33:36.
"My goal was to finish," says Larrieu-Smith of her race at Houston. "My next marathon will be the kind that I'll run really fast or drop out. I want to run with the big girls now."
The 5-5 Larrieu-Smith is fast becoming a big name herself in road racing. Track and Field News rated her the No. 2 American and No. 4 North American road racer for 1985. She says she plans to run a fall marathon, possibly New York or Chicago, but the focus of her training for now is defending her L'Eggs title May 31 at New York's Central Park. Among the field of 10,000 women are approximately two dozen world-class runners, including Waitz and marathoner Allison Roe.
Road racing has infused Larrieu-Smith's career with new life.
"Going to the roads has given me a new love for the sport," she says. "I had always wanted to run these distances before 'time runs out,' but now I'm very happy with the way things are going.
"It's much less intense (than running the mile). On a track you don't have time to think--if you think, you're out of the race. In a 10k, I'm thinking about the race all the time, plotting out my strategy."
The less frenetic pace seems to agree with Larrieu-Smith, now 33. As a 22-year-old, she used to say she aimed for a world record every time out but now is content to measure success in terms of improvement.
"There's a lot less pressure on the roads," she said. "I'm not thinking in terms of competing with people. I just want to do the best that I can. If I finish in fifth place and run my best time ever, I'll go away happy.
"I'm not thinking as much in terms of competitiveness. I like to win, but I've rationalized that as long as I'm running as well as I think I can, I'm happy."
Happiness is important to Larrieu-Smith these days. She's happy with her coach, Robert Vaughn; happy living and training in little Buda, Texas; and happy with her 5 1/2 year marriage to Jimmy Smith, who has a doctorate in physiology and directs a program in his specialty at St. David's Hospital in Austin.
While Larrieu-Smith remains ambitious--she'd like to run in the Olympics again, either in the 10,000 or marathon--the rebel in her has subsided.
When not breaking records, the outspoken Larrieu-Smith spent the better part of the 1970s as a thorn in the side of the amateur sports bureaucracy.
At 16, she was reprimanded by the AAU on her first trip abroad. Her offense: holding hands with a fellow athlete. She didn't run at UCLA because a promised scholarship never materialized and in 1978, the AAU suspended her for filtering prize money won in the ABC Superstars competition through her club and not the national governing body.
Today, she praises what she sees as a new attitude in the sport's governing body ("They're working with and for the athletes now," she said) and says she feels no resentment over the second-class treatment women's athletics sometimes received in her formative years.
Even her vision of the ideal future reflects her new attitude.
"I'd like to live in a little town and run with my husband when I'm 80 and have neighbors say, 'Oh, what a cute couple," she said, laughing. "I look forward to that."