Reminiscing With The King Of The Road
Iconic Marathoner Bill Rodgers Looks Back, Looks Ahead
With the New York City Marathon being held this coming weekend, this seems to be a most appropriate time to look back on the storied career of 4-time NYC Champion Bill Rodgers. It has been nearly a half century since that Thanksgiving Day in 1966 when a skinny Will Rodgers ran his first road race — winning the High School Division of the famed Manchester Road Race. That auspicious, yet simple, beginning augured well for the future. But few would have predicted from that performance that Rodgers would emerge as one of the most successful and dominant marathoners of his — or any — era.
Bill Rodgers, who will turn 65 in December, smiles as he looks back on the improbable pathway he has followed. “I never really thought about becoming a road racer, because nobody hardly did it in those days,” explains Rodgers. “I didn’t really become a road racer until I moved to Boston after graduating from Wesleyan in 1970.” Before long, he was training with the Greater Boston Track Club under the watchful eye of Bill Squires. Studied caution preceded Rodgers’ first foray into marathoning. “I saw the Boston Marathon twice before I decided to run it,” he outlines. “I ran the marathon for the first time at Boston in 1973.” That year, inexperience and hot weather caused him to learn that the marathon cannot be bullied. He didn’t finish, dropping out — cramped and dehydrated — at the top of Heartbreak Hill. By the following year, he had learned how to romance the cruel mistress, finishing 14th in 2:19:34 — a solid performance, to be sure, but hardly a premonition of what would lie ahead. 1975 proved to be his breakthrough year. Those who followed the sport took notice that year when Rodgers made the USA team for the World Cross Country Championships. When he went on to finish 3rd in the championship race in Morocco, more than a few suspected that something special was going on here.
A month later, Rodgers ran 2:09:55 to become the surprise winner of the Boston Marathon. Even stopping to kneel on the road in the Newton Hills to re-tie his racing flats could not prevent Rodgers from breaking the American record. Like road racing and marathoning across the country at that time, Rodgers’ running career simply took off: 3 more Boston wins; 4 consecutive victories in New York; scores of other impressive road race titles and victories; and even an Olympic appearance. In short order, this gentle spirit with a certain scattered, loveable innocence became the most visible face of the country’s running boom.
“Few people appreciate the changes that have occurred in running because so few people really know the history of our sport,” notes Rodgers, looking back. He is quick to detail how different the sport was in the mid- to late-70’s — a time when runners like Benji Durden, Frank Shorter, Ron Tabb, Greg Meyer, Alberto Salazar, Tom Fleming, and others joined Rodgers at the elite end of the sport. “It was an era when it was mainly a guy’s sport,” notes Rodgers. “We were being manly men,” he laughs. “But there was a recession going on in the 70’s and we were trying to be professionals, make that big push,” notes Rodgers in addressing the emergence of the financial element. “But it was really only being done by the athletes. Most of the race directors were nervous about it,” cites Rodgers. “Fred Lebow was nervous about it in New York City, because I would go in there and make some pretty outrageous comments like maybe we should have prize money. I was pushing for it. But others didn’t seem safe and stayed back. They didn’t speak up about it,” laments Rodgers. “But ultimately, nothing could stop it then. It wasn’t me, it wasn’t one runner, it wasn’t 10 runners. It was that the sport was changing. It was market forces,” he explains. “It was the mass numbers of runners that changed the sport, made it bigger, brought in professional race managers, sponsors, everything.
And with that change came the dawning of the all-encompassing urban marathon. “1976, the year of my first New York win, was the first year the race was held in all 5 boroughs. There was this guy named George Spitz — a New York politician — who had this idea that we should do this throughout the whole city, and not just Central Park,” notes Rodgers. “Fred Lebow was very reluctant; he didn’t know if it could work. But, finally, Fred said, ‘OK, let’s try it.'” That year, 2000 runners stormed over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge at the start of the race that changed the sport forever. This Sunday, 47,000 runners will do the same.
Rodgers has vivid memories of his 1979 five-borough victory. “There was a misfiring of the gun. The cannon went off and hundreds and hundreds of runners just took off. It couldn’t be re-started. I got going, but I got caught in the pack,” an animated Rodgers recalls. “Kirk Pfeffer — a 2:11 marathoner — just took off. He was running out of his head. It was his first time in New York. But it was my fourth time. So I had an edge in the sense that I knew the course,” he explains. Rodgers patiently closed the gap, ran Pfeffer down in Central Park, and cruised on to his 4th consecutive — and final — New York win. “I love the course. And that’s why I think I did well. I think wherever your heart is, you want to do well.” And, after a pause, he adds an after-thought, “I think New York is putting the most effort into lifting the whole sport of marathoning in the US, and maybe even globally.”
Upon reflection, Rodgers cites another powerful force that changed the sport: the emergence of women. “Greta first won New York in 1978. And Joan won Boston in 1979,” he recalls. “They were knocking on the door. People like Roberta Gibb, Kathrine Switzer, Nina Kuscsik, and others were there. It was kinda like an avalanche thing. Smaller at first, then bigger, bigger, bigger,” he smiles.
Rodgers notes how all of these factors converged to forge the changes in road racing that has produced the expansive sport spectacle we witness today. “Money came in. The sport went professional. That revolutionized it,” he observes. “There was more TV. All the runners were treated better. Big sponsors came in. And when big sponsors come in, then smaller sponsors come in as well. I think that was the big thing in our sport: it started to become more integrated into our society.”
As is the case with all runners, Father Time has slowed this champion. But Bill Rodgers enthusiastically participates in about 25 weekend events each year — earnestly meeting new runners, patiently offering training tips and racing advice, and doing what he loves to do: race. “Running-wise, I am happy with the way things are going. I would like to run better. I haven’t run that well in a while now,” he confesses. “I think I need to do stuff like yoga,” he adds with a laugh.
But his love for the sport he helped elevate still endures — even as a fan. “I watched the Olympic marathons. The men’s race was so shocking! Especially with Hall and Abdi,” he exclaims. “Hall had never had a bad marathon day in this career. It was a first for him, a rarity,” he notes. And then, almost as a footnote, he adds, “I think it is tricky to prepare for a Trials and then to prepare again for the Olympics itself.”
Bill Rodgers is upbeat and optimistic when he thinks about what the future holds for road racing. “The sport will continue to get bigger. The mainstream sports media in general doesn’t follow our sport that closely. So they don’t appreciate our growth over the past 10-20 years,” he notes. “But they might see something new. But the numbers of some of these new sports will never approach the numbers of just running.” And
Rodgers sees more reason for optimism. “One of the strengths of our sport is that it appeals to all ages. I do see that continuing — the age-grouping, the age-grading,” Rodgers predicts. “The aging baby boomers are going to keep going. That trend will continue. More women, more kids.” And noting the explosion in the growth of cable channels, he adds “I think we will get national TV coverage for more races.” Noting how a passionate and focused group can still move the needle, Rodgers adds, “Growth in the sport can really be aided through the efforts of individuals.”
And what about the future for Bill Rodgers? Fully recovered from a serious health scare five years ago, Rodgers has his world in proper perspective now. He enjoys the uncomplicated life he shares with his girlfriend Karen in Boxboro, Massachusetts. “I used to always be after records, you know,” he admits. “Of course, things change. Also, maybe it’s just aging. But I’m going to have to just keep doing what I’m doing. I like going to races. I like meeting new runners. I like running with my girlfriend on trails.” And it is clear he speaks the truth when, with a smile, he adds, “I am very happy, you know?”