By: Michael D. McClellan | We ran because he ran.
Bill Rodgers embarked on his iconic running career with neither the curious fanfare nor the quaint spontaneity of the cinematic character Forest Gump, but make no mistake, Rodgers’ cult of personality had the same gravitational pull, conjuring legions of road racers, unbidden, out of the invisible fabric of the universe. We saw Rodgers win the Boston Marathon, or we read about his exploits in Sports Illustrated, and we got up off the couch and gave it try. Just do it, he seemed to be saying to us subliminally, years before Nike built a billion-dollar marketing campaign around the catchphrase, and we did.
Rodgers showed us the way. More than simply popularizing distance running, he helped to usher in an exotic collection of endurance sports; ultramarathons, triathlons, and even something called the World Marathon Challenge, which is – no misprint here – seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. None of these existed in 1975, when Rodgers set the American record and won his first Boston Marathon with a time of 2:09:55. Adult exercise ran the gamut from bowling to bicycling, but marathons? The only ones doing that were the fringe athletes – an underground, counterculture movement whose sport didn’t stand a chance of catching on with the general public. Kooks. Rodgers came along and changed all of that. He started running and he never stopped, forcing us to reconsider not only the limits of human endurance, but the way we looked at those who punished themselves for pleasure. Before Bill Rodgers, who would have sought out distance running as part of a healthy lifestyle? Who would have thought it remotely cool? Certainly there were a few of us at the time, but Rodgers was the one who brought the marathon to the masses; he was Andy Warhol in running shoes, commercializing his sport while turning it into pop art, presenting us with something that we could all try.
That Rodgers could single-handedly lift the marathon’s Q Score is remarkable, given that the sport is the track and field equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield, overshadowed through the decades by the glamour events on the biggest stages – namely, the 100 meter and 200 meter dashes. Whether it’s Jesse Owens humiliating Adolph Hitler on German soil, or Michael Johnson winning Olympic gold in front thousands of screaming American fans, the sprints are all we really care about. The anticipation builds and builds, the gun fires, and we have our answer in a matter of seconds. Who wants to wait hours for a runner to cross the finish line?
Rag on them all you want, marathoners like Rodgers are the perfect counterpoints to sprinters like Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt, and the other genetic freaks who lord over track and field like heavyweight champions, Mike Tysons in cleats. Everything about sprinters – the explosive starts, speeds approaching that of a hungry cheetah running down its prey – is the stuff of pure fantasy, gifts bestowed by the gods on a precious few. We marvel at their acceleration, at their otherworldly physiques, and understand that we can never be them. Bill Rodgers is different. Where Bolt is a Pixar-generated superhero, right down to the post-race lightning bolt pose, Rodgers is everyman. He’s the dude we can all relate to – the guy who goes to the mall and buys himself a pair of running shoes, stretches a couple of times in front of the living room TV, and then pushes open the screen door and starts logging miles. Bolt is hounded by paparazzo wherever he goes. Rodgers is lucky if anyone recognizes him at all. What Bolt does on the track takes our breath. What Rodgers does on the road takes what we all have – absolute mule headedness, and an almost sadistic desire to punish ourselves in the harshest weather.
Hell, Rodgers even eats pre-race pasta and then drinks beer after he’s done!
Frank Shorter may have been the trigger man in the 1970s running boom, his gold medal in the ’72 Munich Olympics setting off a fitness frenzy, but it was Rodgers driving the getaway car, taking the marathon to unprecedented heights and transforming it from carnival act in the eyes of many, to a legit recreational sport enjoyed by millions. Shorter got our attention. Rodgers got us involved. While Shorter had by far the superior Olympic career, winning gold in Munich and then taking silver four years later in Montreal, Rodgers’ success in the premiere marathons – Boston and New York – stamped him in our collective psyche as the face of distance running. Onetime rivals, the two men have formed a lifelong friendship that continues to this day.
“Frank Shorter was definitely a rival at the time, my main adversary,” Rodgers says, “but I didn’t dislike him. I had no reason to. It’s just a footrace, a sport, so you just have to tip your hat to the other guy if you happen to get beat. You just run your best and then you move on.”
“Frank Shorter was definitely a rival at the time, my main adversary, but I didn’t dislike him. I had no reason to. It’s just a footrace, a sport, so you just have to tip your hat to the other guy if you happen to get beat. You just run your best and then you move on.” – Bill Rodgers
The two men were different in many ways. While Shorter carried himself with a regal air of an Olympic champion, always keeping us at arm’s length, Rodgers was the guy next door that loaned you the wrench to fix your toilet. We admired Shorter but we loved Rodgers, the reluctant marathoner who came to the sport when his Triumph 650 motorcycle was stolen, forcing him to get around Boston on his own two feet. Rodgers did things his way, an unpretentious superstar who was as equally accommodating with an autograph as he was with a photo op. He smoked. He hung out in bars. During his heyday, Rodgers could often be found behind the counter at his now defunct Faneuil Hall running store. After most every Boston Marathon, he would retire to his brother’s office in the back of the store, a passel of runners crammed into the small room with him, the group drinking expensive Scotch and telling stories and toasting the race just run. How many celebrity athletes do that?
Rodgers was a household name with the amusing nickname – Boston Billy – and yet, as big as he became, he was never consumed with his own celebrity. He was one of us, and that was good enough. We could relate to his dorky side, the Bill-Gates-meets-Napoleon-Dynamite vibe that only added to his charm. In fairness, part the dorkiness had to do with the era in which he ran; back then, runners dealt with shorts that chafed, T-shirts that hung wet and heavy, and long underwear that kept them warm during winter runs but looked like, well, underwear. During the winter months he’d wear a toboggan that looked three sizes too big for his head. In the spring he’d win the Boston Marathon and they would slip that god-awful wreath on his head, the look more goofy-geek than celebrated champion. Idiosyncrasies that only further endeared him to us.
“They didn’t have the good gear back in the ‘70s,” Rodgers says, protesting with a laugh. “There was no Gore-Tex clothing, or any of the other materials they have today. It was a different world back then. That stuff hadn’t been invented yet.”
Yes, Rodgers did things his way, his influence rippling across time and going well beyond running’s borders. Some might consider it a stretch to trace the lineage of today’s alternative sports back to Rodgers and the marathon, but it’s worth pumping the brakes and giving it a look see before totally dissing the notion. What does someone like Shaun White have in common with Bill Rodgers? What does landing something called the ‘frontside heelflip 540 body varial’ – a.k.a., The Armadillo – have to do with Rodgers racing Shorter on the Cape, circa 1976, sunlight drizzling through foliage twitching with the breeze? And why does it even matter? I’ll tell you why: If Rodgers didn’t open the door through which the pioneers in other unconventional sports passed, he at least held it long enough for them to glimpse the future, snowboarders and base jumpers and extreme runners alike, weirdo athletes who are now not only considered mainstream, but who are celebrities in their own right. Rodgers made the uncool cool. He dared us to expand our pallets, to look at fringe sports the way we look at our go-to sports.
How did it happen? How does someone so unassuming – so seemingly ordinary – rise up and change the world? Born on December 23, 1947, Rodgers got a running start on the sport that would later come to define him, spending plenty of time outdoors and, like other kids of the day, staying plenty active in his neighborhood and at school.
“I grew up in Newington, Connecticut,” Rodgers says, “which is just a few miles southwest of Hartford. I became a runner partly as the result of a parks and recreation program in Newington. We’d play games and such during the summers, which kept the kids very active, and we also used to run around the elementary school when we were younger. It was a very ordinary childhood. I liked hanging out with my friends. We all rode our bikes. We were in the Boy Scouts. We hunted a little, we fished a little. We would walk long distances to go to a nice fishing pond, things like that. I think that that really helped me as a runner later on.
“I remember President Kennedy talking about physical fitness when I was a sophomore at Newington High School, which was back in 1963 and right around the same time that I ran the mile in my gym class. I was the fastest kid in the school, so when they started running cross country a few weeks later I joined the team, along with my brother, Charlie, and my best friend, Jason.
“We were coached by a fellow who went to Boston University, Frank O’Rourke, and we had a lot of fun. A lot of people don’t realize that cross country is a team sport, but it’s actually one of America’s biggest team sports, high school and collegiate, with about half a million young people running. So, that’s how I got my start. Back then, we would run 1.2 miles. Today, all of the high school runners run 5K.”
The image of Rodgers, the pellucid teenager, running aimlessly through the Connecticut woods, carries a certain nostalgia, like a Norman Rockwell painting of a bygone era. As a boy, he chased butterflies with a homemade net in a field behind his house, mounting them on a board and studiously recording his collection in a notebook. He could rattle off the kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species of his winged Lepidoptera as if he’d spent his entire childhood chilling with Charles Darwin. It was quintessential Bill Rodgers; happy-go-lucky, a little on the nerdy side, and always on the move.
“When I was in high school, I liked music like all young people,” Rodgers says, mixing in some street cred to counter his inner-geek. “It was the ‘60s, so I was a fan of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones. I did all of the things kids my age did in those days, but it was running that kept me busy the most. Our track was in a grass field – it’s almost kind of ridiculous, but that’s what we had back then. Coach O’Rourke would put limestone down to mark the lanes for the track, which wasn’t even a regulation 400 meter track. It was more like 300 meters, and odd distance, but we didn’t care. We just had fun with our running.”
While Rodgers’ love of running was fact, his commitment to training, at least in the early days, was pure fiction. In high school he made a decent effort, but there was no hint that he had what it took – the drive, the desire, the work ethic – to become an elite distance runner like Shorter or Alberto Salazar, another rival who trained with a maniacal focus even at a young age. Rodgers ran, but he also made time to enjoy his social life at Newington High.
“O’Rourke’s program wasn’t designed to churn out college track and field stars or world class runners, it was a place where we could run and compete,” Rodgers says. “It was challenging, but because we didn’t run too much, or work too hard, we didn’t have a lot of injuries. I think that helped me later on, when I became much more serious about distance running. I truly enjoyed it. I think if you have fun with a sport, then I think you’re more apt to stick with it longer term. And I believe that you’ve got to explore sports, because everyone has a sport that suits them – their personality and their body type. I found running. It suited me. I tried other sports as a kid, like hockey and football, but I was 5’8” tall and 128 pounds. Football and me had a little bit of a tough time.”
~ ~ ~
Amby Burfoot grew up in Groton, Connecticut, and played a pivotal role in driving the Bill Rodgers narrative. Burfoot, it turns out, won the Boston Marathon in 1968 while a senior at Wesleyan University, where he and Rodgers were roommates. The win was a significant achievement, but it occurred during the pre-Shorter, pre-Rodgers, pre-running-boom era, and at a time when the race itself was barely covered by the media. Even Rodgers himself seemed to take the news in stride, complimentary of Burfoot’s accomplishment but hardly overwhelmed by what had just transpired.
“I met Amby at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut,” Rodgers says. “It’s an old college, a wonderful college, and an institution that’s very challenging academically. I think I majored in running while I was there [laughs]. That was definitely the case after I bumped into this fellow named Amby Burfoot. Amby was a high school champion runner in Connecticut. His dream was to win the Boston Marathon – which he did, in 1968. It was definitely a big deal, but I don’t know that I fully appreciated his win at the time. Ironically, the last American to win Boston before him was his high school cross country coach and English teacher, Johnny Kelly. And interestingly enough, Johnny Kelly was a two-time Olympian.”
Rodgers and Burfoot were teammates on Wesleyan’s cross-country team. The two men were polar opposites – Burfoot a neat freak who wanted everything neatly in its place, Rodgers the king of clutter – but their personalities clicked from the start.
“Amby was a great roommate and one of my best friends. He was also a very unusual guy. He would listen to music from the Broadway play Man of La Mancha – I’m sure you know the lyrics to that great song, The Impossible Dream. How fitting a song for him, because he went out there and won the Boston Marathon. All these years later, I still remember how excited Amby was to win it, and how happy I was for him.”
“Amby was a great roommate and one of my best friends. He was also a very unusual guy. He would listen to music from the Broadway play Man of La Mancha – I’m sure you know the lyrics to that great song, The Impossible Dream. How fitting a song for him, because he went out there and won the Boston Marathon. All these years later, I still remember how excited Amby was to win it, and how happy I was for him.” – Bill Rodgers
The two men were different in other ways. At Wesleyan, Burfoot seemed to take his running much more seriously than Rodgers, who liked to hang out in the bars and discos on the weekends. It wasn’t that Rodgers was a heavy partier – he barely drank alcohol – it was just that he had a hard time focusing on any one thing for very long and, well, college nightlife came with plenty of obvious distractions. That he would grow bored quickly and move on to something else, leaving a trail of unresolved loose ends in his wake, was just another one of those qualities that endeared him to us later on; Bill being Bill, scatterbrained but well-intentioned, the average Joe we could all relate to in some way.
Another difference: Burfoot’s Boston win was barely a blip on the radar, and hardly welcomed with the rock star applause that Rodgers received when he won in ’75.
“Boston has always been a big sports town,” Rodgers says. “The Celtics were winning all of those titles in the ‘60s, and fans have always been crazy about the Red Sox. The Boston Marathon just wasn’t as big back then as was when I won it a few years later, and nothing at all like it is today. When I moved to Boston I watched a lot of hockey – I enjoyed watching the Bruins play, because I was really impressed with Bobby Orr. I later met Bobby…he’s a terrific person, and what a terrific athlete.”
It’s hard to imagine Rodgers as a hockey nut, but then again why not?
“I think I enjoyed hockey so much because, when I was a kid in Newington, we used to play hockey out in the swamp. We were always looking for any patch of open ice because we loved to skate. For us, it was part of the whole outdoor lifestyle that we were living as young kids. I’ll never forget those days. That’s where I got hooked on walking and running in the fields. We even hunted a little bit, but not for long – I became an ex-hunter after I shot a little rabbit. That’s when I thought: Now what? I had no idea what I was going to do with it.
“I shot a duck one time, thinking that my grandmother would cook it for me. But when I took it to her she could only say, ‘No, no, no!’ So my hunting career ended very abruptly, and I felt very bad about it – I didn’t like killing an animal for nothing. So that was it for me.”
~ ~ ~
Wrap your head around this: The winner of four Boston Marathons and four New York Marathons, and the man who set the American marathon record in the process – the very face of the running craze that swept across the country like an Oklahoma brushfire – Bill Rodgers exited college and entered the workforce as a chain-smoking ex-runner with zero interest in competing in marathons. Come again? The man who would ultimately grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, who would blow the roof off the running boom, hanging out in Boston bars and smoking two packs of Winstons a day?
“I quit running partway through my senior year at Wesleyan,” Rodgers says. “I missed it almost as soon as I stepped away – I wasn’t part of the team anymore – but I didn’t look back. I quit mainly because there was so much going on in Vietnam, and I didn’t support our government’s decision to get involved in the Vietnam War. Overwhelmed by the possibility of going to Vietnam, I became a conscientious objector, and I went to work in a Boston hospital. I worked there for two years.”
“I quit running partway through my senior year at Wesleyan. I missed it almost as soon as I stepped away – I wasn’t part of the team anymore – but I didn’t look back. I quit mainly because there was so much going on in Vietnam, and I didn’t support our government’s decision to get involved in the Vietnam War. Overwhelmed by the possibility of going to Vietnam, I became a conscientious objector, and I went to work in a Boston hospital. I worked there for two years.” – Bill Rodgers
It’s hard to imagine an elite athlete in his early twenties so far from the pinnacle of his sport, but here was Rodgers, out of shape and smoking, his sleep habits erratic, his food choices bordering on the absurd and loaded with fat – we’re talking pizza topped with mayonnaise…pizza topped with mayonnaise! – and yet, here he was, about to change the world as we know it. The turning point, as it turns out, came when Rodgers exited a bar only to learn that his trusty Triumph – the most significant asset he owned – had been stolen.
“When my motorcycle was stolen, I was devastated,” he says. “It cost me $1,000, which I borrowed from my roommate. It was my transportation to work, and it’s all I owned in the world. Just like that, I had nothing left.”
Forced to start walking, Rodgers suddenly found himself reconnecting with the sport he’d spurned in college.
“I started running a little bit,” he says. “I joined the Boston YMCA, which is how I got back into the sport. It was a process. First I ran on their indoor track and then started running outdoors, and before long that old feeling came back. What helped drive me was I’d reached the bottom – I was broke, and I really didn’t have a lot of options. As fate would have it, I lived close to the Boston Marathon finish line back then, so I made my way there for a couple of the races in the early ‘70s. I had no idea how incredibly exciting the Boston Marathon was; Amby had won it, but there was no television coverage. Seeing it firsthand motivated me.”
Rodgers joined the Greater Boston Track Club, kicked his smoking habit, and started running over 100 miles per week.
“I became much more serious about running than I had been in college,” Rodgers says. “I experienced a little bit of success in racing in New England. I ran a 30k race in February, 1973, and I came in third place behind Amby Burfoot, who won. I qualified for the Boston Marathon with my time from that race.”
That race was the Silver Lake Dodge 30K Road Race, in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. Rodgers showed up at the starting line that day in tattered khakis and a rag of a shirt, looking more like a homeless person than a distance runner on the cusp, an eccentricity that even caught Burfoot by surprise. An hour and forty-three seconds later, Rodgers had qualified for Boston. In street clothes.
Are you serious?
“Amby ran a great race that day,” Rodgers says. “I stayed with him for a while, but I faded a little at the end. Still, I was pleased with the way I ran.”
The Boston Marathon beckoned. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t go the way he’d envisioned it going in his mind.
“I tried my first Boston Marathon almost on a whim, which isn’t unusual because everyone in the Boston area tries it at least once. It was hot and humid on race day. I don’t know if I didn’t drink enough, but I had tremendous cramps. My first Boston Marathon was a complete failure, because I didn’t even finish – I dropped out at the top of Heartbreak Hill. I remember making it 21 miles, and then I could see where I lived, so I gave up and walked home.”
“I tried my first Boston Marathon almost on a whim, which isn’t unusual because everyone in the Boston area tries it at least once. It was hot and humid on race day. I don’t know if I didn’t drink enough, but I had tremendous cramps. My first Boston Marathon was a complete failure, because I didn’t even finish – I dropped out at the top of Heartbreak Hill. I remember making it 21 miles, and then I could see where I lived, so I gave up and walked home.” – Bill Rodgers
Despite wilting in the humid conditions, there was something different about this new, improved Bill Rodgers. He was still the same happy guy, but he was now much more focused.
“I quit running for two months following that first Boston Marathon, but then I eventually started back again. The big difference this time around was me joining the Greater Boston Track Club. Everything in this sport is about your teammates – if you have teammates who believe in you, and who think you can do it, then pretty soon you are doing it. So that really helped me focus and improve. The club was coached by coach Billy Squires, who, I think, is still America’s greatest marathon coach ever. There were a lot of top runners on the team, terrific runners like Alberto Salazar, Greg Meyer, Randy Thomas, and Buddy Hodge, and we all pushed each other and encouraged each other. We were all former collegians who were used to being on a team, and that was the key. You can go it on your own, but you get more from running and you’re more liable to stay involved if you feel you are part of a team.”
A year later, Rodgers finished the 1974 Boston Marathon in fourteenth place, with a time of 2:19:34. He was laser focused, with body and mind fully equipped to deal with pushing himself the full 26 miles, 385 yards.
“I believe it’s good to let your body adjust to different distances gradually, because the body will always respond positively to stress, as long as the stress isn’t too much. Runners know this today, because of all of the science. Coaches know it, too. But that wasn’t always the case – the marathon is a very old event, going back to the 1896 Olympic Games, in Athens, Greece. It has become a very popular event over the last 30 years or so, ever since Frank Shorter won Olympic gold in Munich, Germany. That’s when the running boom began. Americans became more active, and a larger number of people started running marathons. The science quickly caught up with the sport, in everything from nutrition to supplements to training techniques like the Galloway Method, named after Jeff Galloway. The Galloway Method is a proven approach to build up for all races, no matter what the distance, but it is especially helpful in preparing for a marathon.”
They say the third time’s the charm, and for Bill Rodgers the old adage proved prophetic. In the best shape of his life, mentally focused, and with a phenomenal showing in the World Cross-Country Championships under his belt, Rodgers entered the 1975 Boston Marathon eager to prove his worth as an elite marathoner.
“I was much more confident,” he says. “It was a process that I had to go through. I dropped out due to the heat in 1973, and the next year I finished in fourteenth place. I ran in fourth place for about 20 miles that year, so I was competitive and had a shot at winning. Until then, I didn’t think the marathon was a good event for me, but I learned about staying hydrated while racing and how to maintain the proper pacing. In 1975, I knew I was fit after my third place in the World Cross-Country Championships, which was two months earlier. I just didn’t know how that would translate when I ran the Boston Marathon.
“It was a beautiful day, around 45 degrees, with a nice tailwind. Early on I was running with Canada’s Jerome Drayton, a good runner who later that year set the Canadian record at Fukuoka, Japan. We got into a duel and I heard someone yell, ‘Go Canada!’ I thought, ‘Wait a minute – this is my town.’ Around eight miles I pulled away, and I ran on my own the rest of the way.”
And just like that, Bill Rodgers joined his pal Amby Burfoot in an exclusive club: Boston Marathon champion.
“Winning on my third try was special,” he says. “My brother Charlie was there, Amby was there, my old high school friends and teammates were there, Billy Squires…they really motivated me.”
“Winning on my third try was special. My brother Charlie was there, Amby was there, my old high school friends and teammates were there, Billy Squires…they really motivated me.” – Bill Rodgers
Rodgers set the American marathon record in Boston that year, with a 2:09:55 time, and then finished third in the Fukuoka Marathon, with a time of 2:11:26. Track & Field News ranked Rodgers as the #1 marathoner in the world, and he was also a finalist for the prestigious James E Sullivan Award, given to the top amateur athlete in the United States. Rodgers, it seemed, had materialized from nowhere to become the face of a running explosion.
“It was just so much fun,” he says, “because it was the running boom, and you feel like you’re doing something to change the world. There just weren’t that many Americans running marathons in 1975 in 1976, about 30,000, total. Today, a half million people run in a marathon every year. There was a feeling of euphoria in 1975, a feeling that something was happening. It was like that Bob Dylan song, Ballad of a Thin Man – you know the lyrics: Because something is happening here. But you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mister Jones? Well, we knew what it was. It was the kind of freedom that this sport gives you, and it was all about a new way to look at health and fitness.
“It opened a lot of doors for me – after I won Boston, I was able to represent the United States in the way that I had hoped to really do it. I was able to travel around the world as an athlete, and also as an unofficial representative of our country. I ended up winning a significant marathon on five different continents. Only a few of us have done that – Frank Shorter and Ron Tabb of Oregon come to mind.”
~ ~ ~
By the time the 1976 Olympics rolled around, Bill Rodgers was a household name. He’d won Boston, and the public was fascinated with his story. He ran strong in the Olympic Trials, finishing second with a time of 2:11:58, and he went to Montreal as a favorite to win the gold medal. Never mind that rival Frank Short would be there as well. Rodgers was the hottest marathoner on the planet, and many expected him to prove it on a world stage.
“It was an honor to represent the United States in an Olympic sport,” he says. “That meant a lot to me. I think it’s an important way to break down barriers, because the Olympic Games is about community. It doesn’t matter where you come from, your race, your religion, your financial situation, or anything else. This is an event where everybody gets along. Politics don’t exist. It’s about coming together, putting differences aside for two weeks, and competing against the best in the world.”
Unfortunately for Bill Rodgers, the ’76 Olympics didn’t go according to script. There had been talk of a gold-silver finish for Rodgers and Shorter, a storyline which might have topped Shorter’s winning run four years earlier in Munich. Shorter held up his end of the bargain, winning silver. Rodgers? He flamed out, finishing 40th. It was a bitter end to his Olympic dream, but, in true Rodgers fashion, the good times are what he remembers most.
“It was incredible,” he says quickly. “Today we have the IAAF World Championships, which includes track and field. It’s actually the third largest sporting event in the world, after the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games, but it wasn’t around back when I was competing in the marathon. All we had were the Olympics, which happens once every four years, and all of that preparation came down to one race on one day.
“Going in, I knew I could race with Frank. He only beat me by seven seconds in the Olympic Trials, so I was very confident I could make that up, but I fell apart. It was extremely disappointing. Still, it was very special just to be there, at the Olympic Stadium, with my teammates and all of those other great athletes from around the world. It was something that I’ll never forget.”
The opening ceremonies were held at Stade Olympique – also known as Olympic Stadium, or more fondly as ‘The Big O’, with 73,000 in attendance and a half billion watching on television. It was unlike anything Rodgers had ever experienced.
“I was awestruck in many ways,” he says. “You’ve got all kinds of different people together to celebrate the opening of the Games – I remember seeing a seven-foot Russian woman basketball player walking beside a gymnast who wasn’t even five-feet tall. The event itself was beautiful, exciting, and so full of possibility, but then the whole Olympic experience was like that. Barriers fell; you might be talking to someone who doesn’t know your language very well, and yet they want to trade you for your American T-shirt or your American pins. There was this incredible camaraderie. I got to meet some very interesting people. One of my roommates was Ed Mendoza – he was from Phoenix, and ran in the 10K – and another was a marathon race walker named Ron Laird, who had competed in four Olympic Games. Both men are now in the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame.
“I met the Olympic gold medalist in the discus – Mac Wilkins – right after he’d won the gold medal. I got to know some of the other elite athletes from around the world, like marathoner Jeff Foster from New Zealand. I met Lasse Virén from Finland, one of the greatest distance runners of all time, which was a huge thrill. He was the only man to win gold medals in the 5K and 10K in consecutive Olympics. In Montreal, he ran in the marathon and took fifth place there – eighteen hours after finishing his gold medal run in the 5K. How special is that? He was following in the footsteps of the Flying Finn – Paavo Nurmi, way back in the 1920s. Finland has always had great track and field athletes.”
Rodgers pauses to reflect on the race itself.
“It was so frustrating then, when I fell apart,” he says at last. “I finished the race, but it was tricky. I had terrible cramps through my hamstrings and calves; I had to walk some, and I had to struggle in to the finish, but that’s what can happen in a marathon sometimes. Sometimes I have to remind myself of how special it was just to be there, because once you’ve made an Olympic team you are an Olympian forever. Americans love the Olympic Games because it represents excellence and it represents patriotism. There were some people who didn’t think that I was patriotic because of my stance against the Vietnam War, but I am intensely that way, intensely patriotic. Running in the Olympics gave me a chance to express that.”
~ ~ ~
Rodgers was eager to put the disappointment in Montreal behind him. He also wanted to cement his reputation as one of the greatest marathoners of the day. Both of these goals would be achieved a few short months later in New York City, where race officials were looking to close the gap on the historic Boston Marathon, and enticing headline runners like Rodgers and Shorter to join the field was a key piece of the strategy.
“Three weeks after Montreal I was at the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod,” Rodgers says. “So was Frank Shorter. Fred Lebow, the race director for the New York City Marathon, met with us there and pitched the concept of us running in the ‘new’ York City Marathon – a race that would take place in the five boroughs of New York City. Until then, the race had been run exclusively in Central Park. We both agreed to run, which helped Fred promote the event to a wider audience. In Frank and I, he had two of the top marathoners – one of them an Olympic multi-medalist – and he could also promote our rivalry. It really helped to generate interest in the race. For me, the thought of running in New York was music to my ears because it gave me a chance to have my own Olympic race all over again. Frank had taken silver and Don Cardon finished fourth in Montreal, so that was a great success for our team, but I was very disappointed in myself because I didn’t do so well. Here was a chance to do better.
“The weather was cool with low humidity – the kind of day that every marathon runner wants. It was pure fun as we got to run over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the Queensboro Bridge. I pulled away from Frank around the fourteen mile mark – I like making my move just past the halfway point of marathons, unlike the great Japanese runner Toshiheko Seko, who liked to wait and wait before nailing everyone at the end with a kick. To win was so exciting. I ran a strong race and thought I had a chance to break my American marathon record, but I didn’t know the course so I ended up missing the record by fourteen seconds. To win it was incredible. It was a great course, and the people of New York came out and they really supported us, you could sense that they really knew what we were doing. They were really pushing us, and I was going for it. It felt great to win after performing so poorly in Montreal.”
Thanks in large part to Rodgers and Shorter, the New York City Marathon has become arguably the premiere marathon in the world.
“It was so cool to run through the streets of New York,” he says. “There were only 2,000 of us back in 1976, but today there are 50,000 people running the New York City Marathon. I like to think that I played a small part in that growth. Fred Lebow, and later Mary Wittenberg and George Hirsch from the New York Road Runners, they really built that race step-by-step, block by block, and now it’s one of the great marathons in the world.”
“It was so cool to run through the streets of New York. There were only 2,000 of us back in 1976, but today there are 50,000 people running the New York City Marathon. I like to think that I played a small part in that growth. Fred Lebow, and later Mary Wittenberg and George Hirsch from the New York Road Runners, they really built that race step-by-step, block by block, and now it’s one of the great marathons in the world.” – Bill Rodgers
In 1977, Rodgers won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon, making him the only runner ever to hold the championship of all three major marathons at the same time. He was again ranked as the top marathoner in the world by Track & Field News. He trained hard, at times running as much as 122 miles per week, mixing in interval training, an indoor race here and there, and numerous 20+ mile runs. But the mega-mileage backfired, as Rodgers went into the ’77 Boston Marathon on tired legs and recorded a disappointing DNF. He made the necessary adjustments over the summer, recovering in time to test himself in a grueling double; defending his title in New York in early November, and then going after that Fukuoka title four short weeks later.
“As defending champion, I wanted to go back to New York,” Rodgers says. “I was treated great, I enjoyed the course, and being the defending champ meant a lot to me. My race strategy was pretty straightforward. By the time Garry Bjorkland and I came off of the Queensboro Bridge, the two of us had blown the race open – it was just us. I was trying to defend my title and Garry was going for the win. We forced the pace going down First Avenue. I pulled away and Garry faded badly, eventually getting passed by Jerome Drayton of Canada, who ended up second. I ran alone and won by the race by just over two minutes. Winning Fukuoka was icing on the cake, but running two marathons in the span of a month was very difficult. Today, there is more thought put into how races are scheduled.”
Although Rodgers had become a star, he hadn’t become rich off his celebrity. While today’s New York Marathon winner gets a six-figure check, things were still quite different when Rodgers was in his prime. Prize money and corporate sponsorship were still in their infancy.
“It was a different world back then,” he says with a laugh. “The best races would have a television, or maybe a bike as a prize. I remember winning a 10-speed bike at a race. Once I won a jar of honey. Another time I won a rocking chair. And on another occasion I won a table. We would always look at the available merchandise before the race, as the winner got his pick. We were doing the same things as runners like Clarence Demar and Johnny Kelley back in the day, because when it came to prizes and prize money, our sport hadn’t changed in all of those years.
“It was a financial struggle at times. There was no money in our sport – we had amateur status, which meant we couldn’t win prize money. It was frustrating, because we were working so hard and the sport itself was rising in popularity because of the work that we were putting in.”
“It was a financial struggle at times. There was no money in our sport – we had amateur status, which meant we couldn’t win prize money. It was frustrating, because we were working so hard and the sport itself was rising in popularity because of the work that we were putting in.” – Bill Rodgers
Rodgers pauses, the dark cloud that had formed in his head passing almost as quickly as it had come.
“I have a funny story about the New York Marathon,” he says quickly. “One time I took all of the back roads when I drove down from Boston, in order to save money and avoid paying tolls. Well, I guess I parked in the wrong place, and after I won I learned that my car was gone and had been towed. I didn’t have any money to get it back, so Fred Lebow had to ‘pass the hat’ to get my car out of the towing company’s lot!”
~ ~ ~
While Rodgers’ competitors knew his talent and fans clamored to rub elbows with him, Rodgers himself seemed oblivious to all the fuss. It was as if there were two Bills – the ruthless, focused Bill between the start and finish lines, and the friendly, laid-back Bill who posed for pictures and loved talking to complete strangers. The former Bill had ascended to the top of a grueling sport; the latter Bill won us over, coaxing us to following him like a distance-running Pied Piper.
Stories about Rodgers were almost mythic – he won the 1975 Boston Marathon in a shirt he found in a dumpster, while drinking water from a shampoo bottle – and we couldn’t get enough. He was also the most dominant marathoner in the world, a runner at the height of his powers who would win a mind-boggling 27 of 30 races he entered in 1978. Rodgers uses another sporting analogy to describe this period in his life.
“I felt like I was a surfer riding waves,” he says, smiling. In that moment, it’s easy to imagine laid-back Bill hanging out on a California beach, sand between his toes, his hair bleached by the sun. “I had a consistency and a strength that gave me confidence to get on the next wave and ride it to the finish line. Frank Shorter and I talked about it recently, and his dominance felt the same way to him. So it worked for a while for both of us. When you get up on the wave you just keep doing the things that got you there, and you do your best to try to stay on top of it.”
When he toed the starting line in the spring of ’78, Rodgers dominance felt less like a surfer riding a wave and more like a cross between Mike Tyson and Michael Phelps, the Boston Marathon outcome all but determined. He would finish with a time of 2:10:13, winning the race for the second time.
“That year I had a lead but Jeff Wells almost caught me at the end,” Rodgers recalls. “Jeff and I had competed for the United States at the World Cross Country Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, and he beat me there. I hadn’t done a lot of anaerobic work, but I had plenty of endurance and I knew the Boston course better than Jeff. I think I may have underestimated Jeff, and not because he wasn’t a great runner, but because Frank Shorter was in the field and running his first Boston Marathon. Frank and I ran neck and neck for a while, but I was eventually able to separate. At the 16-mile mark, there was a group of us who usually made a move to thin out the pack – Esa Tikkanen from Finland, Jack Fultz, Randy Thomas, and myself. We made our move on the long downhill after Wellesley, which was around 15 to 16 miles. We were all running well that day, but Jeff stayed with us. Jeff made a tremendous move in the last couple miles, and if there were another 50 yards in the race I think he would have caught me. It was very nerve-wracking over that last half mile. Running toward the finish I kept turning around and Jeff was gaining like a train – good thing it wasn’t 26.3 miles!”
On October 29, 1979, Rodgers won the New York City Marathon for a fourth time. It was his seventh marathon win in a row, a run of dominance that landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
“It was great fun,” Rodgers says of the SI cover. “I won New York the day before, and I’m walking through the airport on my way home and there it was, in the magazine rack. I had to do a double take – there I was, on the cover of Sports Illustrated! I couldn’t believe it.
“It was great fun. I won New York the day before, and I’m walking through the airport on my way home and there it was, in the magazine rack. I had to do a double take – there I was, on the cover of Sports Illustrated! I couldn’t believe it.” – Bill Rodgers
“I still like going to New York and watching the runners come in. I was there last year, and I hope to return this year. You make so many friends in this sport which, in my opinion, is the most powerful thing about running. There’s an excitement that comes with competing in racing, which is why we’re there, but you also develop this amazing friendships. And if you have a rival like Frank Shorter, you shake hands at the end of the race and the friendship remains long after the rivalry ends.”
If you believe in such things, Rodgers would fall victim to the famed Sports Illustrated cover jinx, finishing sixth in the Fukuoka Marathon a month later. Regardless, he closed out the decade as arguably the greatest marathon runner of his generation. By then, a new generation of challengers had begun to emerge.
“Japan’s Toshiheko Seko came to Boston in ’79 and was one of the favorites to win,” Rodgers says. “He had beaten me the previous December at Fukuoka, which is Japan’s greatest marathon with 60 years of history, but I was coming off a bout of the flu in Fukuoka and wasn’t at my best. Coming into Boston I was much stronger; I’d set a world record in the 25K on a track in February of that year. I felt good going into Boston. Garry Bjorkland and Tom Fleming were ahead of me through the early part of the race, which goes through Framingham, Natick and Wellesley. I was so focused on Bjorkland and Fleming that I forgot about Seko, who ended up beside me as we went up the first hill. We passed Bjorkland, who said, ‘Bill, go for 2:08.’ I got away from Seko again because he didn’t know the course. Going up Heartbreak Hill I pulled away – I don’t think he was prepared for the hills. I broke the course record and American record in 2:09:27.”
Winning New York later that year would be no easy task, as the three-time defending champ found himself having to come from behind to win.
“The gun seemed to go off early and I got behind a lot of people,” he recalls. “Kirk Pfeffer was a 2:10 guy and took off fast. I had a bad start in traffic, and had to pass people to maneuver my way back to the front of the pack. It took me a while to catch the runners in front of me. Kirk maintained his lead until I finally caught him in Central Park, at around the 23-mile mark. I could see him up ahead of me for quite a while – it nerve-wracking because he was such a fast marathon runner, but I loved the Central Park hills. Even though I didn’t use my usual strategy of making a move coming off the Queensboro Bridge, it was gratifying to win in a different way. Thankfully I had conserved enough energy to make that final push at the end. I was running strong by the time we entered Central Park.”
~ ~ ~
Rodgers’ dream of an Olympic mulligan was dashed with the US decision to skip the 1980 Games in Moscow. He was fresh off a Boston Marathon three-peat, and still the a force to be reckoned with. The win in Boston was his fourth overall, equaling his title haul in New York.
“Physically I was in pretty good shape, though not quite as good as in 1979,” Rodgers says. “I was getting ready for the Olympic Trials marathon, but due to the U.S. Olympic boycott I entered Boston at the last minute. Kirk Pfeffer stayed with me through Wellesley, but at the halfway point I kicked it into a different gear and I was on my own, just like in my first Boston victory. I think a big key was that I’d trained in Florida and had done a lot of warm weather training. It really worked out well in Boston, because the temperatures got up around 75 or 80 degrees, so I think I was better prepared for the conditions. That was the year that Jacqueline Gareau wasn’t recognized as women’s winner until a week later, due to an imposter who cheated.”
The imposter was Rosie Ruiz, who, it turns out, didn’t run the entire Boston Marathon course. Celebrated at first, Ruiz’s story began to unravel almost as soon as she crossed the finish line. Rodgers noticed that Ruiz could not recall many things that most runners know by heart, such as intervals and splits. Others noticed that Ruiz was not winded or coated in sweat. Still others remarked that her thighs were much flabbier and fatter than would be expected for a world-class runner. Perhaps most damning of all, no one could recall seeing her on the course. With pressure mounting, Ruiz later released stress-test results showing her resting heart rate as 76; most female marathoners have a resting heart rate in the 50s or lower. She was stripped of her title eight days later, and Gareau was declared the winner.
“It was a black eye for our sport,” Rodgers says, his tone growing more serious. “There’s no place for cheating, whether that’s someone using performance enhancing drugs or someone defrauding the integrity of the sport by lying.”
“It was a black eye for our sport. There’s no place for cheating, whether that’s someone using performance enhancing drugs or someone defrauding the integrity of the sport by lying.” – Bill Rodgers
The 1980 Olympics represented Rodgers’ best and last chance at Olympic gold, but Cold War politics wouldn’t allow the dream to become reality. It’s something Rodgers has long since accepted, but part of him still wishes there had been no boycott.
“I ran so terribly in Montreal, finishing fortieth out of 65 runners,” he says. “I think I would’ve done much better in Moscow – it would be hard to do worse [laughs]. We’ll never know. I understood why the boycott was held, which was President Carter’s condemnation of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. It was based on very complicated and tricky stuff. The Soviets wanted certain individuals in power, and the US wanted the Soviets to end the occupation. In the end, I don’t think boycotts work. In 1984, the Los Angeles Olympic Games were boycotted by many Eastern Bloc countries and allies – it was basically the Soviet Union’s response to our boycott in 1980. In 1976, the African nations boycotted Montreal. The only ones it hurts, I think, are the athletes who are denied the opportunity to participate and realize the dream of competing for their countries. In the end, I think it’s better to resolve differences in different ways, because the Olympics is such a great place for young people to express themselves. For me, running a marathon in Moscow would have been a unique experience. I competed in the US Olympic Trials in 1984, and I came in eighth. Not winning a medal for my country is the biggest disappointment of my running career.”
Rodgers pauses, and then the fan in him takes over.
“If you ever have the chance to go to the Olympic Games, anywhere in the world, I would highly recommend it. I was in Los Angeles and saw Joan Benoit Samuelson take her gold, and when I saw her come through that Stadium – wow – it knocks you back, it’s just incredible. And then there’s the 100,000 people who stood up and cheered. It was so powerful. I wish I had been able to experience that.”
Rodgers string of New York City Marathon wins came to an end in 1980, when Alberto Salazar set a course record with a time of 2:09:41. Rodgers finished a respectable fifth, but the young Salazar signaled a changing of the guard at the top of the pecking order. Rodgers was very familiar with his new, younger rival.
“Alberto Salazar was ten years younger than me,” Rodgers says. “He was born in Cuba, and he came to the United States when he was just a young kid, after his dad had a falling out with Mr. Castro. Alberto still has strong feelings about that. He’s a super, super nice guy. I think he’s our country’s best marathon coaches, perhaps our best distance running coach. He’s done so much for the US, and he still coaches for the Nike team.
“When I first met Alberto, he was just seventeen. He joined the Greater Boston Track Club, courtesy of a mutual friend. His nickname was ‘Rookie’ because he was just a kid. He was actually one of the best high school runners in the country, so he was recruited heavily and ended up going to school at the University of Oregon. Every year he’d come back home to see his family, and every year we’d see each other at the Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod. Falmouth is one of our country’s great road races, and historically the top runners would meet in the summer and race –Frank Shorter, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Greta Weiss, Shalane Flanagan, Ben True, all of the big names have been there over the years. And then, along comes young Alberto.”
Salazar’s pain tolerance was legendary; in 1982, he won his first and only Boston Marathon after his famous ‘Duel in the Sun’ with Dick Beardsley. Salazar outsprinted Beardsley and collapsed, completely spent. He was then rushed to a hospital emergency room, where he was given six liters of water intravenously. Amazingly – or horrifyingly, depending on how you look at it – Salazar did not drink anything during the race.
“I believe that ’82 race was one of the best Boston Marathons ever run,” he says, “because both of them ran 2:08 in that heat. I thought before the race that Alberto would win easily – I wasn’t in the kind of shape to keep up with him, and I didn’t think anyone else in the field could, either. In 1981, I had beaten Dick Beardsley in Houston, and then again in Stockholm. He had run a 2:09 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, but no one would have picked Dick Beardsley to challenge mighty Alberto in the 1982 Boston Marathon. The book Duel in the Sun recaps that race beautifully.”
Surprised by the way the race played out, Rodgers was hardly surprised by Salazar’s reckless abandon.
“I would see Alberto at Falmouth there every summer, and every summer he would push me more and more,” Rodgers says. “I won Falmouth three times, but one year we were locked in a brutal dual in the heat. He finally fell back, and I later learned that he finished the race and then collapsed. They had to put him in a tub of ice water. His body had overheated so much that it was starting to shut down – he’s Catholic, and it was so bad that they gave him his last rights. I remember Alberto finally pulling out of it and telling his dad that no one was willing to push themselves as hard as he was. That actually turned out to be his greatest strength and also his greatest weakness. Alberto had a wonderful career, but it could have been even longer if he hadn’t pushed himself so hard. He was a terrific athlete, and a great teammate. We’re still friends to this day.”
As the ‘80s unfurled, there were plenty of changes afoot in the world of marathon running. The next generation of runners were eating better, training better, and dropping times at a rapid clip. All of this coincided with something that had long been missing from the sport: Prize money.
“After the Olympic boycott in 1980, we as a running community really had nothing left,” Rodgers says. “So, in 1981, we formed an association of road racing athletes with the support of Nike, who put up the first prize money. It was a game changer – he had the first road race event with prize money in America in about 80 years. The event was in Portland, Oregon. Greg Meyer of the United States, the 1983 Boston Marathon champion, won that race.
“After the Olympic boycott in 1980, we as a running community really had nothing left. So, in 1981, we formed an association of road racing athletes with the support of Nike, who put up the first prize money. It was a game changer – he had the first road race event with prize money in America in about 80 years. The event was in Portland, Oregon. Greg Meyer of the United States, the 1983 Boston Marathon champion, won that race.” – Bill Rodgers
“It was a big gamble, because we were going against not only our federation’s leadership, but the Olympic leadership. In the end, everyone agreed that it was time for change. The leaders realized that we could build the sport by having more money come into it, and not only in the marathons, but in all Olympic sports. With more money came more exposure and more visibility, and more media coverage, and with it more popularity. But for a while there was a lot of criticism – people, particularly in Boston, did not want to change. The longtime organizers of the Boston Marathon didn’t want to give prize money. The problem was, the other big races, like the London Marathon, were giving away prize money. Even the Pittsburgh Marathon was giving away prize money. So Boston, after several years, finally did change, and John Hancock, the big Boston insurer and financial services company, stepped forward and put up the first purse at the Boston Marathon.”
Rodgers’ last real shot at Boston glory was in 1986, where he finished fourth to Australia’s Robert de Castella. Within a few short years the floodgates would open and wave of runners from Kenya and Ethiopia would begin to dominate.
“That was the year the Boston Marathon awarded prize money for the first time, so many more of the top marathon runners from around the world came, including the eventual winner, Rob de Castella. Everyone knew about the ‘Man from Down Under.’ In 1981 he had run 2:08:18 at Fukuoka and had won the Commonwealth Games Marathon by beating Juma Ikangaa. Juma was from Tanzania and a crowd favorite in Boston, partly because he finished second three years in a row during the late ‘80s.
“Rob de Castella was an iconic figure in the sport, like Alberto Salazar, and he was trying to become the best in the world. He proved he was the best in Boston that year by running away from the field and setting a new course record. I was very happy to finish fourth, and very proud of my effort. I was 37 years old, almost 38, and it was becoming harder to stay with the new wave of runners. After so many years of top racing your mind begins to have trouble with training and racing hard. It’s something that all runners go through at some point.”
“Rob de Castella was an iconic figure in the sport, like Alberto Salazar, and he was trying to become the best in the world. He proved he was the best in Boston that year by running away from the field and setting a new course record. I was very happy to finish fourth, and very proud of my effort. I was 37 years old, almost 38, and it was becoming harder to stay with the new wave of runners. After so many years of top racing your mind begins to have trouble with training and racing hard. It’s something that all runners go through at some point.” – Bill Rodgers
Rodgers is still in love with the Boston Marathon. In 1976, Asics paid him $3,000 to wear their shoes, a small fortune to a man who once lost everything when his motorcycle was stolen. Gradually, he was able to start earning money from his life on the road. He opened a running store in 1977, started a clothing line, and in a small way, cashed in his celebrity as a runner. Without question, prize money changed the sport, and while he wasn’t able to fully benefit from it in his prime, he’s happy that Boston has kept pace.
“Dave McGillivray, the race director of the Boston Athletic Association, has transformed the Boston Marathon into such a strong event. Now, when you go to the start line, there’s medical care as well as medical care along the course, in case you get blisters or you overheat or get injured. You can get a ride to the finish line if you’re injured. You have portable toilets at the start line and all along the course. The crowds are bigger than ever, the media coverage is better than ever, it’s even more of an international field that when I ran. They’ve managed to keep all of the traditions, but they’ve also helped guide the race into the twenty-first century.”
~ ~ ~
Fame is fleeting, and Rodgers appreciates this certainty perhaps as much as anyone. He understands that his time as the world’s most dominant marathoner has long since passed, and he remains appreciative of those who still remember him at the height of his powers. And he’s learned that he can still have fun running at an advanced age.
“When people come up to me and want me to sign an autograph, I’m always happy to oblige. When I go to marathons around the world people still recognize me and have nice things to say. It’s different for marathoners, because we’re not as well-known as athletes in other sports. The same is true of most Olympic athletes – for every Michael Phelps there are a hundred who compete once on the world stage and then disappear. It’s not like baseball or football or basketball, or other sports that are widely shown on television. You can’t get cocky in this sport. You have to appreciate the fans who recognize you.
“In my late 30s, when I started to slip from being a top marathoner, that stung. But on the other hand, as I’ve gotten slower, I’ve learned to accept it. It’s a whole new perspective. You have to re-calibrate your goals, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s actually a chance to create a whole new set of goals.
“It’s always important, but even more when you’re aging, to have the support of your running group. We need our training partners, because we’ve all got ailments and there’s less tread on the tires. I remember this one guy running in a race beside me who said, ‘I just had a hip replacement.’ Wow. There are these life things that happen to older runners that wouldn’t happen to younger runners. It’s the reality of aging, and it’s fascinating how people overcome that.”
Like a passionate affair that has cooled with the passage of time, Rodgers and running make the perfect married couple; while the emotion may not burn as brightly as before, the love is stronger than ever, forged from the heat of those punishing Boston Marathons.
“When you look at the aging process, most athletes leave their sport at a very young age,” he says. “Running is different. You can run at any age. It doesn’t have to be a marathon – there are plenty of a 5K races out there. Still, getting older has been a unique experience – and it can certainly be humbling at times. I recently ran a half-marathon in Nashville, Tennessee, and was beaten soundly by a guy who was just a few months younger than me. I was kind of angry, because he whipped me pretty good. But after I had time to think about it, I realized that, on the other hand, I ran my best time in a number of years. So, in the end, you just do your best. That’s all you can do. I walked away admiring him. He ran one heck of a race.”
Rodgers never tires of running, and never tires of talking about running. His life is a steady stream of conversations with complete strangers, many of whom have either ran in marathons with him or who have been lucky enough to have met him, ever-so-briefly, at one of the umpteen races he’s ran over the years. He’s always kind and cordial, almost affable to a fault – until you realize that he really does care, even if he has no recollection of those brief encounters.
“I enjoy meeting people as much as running the race itself,” he says. “There are so many great stories, which is why running is an incredible sport. And the people who are involved today – it has totally redefined our definition of the modern athlete. Just look at the Paralympics. Look at the athletes who are out there running on one leg. I was running the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon five or six years ago, and I look up and see this guy ahead of me. He’s got one leg, and he’s running on one of those curved blades. I just had to wonder – how is this guy beating me – because I’m still a pretty good runner, even at this age. It forced me to reevaluate. And do you know what I read about that guy later? He was riding a motorcycle when someone ran a light and smashed into him. When he came to, he begged the doctors not to amputate his leg. The doctors had no choice. So shortly after the surgery he saw the Ironman Triathlon on TV, and it motivated him to get up and run”.
Diet is another concession to the aging process.
“Through the years I’ve always been a big junk food eater, but that was just a sign of the times. When we were traveling from race to race, we’d go back to a hotel afterwards and our celebration was getting a big bowl of nuts or chips with cheese. We didn’t think about nutrition like the professional runners today. Frank Shorter and I were a little bit closer to the earlier Boston Marathon winners, the Johnny Kelleys and Clarence Demars, than to runners of the present day who are so focused on all aspects of fitness, including nutrition. With that said, my diet is a little healthier than in years past. I still like my cookies and my pecan pie. And I still eat treats here and there, because you have to celebrate life. You can’t have too austere a diet.”
“Through the years I’ve always been a big junk food eater, but that was just a sign of the times. When we were traveling from race to race, we’d go back to a hotel afterwards and our celebration was getting a big bowl of nuts or chips with cheese. We didn’t think about nutrition like the professional runners today. Frank Shorter and I were a little bit closer to the earlier Boston Marathon winners, the Johnny Kelleys and Clarence Demars, than to runners of the present day who are so focused on all aspects of fitness, including nutrition. With that said, my diet is a little healthier than in years past. I still like my cookies and my pecan pie. And I still eat treats here and there, because you have to celebrate life. You can’t have too austere a diet.” – Bill Rodgers
For someone who has logged so many miles, Rodgers has remained relatively injury-free. There’s been a ding here and there, some worse than others, he’s emerged on the other end no worse for the wear.
“Some of it is genetics, and some of it is luck,” he says quickly. “Mary Decker Slaney is someone who’s had a tremendous amount of bad luck. She was an amazing talent; as a 13-year-old kid she was a phenom. They called here ‘Little Mary Decker’, and to this day she remains one of our greatest talents, and certainly one of the greatest female track and field athletes we’ve ever had. She was a world champion in the 3,000 and the 5,000, but she pushed herself too hard on the track. The problem with the track is the intensity of those turns. She put in so much training on the track – endless miles – and when you’re training and racing at that level it can be pretty tricky. She produced terrific records, that’s for sure, but she’s had nearly thirty surgeries on her legs”.
Above all else, Rodgers has remembered to have fun. Sure, running was considered bizzaro by the populace at large when he ran his first Boston Marathon – truckers even threw beer cans at runners’ heads – but the stories he can tell are priceless. Laser-focused between the start and finish lines, Rodgers has taken great care to enjoy the ride.
“I remember going to the Stockholm Marathon with Dick Beardsley,” he says with a smile. “And there at the race were two former heavyweight boxing champions, American Floyd Patterson and Swede Ingemar Johansson. The two men had been big rivals in the ring, fighting three times for the heavyweight championship, and yet Ingemar Johansson and Floyd Patterson became good friends who flew across the Atlantic to visit each other every year. So, they ran the marathon together – the same marathon that Dick and I were running. Hundreds of thousands of Swedish people were waiting for them to finish, and these are big people so it took them a long time. But they were cheered every step of the way. That’s what I love about running, and those are the stories that I’ll remember most. The energy, excitement, and the stories. I still go to marathons today, and I love to be at the finish line, whether that’s in Boston, or New York City, or Oklahoma City. You can see the effort of the runners involved, and you can see how hard they try. In Oklahoma City, you see them running in memory of somebody who died in the terrible bombing. It’s just incredible. I always say that it’s more than just a sport. It is a sport – it’s a very competitive sport – but it’s got those stories that you can’t find anywhere else.”
~ ~ ~
Today, Bill Rodgers is the elder statesman of distance running. He still runs, though not quite as far or as fast as before, and he dispenses funny stories and sage advice in equal doses. He’s written an autobiography, Marathon Man, and he’s survived a battle with prostate cancer. He’s made money, though not as much as you might suspect, and he’s lost it, too: In 1987, his running apparel company, Rodgers & Co., was forced into bankruptcy to cover $1.3 million in debt (reduced from $3.5 million just two years before). His house, which had been used as collateral, was foreclosed upon. The Bank of Boston put locks on the doors, and the house was eventually sold. Rodgers simply smiled through the adversity, moved into an apartment…and started running again. In 2012, the Bill Rodgers Running Center shuttered its doors, another link to the running boom broken. But before you start to feel sorry for Bill Rodgers, he’s quick to remind you that he’s survived it all, and that while much of this race called life is behind him, he’s hopeful for plenty of good miles ahead.
“In life and in running, I think it’s extremely important to have a good, positive mental attitude,” he says, smiling. “I think it’s a very important tool to have in your tool belt. Everyone gets some dings along the way. Everyone loses something or someone. Both can be challenging, but most of us also have great experiences to draw strength from. Running is a great sport in that regard, because it can teach you so much about life if you let it. It’s something you can do no matter what your age. You can get stronger and fitter, and you can see improvements almost immediately. I would always say to folks who are reading this, don’t let anything stop you. Go to your local running store, or your local athletics store – Fleet Feet, or Dick’s Sporting Goods, or wherever – and try on several pairs of running shoes. Then get out there and try some walking and running. We were meant to move; when you move you feel better, you eat better, you sleep better…life is better. I think we’re seeing the American people really desire to keep their health more today than ever before. Running and walking can be a big part of that.”
Rodgers knows a thing or two about toughness. When the doctors delivered the news about the dreaded C-word, he responded by going out and running a 10K. In 2003, his right tibia snapped during an eight-mile training run; Rodgers simply had a seat on the ground and stuck out a thumb and hitchhiked back to his vehicle.
“I don’t think I’m tougher than anyone else,” he says, “and I’m probably not as tough as a lot of people. I think I was lucky that I was able to have good coaches, and good training partners, which helped me to compete with a lot of different runners. Actually, I dropped out of eight marathons in my career, so I had some races where I wasn’t so tough. Sometimes you’ve got to drop out. If your health is on the line you’ve got to be smart about it. In 1983, I was running in the Beijing International Marathon, and I was in the lead with one other guy chasing me. I couldn’t hang on – I got dehydrated and I had to drop out with one mile to go. American Ron Tabb went on to win. That was a race that I really wanted, because China is such a big country, but it didn’t go my way. I had to play it smart and take care of my health.”
In 2000, Rodgers received his sports’ highest honor – induction into the USA Track &Field Hall of Fame. He was taken aback by the announcement, but he shouldn’t have been surprised; that kind of stuff happens when you dominate distance running for a decade.
“That was great fun, and what an honor,” he recalls. “The United States has a rich track and field history, with so many celebrated athletes. Sprinters like Jesse Owens, Allyson Felix, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson…and distance runners like Craig Virgin, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Lynn Jennings. The list goes on and on. To even be mentioned in the same breath with these people is still a shock.”
~ ~ ~
Everything changed on April 15, 2013, when two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street. Three people were killed, and 264 others were injured. For Rodgers, as well as most everyone else, it was racing’s darkest day.
“When I initially heard about the bombing, I wasn’t at the finish line,” Rodgers says. “I was at home, having just finished a run with my girlfriend. We were about to turn on the TV and watch the marathon when I started to get phone calls from neighbors. That’s how I received word that a bomb that went off at the Boston Marathon. I was in complete disbelief. I just kept saying the same thing to myself: This can’t be. Why would there be a bomb at the Boston Marathon? But then I saw the TV footage and I could see spots on the ground that looked like wet spots, and I immediately knew that it was blood. You can’t help but think terrorism. Sadly, I was right.
“What happened hurt so many people, but I think the terrorists lost badly. In the end, you only make enemies when you do things like that, and I think the people of Boston – and the people across the US and the world for that matter – united after this cowardly act of terrorism. That’s what happened when one of my buddies, Keith Moore, reached out to me after the bombing. He’d ran the marathon like he’s done so many times in the past. He called me, and he asked if I would present his Boston Marathon medal to someone who had been wounded in the attack. So I went to the hospital and I presented it to her. Sometimes you feel helpless, like there’s nothing you can do, but we can all do something to make a difference, no matter how small.”
~ ~ ~
Bill Rodgers soldiers on, evangelizing the sport that made him famous, this while making time to appreciate the little things at the end of a storied career – things like chatting up fellow runners wherever he goes, reminiscing about the good old days with Frank Shorter, and having a post-race laugh with complete strangers over a glass of Scotch. In some ways nothing has changed; he’s still that kid with the butterfly net, running through the field, drenched with sweat, the summer sun gluing that wavy mop of hair to his head. In other ways everything has changed; the Boston Billy phenomenon, with all the theater and passion that would attend it, has long since slipped away, the nation no longer needing him to serve as front man for the running revolution. We got this, we seem to say. Thank you for getting us up off the couch, but we can take it from here.
Rodgers still competes, his goals neither as lofty nor as well-chronicled as before, his pace relatively pedestrian, his race results mostly middle of the pack. Time catches us all. His face is a little softer now, and that infectious grin is framed, parenthetically, with the deep lines of time. Still, he’s very much the same Average Joe that we all fell in love with. He runs, content, not because his likeness has long since been chiseled into the Mt. Rushmore of distance running, but because he’s still able to do the thing that he loves most.
“Running has always been important, but it’s more important to stick with your family and your friends,” he adds without hesitation. “You have make the important things a priority. It’s tricky sometimes. You can get caught up in life, or business, or sports, or politics, or whatever, and if you’re not careful you can lose sight of what’s really important. Family and friends are the most important thing. Everything else – running included – is icing on the cake.”
And just like that, Bill Rodgers – the chain-smoking, pizza-and-mayo everyman who took up running after his motorcycle was stolen, and then proceeded to conquer the world – is off for a little road work, his next half-marathon two weeks away.
It’s all part of the Boston Billy Mythology.
It’s been one hell of a run.