It is easy to understand how Bill Rodgers captured America’s heart and was a major force in causing the running boom of the late seventies. He greets you with a big smile, is friendly and warm. The press and media loved him. He was the golden boy of American running. Pictures of elite runners and other celebrities now crowd the wall of his office, along with medals, trophies, and race numbers placed haphazardly. The pair of shoes he wore for his first Boston win is there. They hold a special place in Bill’s memory—not just for the win, but because they were owned by Steve Prefontaine, who sent them to him to wear for that race. Rodgers has been called a rebel, an angry young man, and an agitator for being a proponent of awarding prize money to runners without losing their amateur status. He is a four-time winner of both the Boston and New York City Marathons. Rodgers is now retired from the marathon, though not from shorter races. His weekly training is not the two hundred miles it was back in the seventies, but it is still enough to keep him race-fit and able to keep up with his two young daughters.
I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, but by age seven we had moved to nearby Newington. My brother, Charlie, our friend, Jason, and I were inseparable. We were very active kids, always hiking, always getting into something, always together. In high school, the three of us ran cross country on a small team, consisting of us and three other kids. The coach was a great motivator. He didn’t overwork us or destroy our love for running, just enhanced it. I do think there are lots of kids out there who have the potential to be great runners if only they have the right coach, someone who shows an interest and cares. I loved cross country right from the start. I loved the open territory and going the distance. I wasn’t too good at track, couldn’t get that initial kick required for short distance. I received feedback about my so-called talent back in high school. I was in the local paper quite a bit and my name would be announced on the P.A. system at school, along with the football players, announcing my wins at the meets.
At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, I continued running cross country. The coach wasn’t a crack-the-whip type and I enjoyed the camaraderie of the other runners. Maybe if I had a hard-nosed coach I would have run faster, but I enjoyed what I was doing and that was more important to me. I only ran during the season and never in the summer. In my junior year I slipped a bit even during the season and my roommate, Amby Burfoot, would return to our room after a weekend to find beer cans and cigarette butts scattered around. He was a more serious runner than I was, more committed to the sport. One Sunday morning, he took me out for a twenty-five-mile run, to punish me, I think. I kept up until the last few miles when he decided to pick up the pace and left me behind. Amby had been coached by John J. Kelley at Fitch High School in Groton, Connecticut, and one weekend he came up to visit and we all went for a run. John was fortyish at the time and I thought to myself, “This guy can run pretty well for an old man.” Amby learned a lot from the older runners and he’d pass the information on to me. I was a firm believer in the L.S.D. method—long, slow distance, which was introduced by Emil Zapotek. I was never interested in the marathon back in college, but Amby was. He dreamed about it. He trained hard for it and won Boston in his senior year, 1968. I had never even seen the Boston Marathon so I wasn’t caught up in its mysticism. And I hate to train in the heat, which is all summer, and I hate to train in the cold, which is all winter. Road racing is a tough sport and I wasn’t committed to it, hadn’t been caught by its lure. Training for a ten-miler was the most I wanted to do. I thought I’d die if I had to train for a marathon.
After college I stopped running and the occasional cigarette grew into a habit. There was no postcollegiate outlet for runners so there was no reason to continue. The Vietnam War was looming over our heads; I was a college graduate with barely passing grades, no job, and no real future. I applied for a Conscientious Objector status with the draft board based on my Roman Catholic beliefs and was granted one along with my brother and Jason. We still did everything together. Having a c.o. kept us out of the draft but it also limited our job opportunities, as we could only apply at nonprofit organizations. Jason and I got job at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. My skills were put to use taking deceased bodies to the morgue. It didn’t pay well and wasn’t that motivating, but at least I was employed. I borrowed money to buy a motorcycle, let my hair grow long, and, basically, let life go by.
I have to say, I probably became a marathoner because I had nothing else in my life. I got fired from my job for trying to organize the non-union employees; my motorcycle was stolen so I had no form of transportation other than running everywhere; I had no money and no immediate positive outlook on life in general. The one positive thing I did was quit smoking. I wheeled too many cancer victims to the morgue.
Jason and I shared an apartment by Symphony Hall in Boston and one day in April 1971, we watched the Boston Marathon for the first time. Huge crowds were everywhere. I was amazed at the spectacle of the event. And then to my amazement and shock, I saw my former cross-country teammates crossing the finish line. I saw Jeff Galloway, my teammate from Wesleyan, and John Vitale, whom I ran against at the University of Connecticut. I thought, “Wait a minute, if they can do it, so can I.”
I still had mixed feelings about running a marathon, but heck, it had to be better than doing nothing and I knew I was just as good a runner as the guys I saw. First, I needed to get back in shape, so I joined a YMCA by our apartment and started running this slanted, tiny track that was boring as hell, but I hadn’t run in two years and needed to start somewhere. I went back to running because it was all I knew, all I had left. I went back to running to bring a sense of order to my life. When I got my endurance back, I started hitting some of the local road races and did well at the 5Ks and 10Ks. In February of 1973 I entered a 30K and ran in blue jeans. I didn’t have any money to buy the proper shoes or clothing, and besides, it was cold. Ironically, Amby also ran that race and ultimately won it. The prize was a pair of car tires, which he had no use for so he offered them to me, but I didn’t even have a car.
I felt like I was on an upswing. It was time to start making big plans and I really thought I was ready for a marathon. Frank Shorter had won the gold in the ’72 Olympics and that was a huge influence on me. I started running twice a day, averaging about 130 miles a week and concentrating on endurance. I ate more because I was also hungry. I’m not a good breakfast eater, but I make up for it the rest of the day. I didn’t do fast intervals like Salazar; I mainly concentrated on distance. My maximum mileage was two hundred a week, split between sixteen miles in the morning and thirteen miles in the afternoon, around Jamaica Plains pond. I could never repeat that now, but at the time I was striving for distance endurance.
By now I had made it public that I was running Boston in 1973. Amby gave me some advice, but I don’t remember what it was. I do remember it was a very hot day and I never felt strong from the very start. Everyone started passing me and finally I dropped out at twenty-one miles at the top of Heartbreak Hill. I couldn’t even go another five miles. I had no interest in finishing. My only thought was how to get home. As I look back to that day, I can’t believe how I miscalculated the field, thinking I would place among the top five. I had no idea just how talented the runners were. I was demoralized. I had always been a winner and now I was humiliated.
The following week, as I analyzed my failed attempt, I decided that the weather had played a major factor in my poor performance because I never trained in the heat. Determined to make a strong comeback, my wife and I made the decision to move to California so I could train in a hot climate. She quit her job, and since I didn’t have one, we packed what small belongings we had and drove cross country to sunny, and hot, California. That trip turned out to be a total fiasco. We stayed five days, turned around, and drove back East. I was too overwhelmed by all the cars, the people, and, yes, the weather, plus we had no money, no place to stay, no contacts, and I guess you could say it was not a well-planned itinerary.
Back in Boston, we lived on food stamps for about six months until I finally landed a job teaching behavior modification to disabled adults, and also started a graduate degree at Boston College. The running boom was beginning to explode and 1974 was a very exciting time for us. I was training hard, but something was missing. Having always been part of a team, I missed the camaraderie and support of teammates. The Greater Boston Track Club had just formed and I became one of its first members. We were a formidable group, winning most of the titles in the area. I loved being part of a team again. We were like the Kenyans of today, practicing the concept and dynamics of team strength. Athletes motivate each other and it’s a wonderful environment to be a part of. Billy Squires came on board as our coach, which was a great asset. I decided to give the Boston Marathon another try in 1974 and placed a respectable fourteenth. I held fourth position for twenty miles and then just dropped back, finishing at 2:19:34. I wanted that win badly, but my training just wasn’t good enough. The top pack at Boston then usually included the same names, give or take a few newcomers: Galloway, Fleming, Vitale, Kelley, Drayton, and me. We were all very competitive, we all wanted to win. Fleming was the most serious. He never shared his training tips with us. Neither did Shorter. They kept to themselves when it came down to winning, but at the same time we were all the best of friends. Heck, we saw each other all the time at other races or training runs. We kidded each other about our wins and losses but it was never malicious. In the ’77 Boston Marathon I shared my water with Drayton, who didn’t have any and there were no water stations in sight. It was a very hot day and once again the heat did me in, but Drayton went on to win.
I did have a few rivals who weren’t so friendly and at one road race when I lost to one of them, he won a bouquet of flowers, which he then proceeded to give to my wife, saying, “Give these to Billy. He could use them.”
By 1975 I was determined to win Boston. After two failed attempts, I needed a win. Once again, the press dismissed my chances of winning. They never took me seriously, but then again, I didn’t take myself seriously. I wasn’t consistent, didn’t have a great marathon record. What they underestimated was my desire and my recent wins. In November of ’74 I won the Philadelphia Marathon and had just returned from the World Cross Country Championships in Morocco, performing exceptionally well, winning a bronze medal. My teammates knew I was poised to win Boston, but the press hadn’t covered the World Championships and quite frankly, they didn’t know much about the sport.
When you want to win Boston, it’s not just a matter of your own training, being in the best possible shape. You had to know your competition, how they ran, how they felt, how they breathed, and you had to pray to Mother Nature for the perfect day. A tailwind or headwind could make or break a winner. And if the field is particularly strong, the competition can be decimating. The weather on the morning of April 19, 1975, was perfect: not too hot, not too cold, the type of morning you pray for. I looked up into the heavens and said a soft, “Thank you, God.”
Wearing a white T-shirt with gbtc hand-painted on front in big, bold letters and a pair of white gardening gloves for the morning chill, I was ready. Tom Fleming gave me a headband to hold my hair out of my eyes. I really was a rogue runner. For the first part of the race, I listened to my competitors’ breathing, trying to determine if they started out too soon, if they were tiring or if they were saving it for a powerful surge at the end. I talked to them, reasoning if they still had enough breath to speak, they could still kick at the end. All of this was very important to me because I planned to go like a bat out of hell and never stop or look back. I did stop once to tie my shoe but only after I knew I was far out in front with no one on my heels. There were no water stations at Boston so I relied on my brother and Jason for my fluids. Everything worked in my favor that year and I set a Boston and an American record of 2:09:55. I went from running a 2:19 to a 2:09. I couldn’t believe it myself, it was such a phenomenal breakthrough.
Fame came my way, but not money. I was still broke. In 1976, Fred Lebow invited me to run his New York City Marathon. Fred was always the promoter and thought it would be a big story having me and Frank Shorter run the race, competing for a win, plus the fact it was the first year his marathon was moving out of the boundaries of Central Park and through New York City. He couldn’t promise me any money but I went anyway, traveling the back roads as I couldn’t pay tolls on the turnpike. Everyone thought Frank, the Olympian, would place first, but I beat him for my first New York win. I didn’t even know the route as it wound its way around the city. I do remember running on the East River Drive Promenade, passing guys fishing or just plain drunk, not even realizing we were running a marathon. It was insane, but I loved it. The crowds were great in New York, and I fed off their energy. I like running for the crowds, hearing them call my name, cheering for me. After that race, I went back to my car, which was parked on the street, and it had been towed. Fred had to take up a collection so I could get it back and drive home.
After my marathon successes, Nike and New Balance offered me five hundred dollars to endorse their athletic line. I thought it sounded low, so while I was thinking about it I flew to Japan for the Fukuoka Marathon and was offered three thousand dollars by Tiger/Asics for a one-year contract. I thought I was rich, had finally hit the jackpot. Things were beginning to look good.
In 1978 I was ready for another victory at Boston and trained harder than ever. I didn’t want to be a one-time winner and also had my sights set on the 1980 Olympics. It was a tough field that year and I knew I had to concentrate, run hard, and not look back. I held the lead for most of the race and just when I thought I was in the clear, a motorcycle cop came alongside me and alerted me that someone was fast on my heels. I panicked, it was like a bad dream. I had been running hard and didn’t have a lot of push left. I surged forward with all I could muster and won by two seconds. It was very nerve racking. The internal pressure to win was incredible. Once you taste a win, you want it again and again. If you don’t win, it is very disappointing.
I won Boston again in ’79 and ’80. I ran to be the best and back in the seventies we were the best. Representing the United States at the Olympics and World Cross Country Championships was a highlight in my life. It was a feeling of patriotism that is missing today, as sports have become diluted with commercialism and million-dollar contracts. We didn’t have that; we ran for the glory of our country. I was very proud to be a member of the U.S. team wherever I competed.
Nowadays I only run in one gear. I can’t shift into surges or kicks. I think of myself as a dependable car: one steady gear and accident free. And I don’t believe mile markers anymore; ten miles seems more like fifteen. In my past life as a marathoner I could never get to the start line injury-free. Now I know better. I take care of the little injuries before they turn into big ones. And once a week I get a deep muscle massage. I still love going to races and being a spokesman for the sport. It brings me in contact with lots of great people and some very interesting situations. I was invited to the state of Washington to officiate a race and was asked to hand out the prizes. Great! I love to do that. However, what the officials didn’t tell me was that the prizes were fresh-caught salmon and the winners received their weight in salmon. A huge scale was at the finish and as the winners weighed in, I had to load the other half of the scale with the salmon. All morning long I pulled huge salmon out of a box of chipped ice and threw the fish on the scale. That was quite an event.
These days, I usually win my age group in the half-marathon. Sometimes I do miss the marathon, especially when I attend the big expositions such as in New York or Boston. When people tell me they are thinking of running a marathon, I tell them to go for it. I give two pieces of advice: Go to a race and watch the crowd. You can learn a lot from just being an observer. Also, when you commit to a race, check out the last two miles of the course. You’ll want to know what it looks like, if there are hills, or curves, or if it’s a straightaway to the finish. Look for potholes, anything that could get in your way. The last two miles is not the time to be thinking about the course.
Anyone who runs a marathon is on a mission, whether it is to win or to finish. It’s a hard race and I respect anyone who runs it. It is a neat achievement, very satisfying. The medal, the T-shirt, the trophy will stay with you always. Every runner is an athlete. It’s a great thrill, a way to turn your life around. Use it to achieve something positive in your life, like quitting smoking. Whatever it takes, it is worth it. It will be with you the rest of your life.