Bill Rodgers is one of the most iconic of figures in modern American distance running. Between Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, the modern running booms began, were cultivated and flowered into a huge global business covering running footwear, running stores and the global road racing boom. In the early 1970s, runners were few and far between. In 2013, runners and walkers are everywhere and road races are part of the local cultures, in cities big and small.
I also notice from time to time that many of these documentaries originate from WGBH, a key PBS affiliate in Boston. As time marches on, and many subjects in Americana are explored, I can’t help but wonder when they will do an episode on one of Boston’s greatest institutions, Bill Rodgers. An unbelievably true rags to riches running story, Rodgers’ 1975 Boston Marathon win was not just another marathoner winning a race. This victory transformed him, and America, in ways which transcended running and are still influential to this day.
But that’s not all.
Rodgers’ rise to the top of the marathoning world is combined with the ingredients of the 1960s, Vietnam, amateurism and the Cold War, among a few. Yet it all came down to one thing for him; after a 4 year hiatus from competing collegiately, Rodgers, along with a small band of other runners, just wanted to run, not for money (unheard of in those days), but to see what he could get out of himself, an effort reminiscent of the spirit of Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers’ main competitor, and even before that, Sir Roger Bannister. If anyone wishes to recount the life of Bill Rodgers, then his new autobiography, Marathon Man, co-authored by Matthew Shepatin, is the greatest primary source material available. It’s also an inspiring and invaluable book for both the elite runner and the joggers of today.
Although the central focus of the book is his astounding Boston Marathon victory of 1975 (in which he set the American record of 2:09:55, despite stopping 4 times in the race to either tie his shoes or to take a drink!), Rodgers’ entire life is spread through the chapters as well. Bill Rodgers recalls his High School and College career, where he ran well but not to the best of his talents. Rodgers had considered breaking 9 minute for two miles the highlight and proper ending of his athletics career.
What inspired him to run in those days was his college friend and roommate, Amby Burfoot, who had won the 1968 Boston Marathon and tied the American record for the marathon. Rodger’s post-collegiate running career ended (he thought) rather quickly. Rodgers tried his best to avoid the Vietnam War, eventually being granted a deferment. He was also fired from his hospital job for trying to organize a union. He admits wandering through those years, smoking cigarettes, drinking a bit, and traveling around the bar scene.
How he took up running again was due to a variety of events. A stolen motorcycle, lots of aimless free time, the influence of Bob Sevene and Bill Squires, teammates on the Greater Boston Track Club, and a solidly supporting girlfriend were some of the factors. Aside from these events, Rodgers also mentions ADHD and his “spacey” personality which many can attest to. Yet, his eventual desire to see what he can do with running is what truly drove him.
Not that it was easy. In the early years of his comeback, Rodgers failed in some of his early races, and sometimes had nagging doubts about his future in running. But 1975 would be the HUGE year for him. His Bronze medal performance in the World Cross- Country championships ( one of only 4 Americans to ever medal), where he beat John Walker, Frank Shorter and other Olympians began to pave the way. While the American media did not follow nor cover the event at that time, Rodgers quietly prepped over the next month, getting ready for Boston. He also received a free pair of Nikes, courtesy of Shorter, who relayed the request to Steve Prefontaine, who sent them along with an encouraging note!
Many personalities are mentioned in the book by Rodgers. Shorter, Prefontaine, Jock Semple, Tom Fleming, Jason Kehoe, Ron Hill, Chris Stewart, Lasse Viren, along with a host of others, all play big parts in Rodgers’ life. He discusses his rivalry with Shorter as well as the rise of the young Alberto Salazar, during an era ( 1972-1982) in which they each took from each other the title of “King of the Road”. His battles with the AAU ( a mantle he believes he picked up from the late Prefontaine) and his passionate support of Athlete’s rights truly shows in his fiery comments. His great disappointment of the 1980 U.S.Olympic boycott, (in which he was the world’s #1 ranked marathoner poised to medal, especially after a bitter 1976 Olympic Marathon showing) still rankles him to this day, as well it should.
There is great humor as well. Rodger reminisces about the verbal abuse tossed at him (sometimes literally!) by hecklers when he resurrected his running career around Boston. He was immediately asked to give a urine sample by IAAF officials after his improbable Bronze medal race at the Worlds. His travel arrangements before 1975 to go to races many times consisted of sleeping with as many as 7 teammates on the floor!
Rodgers’ tale of his rise reads like a truly noble effort, along with a little “Magical Mystery Tour” sprinkled in. Combined with his fierce determination to find himself, along with his incredibly nice and friendly demeanor, you can understand why fans to this day still make him feel beloved wherever he goes! It’s just reciprocation for the “Tour” that he embarked upon, and his willingness to be inclusive of anyone who wanted to join him. And what a tour it was! Just ask the thousands who, if not inspired by Frank Shorters’ 1972 Olympic performance, got off their seats after Bill Rodgers’ Cinderella Boston victory in 1975!
Hey PBS, are you listening??
Tom Fleming (2 NYC Wins, Jeff Benjamin, O NYC Wins, Bill Rodgers, 4 NYC Wins), photo courtesy of Jeff Benjamin
To find a copy of Marathon Man, please check out your local run specialty store or local bookstore, or try this link: Marathon Man. Runblogrun.com supports buying locally for media, footwear and apparel.