The REAL Breakthrough Race of Boston Billy's Career-The 1975 IAAF World Championships, March 16, 1975, by Jeff Benjamin

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Bill Rodger's awards from the 1975 World Cross Country, 
photo courtesy of Bill Rodgers
The REAL Breathrough Race of Boston Billy's Career--The 1975 IAAF World Championships - March 16, 1975
By Jeff Benjamin
 
 
There was a time when the IAAF World Cross Country Championships truly resonated with the hardcore running world. Billed as the toughest annual race to win outside of the Olympic distances, runners from all over the world gathered to compete on equal footing. Whether one was a miler, 5K, 10K, 1/2 Marathon or Marathon specialist, this annual race was distance nirvana for both the participants and the fans. The facts that the event was held in different venues, on different courses of different distances  with different obstacles year in and year out, only contributed to the respect which was given a medalist who represented their country to the upmost of their ability. Team scoring as well played a key role as well, for as many cross-country coaches have said through the years, "Your team's only as good as your 5th runner."

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Mariano Haro, Ian Stewart, Bill Rodgers, dueling in Morocco, 
photo courtesy of RacingPast.com 

So on a calm, 70 degree day in Rabat, Morocco, as the world's best distance runners assembled to compete, probably no one expected anything from the skinny kid from Boston who finished 3rd in the U.S. trials to make the team and, to the possible humor of others, had to run the race in borrowed spikes from teammate Gary Tuttle, the type of shoes he had not worn in years! Yet when the gun went off, Boston's Bill Rodgers was right up there with the best of them. "I had trained really well in the months leading up to the Worlds," said Rodgers recently. "I had completed lots of mileage, including a 200 mile week in there, along with hills and speedwork," Rodgers was training under Coach Squires with the Greater Boston Track Club, but was also still working full-time as a teacher as well. "I'd go out running too during my lunch break and try to run 60 minutes between 5-minute and 5:20 mile per mile pace. It was like sustained pace work."
 
Running around the 5 lap race course, Rodgers began moving up and was surprisingly competing for first, to the surprise of many. "I had to also jump hurdles along the course," he said. But Rodgers ran with inspiration. "I wasn't hurting at all. I was on cloud nine, and I kept on pushing and trying to break them." Towards the end of the race, only two runners remained in Rodgers' way- Ian Stewart (1972 Olympic Bronze 5000, European & Commonwealth 5,000m champ) and Spaniard Mariano Haro, who finished 4th in the 1972 Olympic 10000 (and was a formidable cross country runner). The two runners would break away from the stubborn American at the very end, Stewart covering the 12k race in 35:20, with Haro finishing 1 second behind. Rodgers would finish in 35:27, and, to the shock of all, would net a Bronze medal. "I just remember saying to myself a few times after I finished, "What the Heck?!?!" The talk at the event was not about the top two winners, but rather about the young unknown American who bested the rest of the world on that day, notably New Zealand's John Walker (4th, and 3 months away from becoming the first person to run a sub 3:50 mile!) as well as a who's who of world running--Gaston Roelants (10th), Waldemar Cierpinski (15th), Emil Puttermans (16th), Frank Shorter (20th), Jack Foster (36th), Neil Cusack (52nd), among many others.
 
"When the race was over, I was so high up I ran another 7 miles for a warm down," said Rodgers. Eventually his astonished American teammates gathered with him. "Frank (Shorter) told me that he thought I could run 28 minutes for 10K on the track." Rodgers then asked  Tuttle and Shorter if they can help him get a decent pair of racing shoes for the Boston Marathon coming up in one month. Within a few weeks, upon returning home totally unnoticed by the American press, there arrived a pair of Nikes along with a letter from Steve Prefontaine."That really fired me up!" said Rodgers. "After Morocco, I knew I could compete with the best of the world. Psychologically I had jumped to a new level."
     Yet in the world of 1975, Rodgers stellar performance barely registered a blip in the              American News media. In a time of no internet, instant messaging or even 24 hour 
     news networks, Rodger's performance was lucky to perhaps get a tiny two line note
     in the New York Times. But one person in America literally fell out of his seat when 
     he learned about his former college roommate's Bronze medal. 1968 Boston marathon        champ Amby Burfoot, who was writing for Runners World magazine, had known                    Rodgers for many years, and had always encouraged him to fulfill his potential from 
     his lazy college training days, right through his return to the running scene a few 
     years after graduation. But Burfoot had to have been totally stunned by the race 
     in Morocco. 

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A few weeks after World Cross, Alberto Salazar (left) and Bill Rodgers(right), 
photo courtesy of Bill Rodgers

      According to Burfoot, "Up to March 1975 we all thought Bill was
just a good New England road runner--one with maybe a little promise. His performance in Morocco proved he was much more--a world class runner. We all considered the International Cross Country Championships the world's most competitive distance event. When Bill finished third, well ... that was a glimpse of amazing things to come. Though, in truth, no one could have predicted his amazing career."
 
 
Burfoot then made a trip as fast as he could to see and interview Rodgers, knowing full well the magnitude of the scoop he had gotten. But, one month later, as Rodgers and Coach Squires attended a pre-Boston Marathon press conference, the mainstream press had not even a clue of what Rodgers had done. Some were still writing his name "Will Rodgers"! As Rodgers said, "a very few thought that I had finished 3rd in some race in Morocco, that's all."  
 
So while on that fateful day in April, boldly taking the lead early on in the Boston Marathon and  racing in the Nikes' given to him from Steve Prefontaine,, 2 Hours and 9 minutes later Americans thought they had witnessed a breakthrough performance by an American running star. Truth is, except for a few, they all missed the boat on this one by about one month previous!

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 Bill Rodgers, en route to winning 1975 Boston Marathon, 
photo courtesy of Boston Athletic Association

     In the years since, Americans as a whole have not fared well in this greatest of venues, 
     with the exceptions of the great Craig Virgin, who won 2 World Cross Gold medals in 1980      and 1981, Alberto Salazar (Silver in 1982), and the late Pat Porter, who finished in the 
     top ten four times. However  with IAAF Presidential candidate Sebastian Coe advocating         for Cross Country to join the Winter Olympic Games, perhaps, like Rodgers did on that             fateful day in 1975, the sport could jump to a new level as well.     

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