Going the distance: Francie Larrieu-Smith recalls her history-making run at the 1991 Texas Relays
Thursday nights have become almost a sacred time for Texas Relays long-timers, with the always-popular fish fry the hottest event on the track and field social calendar. A gathering place for the who's who of coaches, athletes, officials and invited luminaries, the event has taken on a life of its own over the years.
But at a meet that has been known for its awesome displays of speed and power, Thursday will also always be a special and memorable day for distance-running aficionados who witnessed one of the best solo efforts in American track and field history.
Francie Larrieu set her first American record as a 16-year-old in 1969, zipping to a 4:16.8 in the 1,500 meters in Stuttgart, Germany. In 1974, running for the Pacific Coast Club, she won her first Texas Relays title, clocking 4:37.9 for the 1500. Over the next 17 years she would become an Olympic finalist, set 18 more national records in middle and long distance events, win five more Relays titles, and seal her place in history as one of the greatest runners ever in the United States.
With all those achievements in hand, the then-38-year-old Larrieu-Smith took to the track on a stormy Thursday night in April 1991, and just over 31 minutes later she left with a national record, as well as a meet record that may not be broken for years to come.
"The race took place in the early evening," Larrieu-Smith, now the coach at Southwestern University in Georgetown, recalls. "Just a few hours after one of those Texas spring thunderstorms. The race was also run on 'distance night', and as is the case with 'distance night', the only people in the stands were coaches, parents and friends of participants. I am told that most of the race officials and the media were at the annual fish fry that evening.
"I was living in Dallas at the time and training for the London Marathon. My coach, Dr. Robert Vaughan, always scheduled a hard 10K for me two weeks prior to racing a marathon. Texas Relays was perfect timing for my final tune-up prior to London.
"I was also interested in getting a qualifying time in the 10K on the track so that I could compete in the national championships two months later. I knew that I was in the best shape of my life and fully expected to run a sub-32 10K that evening. I also knew that it was not likely I would receive any help from my competition. In some ways I think that may have made the race a little easier for me."
Running after a meet record of 33:33.86 that she set in 1987, Larrieu-Smith made quick work of the competition. "I was able to relax and focus on my race," Larrieu-Smith remembers. "I was also able to find my rhythm and concentrate on my pace."
She traversed the first 5,000-meters in 15:52, already passing some of the trailing competitors. "Once I began lapping the field I think it greatly helped me to maintain the pace," she said. "I did not realize that I was on record pace until the PA announcer called the four-mile split and mentioned I was on record pace. In fact for me, just the final two miles of the race was an attempt on the record, not the first four."
Larrieu-Smith sped up to cover the final half of the race in 15:36.9, and when she crossed the finish line, the clock stopped at 31:28.92, chopping almost seven seconds off the previous American record. "The rest," she said when recounting the memorable run recently, "is history."