On a Thursday in June, over 500 runners gathered in the twilight evening to run the annual Bloomfield Sunset Classic. The event, contested through the rolling hills of this New Jersey suburb, had a big change put into place for 2017 by Race Director Paul Giuliano. This year the race was renamed after the late, great Marathoner and Coach Tom Fleming, who helped found this charity race 3 decades ago in his hometown.
As in past years, many of Fleming’s athletes, friends and family members showed up (Daughter Margot finished as the 3rd female overall!!) among them this writer. Remarkably as runners approached the starting line, I agreed to pace one of Tom’s old pals through the race. “You know, I’ve been running a lot of 10Ks lately, and broke 48 minutes last week at Shelter Island,” said the 69-years young runner to me. Stunned at such a performance, I agreed with him to start easy and go with how we’d feel. “That sounds good Jeff,” said the almost septuagenarian Bill Rodgers, who journeyed from New England to pay tribute to his running compatriot and friend Tom Fleming. “We’ll go as we feel.”
40 years ago, Rodgers, going as he felt, was one of the (if not THE) best distance runners on the planet. His Greater Boston Track Club Coach Bill Squires knew it too. In an attempt at more greatness, Squires organized an attempt on the vaunted 1-Hour World Record Track Performance which was run by Jos Hermens a year earlier and it would be held on the track of Boston University. But Rodgers was also looking at other records that night as well.
“I was about to go for a World Record, my first,” wrote Rodgers in his 1980 autobiography “Marathoning”. Rodgers also thought of a few other records longer than the hour time that were within striking distance. “When I started to plan the venture, I was thinking of 2 world records and, as it turned out, they were within reach.” Aside from the 1-hour record Rodgers also wrote about the records of 1:14:17 for 25 K held by Finland’s Pekka Paivirinta and the 30 K record of 1:31:31 held by Britain’s Jim Alder looking like a distinct possibility for him to pursue.
Joining Rodgers in that twilight track attempt on August 9th were New Jersey’s Tom Fleming along with Greater Boston TC teammates Scott Graham and Randy Thomas, among others. What’s interesting to note is that there was no long term preparation/peaking program in effect. Squires, Rodgers and the others just decided within a short time to just try and go for it. “We distance runners of the ’70’s trained through our races as we were aiming for the marathon, said Rodgers, and his training logs certainly proved it.
“I ran 126 miles the week of the race and 14 miles 2 days before.”
GBTC teammate Mark Duggan echoed Rodgers training. “I wasn’t there for the record attempt but I recall GBTC workouts prior to the record run, including brutal repeat 2-milers at Boston College,” recalled Duggan, who may still be the US Record Holder for the 2-Mike steeplechase! (See link–https://www.runblogrun.com/2016/08/the-mystery-of-americas-2-mile-steeplechase-record-holder.html ).
“Billy was in perhaps his best shape ever,” said Duggan. “He also had incredible mental toughness, well suited for long track races. He loved doing laps around Jamaica pond … about 1 mile. It wasn’t unusual for Billy to run hours around that pond.” Add into that week before Rodgers’ interval session. “I ran 7x 1-mile at 4:40 to 4:45 pace a week before my hour race,” said Rodgers. “Much of my speed work was slower paced than marathoners today.”
GBTC Teammate Randy Thomas was no second rate runner either. Randy was a real tough runner,” said Rodgers. “He tied with me in the Freedom Trail race and the Cleveland 1/2 Marathon and was given the win in both of them,” said Rodgers of his 2:11:26 Boston Marathon teammate. “It was a beautiful night at the BU track, television cameras were present (as required) and a handful of GBTC runners to work the pace,” recollected Thomas, who pushed the pace that night. “Bill was pretty awesome that night.”
Awesome indeed. Clicking along at 4:42 pace, spectators such as the legendary running impresario Tommy Leonard could only watch in awe. “You should have seen the shrug act,” said Leonard to legendary Olympic Marathoner and Sports Illustrated writer Kenny Moore 40 years ago–
“Breaking 4 records in one race and every lap, hearing the time, he would give an amused shrug. His golden hair was flowing in a rose sunset…He was even lapping his pacers, for God’s sake. It was beautiful. A mist came over my eyes. It was just my most poignant experience in running.”
Rodgers would go on in that magical evening to break the American Record for 1-hour (12 miles, 1,351 yards), and also set American records for 15K (43:39.8), 10 miles (46:35.8), and 20K, passing Thomas over the last 100 yards to clock 58:15.0!
“I wasn’t too far off these world records in my first attempt and I left the track that night in a good frame of mind,” wrote Rodgers 37 years ago, setting up motivation for another attempt at the records in 1978& 1979, but, for that night’s work, venturing with Leonard and others over to the Elliot Lounge for a few Gin and Tonics.
All the more remarkable was what Rodgers did the day after. “I ran 19 miles the day after.. I had sore calves and a few blisters.”
Add into the amazement 12 days later Rodgers would win the prestigious Falmouth Road Race, breaking the course record for the 7.1 miler with a time of 32 minutes, 23 seconds. In second place was a young upstart named Alberto Salazar!
But that’s a story for another day coming soon!!
Final Lap- Fast Forward to 2017 at the Tom Fleming 5-Miler–Going through the first Mile in 8 minutes 30 seconds, this author paced Rodgers along, as the 69 year old legend still showed incredible turnover both going up and down the hills along the course and rooting others on as some crowds along the course recognized him with screams of “Go Billy!” But, with 1-Mile to go Rodgers became very intense and focused as we ran a negative split last mile, finishing in 40 minutes and 7 seconds together as planned.
Even today Rodgers still has the “beast” in him!