Marathon Man: Will Boston Billy Rodgers Ever Stop Running?

Bill Rodgers of the Greater Boston Track Club approaches the finish line with his shadow at the line, to win the 79th annual
Bill Rodgers of the Greater Boston Track Club approaches the finish line with his shadow at the line, to win the 79th annual Boston Marathon in record time on Monday, April 21, 1975. Rodgers' time for the 26 mile 385 yard run was 2 hours, 9 minutes and 55 seconds, breaking the old record of 2:10.30, which stood since 1970. (AP Photo)

Just 40 years ago, when Bill Rodgers won his first Boston Marathon, running was considered a bizarre thing to do. Truckers threw beer cans at runners' heads.

Employers wouldn't let workers go for a run at lunchtime. Women seldom ran marathons and were barely welcome at the Boston.

Marathons lacked mile markers, water stops, and porta-potties, and... runners. The '75 Boston featured only 2,000 runners, compared with 30,000 today.

Back then, the New York City Marathon consisted of four loops inside Central Park. And Nike was barely a waffle-shaped gleam in the eye of Phil Knight.

Suddenly, a handful of long distance runners -- Frank Shorter, Jim Fixx, Alberto Salazar, Jack Fultz, and Bill Rodgers -- captured the nation's imagination and inspired the running boom which continues to this day.

Rodgers, one of America's most beloved athletes, and still a free spirit at 67, has just written a memoir, Marathon Man, describing his experiences training for and winning the 1975 Boston Marathon.

He wore a pair of ill-fitting running proto-Nikes he'd received in the mail from his friend, fellow legend Steve Prefontaine, and once he knew he had the race in the bag, around mile 20, he actually stopped running to tie his shoe.

Rodgers spoke to me about how marathoning has changed over the years, and how marathoning changed his life.

What makes the Boston Marathon unique?

It is more fun than any other race, and it's a race that people want to do over and over. I hate to use the word addictive, but there is something different about Boston. It's the oldest yearly marathon in the world. Maybe it's because Boston isn't as big as New York, Chicago, or L.A., so it fits the city a little bit better. It overtakes the city. I've met a lot of runners over the years who say, "My father ran the marathon," or even "My grandfather ran the marathon." I love that.

The weather's so unpredictable. You can be running in thirty-mile-an-hour headwinds, you can be running in ninety-degree heat.

That's part of the charm of Boston -- you don't know what you're going to get. That's the way all marathons were, but now they're all geared for faster times and cooler weather. New York was in September, then late October, and now it's the first week of November. Tokyo is in February. Berlin is in late September.

Boston hasn't changed, which is charming -- but when you're running it, it might not be so charming. Race directors want to attract the maximum number of entrants, and the thing that attracts people to a race is making it as easy as possible to set a new personal best. There's a push to make the marathon an easier event, which is smart. I ran New York when it was in September. It was ninety degrees! That's why marathon running was not very popular.

When you knew you had the '75 Boston won, about six miles from the finish line, you actually stopped running to tie your shoe.

That's true. I wish I knew exactly where it was. I had fun at Boston. It became my favorite race. I can remember thinking that if I could win and get that medal, it would be so great. What's unique about Boston is that everyone has that feeling.

Running is more than a sport. A sport is just a sport -- just a win or a loss. This is ten trillion times more. Everyone struggles at Boston, which is maybe why that medal means so much.

In Marathon Man you talk about eating a lot of sweets and junk food as part of your training regimen.

It was just a sign of the times. When we were traveling from race to race, we'd go back to a hotel afterwards and our celebration was getting a big bowl of nuts or chips with cheese. We didn't think about nutrition like the professional runners today. Frank Shorter and I were a little bit closer to the earlier Boston Marathon winners, the Johnny Kelleys and Clarence Demars, than to runners of the present day.

My diet today is a little healthier than it used to be, but I still like my snacks, pumpkin pies, and all that. I think people just know more now, which has played a role in runners getting quicker and helping more people to become runners.

When you were training for the 1975 Boston Marathon, you were able to incorporate running into a fairly normal existence -- you had a full-time job and a girlfriend.

One of the myths about running is that you can't live a normal life if you're going to be a marathoner. I think to some extent that for elite runners, that's true. Their lives are kind of severe.

Back then we were winging it. We ran a lot of miles, but we had a lot of fun too. We ate what we wanted. Grabbing a bunch of chocolate chip cookies after dinner and having them for dessert was part of the game. That's probably not true for today's elite runners.

Do you miss the purity of the sport? Is there something that's lost with the commercialization of it, and the popularization?

It's not lost if the race leadership doesn't want it to get lost. The race directors in Boston are handling the competitive racing side very well for the professional runners, but they've also kept a place for the Johnny Kelleys of today, the amateurs who run because they love to. The door got wider, especially when the fundraising side came in and when women came into the sport.

Women made it a family sport.

Today we have the Rock 'n' Roll Marathons, so there's more of a fun side to the sport, and that's very powerful. Sports have definitely changed, but the Boston course is always the same. That's what I like about Boston. When you run Boston's course, you ran where Greta Weitz ran -- and Joan Benoit, Ingrid Kristiansen, and Clarence DeMar.

And you.

That's true.

When you won in '75, your "prize" was a bowl of beef stew.

I remember when they were debating about whether to have prize money at the Boston Marathon. I talked to Tommy Leonard, the founder of the Falmouth Road Race, and said, "Oh, it should be wide open. They shouldn't have qualifying times unless 100,000 people want to run." There's a tremendous sum of good that comes out of the marathon. Every runner has a story.

How do you feel about the fundraising aspect of marathoning?

The fundraising side has turned out to be absolutely spectacular. Not too long ago, no one would have thought that someone would put money forward for a runner to run a marathon. It would be a joke -- like George Plimpton running the Boston Marathon. Running a marathon is a great challenge, a quest, but people say to themselves, "I can complete it because I'm doing it to fight cancer or Alzheimer's disease." Everyone has a personal reason to be there, and that's powerful.

When I travel to races around the country, people tell me that they don't think they'll ever be able to run the Boston Marathon, or that they can't run fast enough to qualify. I say, "Yes, you can. You just have to link up with an organization that you have a connection with. For example, everyone has a connection to fighting cancer."

Running is the number one sport for individual fundraising. Football, baseball, and golf are all very charitable, but that's all on the corporate level. When it comes to charitable giving, running might be bigger, partly because running is more global than almost any sport. All of these cool things are happening now, which makes it a better sport than ever.

Do you still attend the Boston Marathon?

I still go in for the race, and I love it. It's one of my favorite days. It's like all the holidays combined. It's just so much fun to see everyone smiling at a marathon. Everyone is in a good mood. Maybe they're struggling a little at the end, but people are smiling. They're with their family and friends. It's hard to beat.

There are more of us older runners than ever before. I love that, but I also love to see the young people in their twenties. American youth are often criticized, but they're running marathons and they're raising funds. I love seeing that.

Tell me why you wrote Marathon Man.

When I initially spoke with my coauthor, Matt Shepatin, I was a little bit nervous. I said, "No one's going to want to read this." He is not a runner. It was funny as heck, because he had no knowledge of intervals, speed work, or Heartbreak Hill, but he was a very good writer, and we had a lot of fun.

I've gotten a lot of great feedback about the book. I like that we included running with my brothers Charlie and Jason. That's what it is really about -- becoming a runner. You might quit if you don't have a focus or if you don't run with your family or friends.

Before the running boom you helped create, running was disrespected.

I was a special education teacher so that I could have time to train for Boston. My first year, they wouldn't even let me run on my lunch hour. My second year, they said yes. That enabled me to make the Olympic team.

Olympic sports, like cycling, running, and swimming, are changing our society and I think employers see that now. They are building bike paths around their corporate parks and encourage basketball or walking. It's great.

I think running is changing. It's a lifestyle sport, it's a lifetime sport, and it's a health and fitness sport. Plus, if you're active, you sleep better, food tastes better; life is better in so many ways.

Are there more marathons in you?

For years, I would run every race I went to, but now it's more about going to the expo at each race, where I meet the runners. Since I'm older and have been at races so long, I don't want to run every race. I get almost as much out of it by seeing the runners go by. When I was at Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter actually gave high fives to all 30,000 runners.

A lot of my friends still train for Boston, but most of them are younger. From age 25 to age 40, I did 50 marathons. That's a lot of traveling and racing. When I hit 40, I did some more marathons, but I started to lose my drive for it. As you get older, everything shifts gears. You start to say, "Well, I'll do a half marathon, and that's my marathon now." You start thinking of your health, and you want to back off a little.

During the first running boom, we didn't keep it moderate. That caused some runners a lot of wear and tear. Even the professional runners today don't race as much as Frank Shorter and I raced back in the seventies and early eighties. The fastest older runners today are people who came into the sport later in their lives, not Frank Shorter or me. We have too many miles on our bodies, though I think maybe I should do Boston this year because the desire for it never goes away.

Today, runners run fewer miles and do more cross training.

There's definitely more knowledge and awareness of cross training, and I think that's good for us older runners, too. We're the first generation of older people who are trying to stay fit, though we aren't necessarily marathoning or doing Ironmans.

Most people aren't active. They don't even walk! They have jobs that are too much for them and take up too many hours, so they can't find the time to run. They think, "This'll just make me more tired," or they were never chosen for a sports team, so they don't believe they can be an athlete.
To me, you're an athlete if you try, but you need a boost. Take a look at our sports teams: eight, ten, twelve people per side. Just a few people! That leaves everyone else! You have to figure out what you want to do, and explore it. Now people are finding out what they love, and for more and more people, it's long-distance running.

What happens to people when they commit to running a marathon?

You change when you become a runner. Think of those 25-year-olds -- they've got a journey ahead. They're seeing all of the older runners out there, and that's got to be mindboggling to them. I think it is such a cool thing that kids can see their parents run, and vice versa. It wasn't like that thirty years ago. You didn't often see parents running with their kids.

If I had a part in people finding this quest for themselves, that's great. At a marathon, we all cheer for each other, which is pretty cool.