Marathon Man: My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running Worldby Bill Rodgers, Matthew Shepatin
The legendary long-distance runner details his historic victory in the 1975 Boston Marathon that launched the modern running boom
Within a span of two hours and nine minutes, Bill Rodgers went from obscurity to legend, from Bill Rodgers to "Boston Billy." In doing so, he instantly became the people's champ and the poster boy for the soulful 1970s/p>/b>… See more details below
The legendary long-distance runner details his historic victory in the 1975 Boston Marathon that launched the modern running boom
Within a span of two hours and nine minutes, Bill Rodgers went from obscurity to legend, from Bill Rodgers to "Boston Billy." In doing so, he instantly became the people's champ and the poster boy for the soulful 1970s distance runner. Having won the Boston Marathon and New York Marathon four times each, he remains the only marathoner to have appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice. Winning the Holy Grail of marathons in an unthinkable record time changed Bill's life forever.
But his dramatic breakthrough in Boston also changed the lives of countless others, instilling in other American runners the belief that they could follow in his footsteps, and inspiring thousands of regular people to lace up their shoes and chase down their own dreams. In the year before Rodger's victory at the 1975 Boston Marathon, 20,000 people had completed a marathon in the United States. By 2009, participants reached nearly half a million.
Thirty-seven years later Bill Rodgers still possesses the same warm, endearing, and whimsical spirit that turned him into one of America's most beloved athletes. In Marathon Man he details for the first time this historic race and the events that led him there.
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My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World
By Bill Rodgers, Matthew Shepatin
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Bill Rodgers and Matthew Shepatin
All rights reserved.
The Teachings of Amby Burfoot
April 21, 1975 Hopkinton, Massachusetts
For weeks, I had prayed for mild conditions on race day, but prepared mentally for any type of weather. There was nothing more fickle than Mother Nature around April in New England. Would I have to run the Boston Marathon in a snow squall like those poor racers in 1961? Would I have to brave a torrential downpour like the one that greeted competitors in 1970? Or would I have to endure the sweltering heat that brutalized runners in 1909 — a race that earned the nickname "the Inferno" after the mercury soared to 97 degrees?
"Bill," said my big brother, Charlie, standing beside me on the town green.
"Uh-huh," I said, not really hearing him. Feel that brisk wind, I thought to myself. The heat will not bring me to my knees today, not like it has before. My prayers had been answered — a cool, overcast spring morning. The perfect day to run a marathon.
It was here of all places, in the sleepy New England village of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, that I gathered with some two thousand topflight (I can't stand the term "elite") runners for the start of the Boston Marathon. On the town green, I loosened up and prepared for the race, amid spectators milling about and other competitors warming up.
The marathon has turned the center of this quaint small town into a bustling scene of excitement. You could feel the electricity in the air. Swarms of people passed by me on the green. Locals carried lawn chairs to set up along the course. Runners paced in nervous anticipation. A man in a clown suit sold colorful balloons. I heard the Hopkinton High School marching band playing nearby. For a big kid like me, it was heaven. For a racer with undiagnosed attention deficit disorder, also me, it was dangerously distracting. But not today. Not today.
"Bill!" My brother's loud Boston accent snapped me out of my gaze. "Well? Do you want some gloves?" he inquired.
"Yeah, that's a good idea," I said. "Did I bring any?"
"Of course not," Charlie said in a teasing sarcasm.
I blinked at him a couple of times.
"Don't worry. I'll run down to that little hardware store," he said, pointing to the row of stores farther down the center of town.
"Okay," I said.
Charlie cut off down the street, straight at the statue of the World War I doughboy soldier, rifle on shoulder in midmarch. He stopped dead in his tracks as if the doughboy, suddenly springing to life, had aimed a rifle at his forehead. Charlie swung around to me and shouted, "Stay there!"
I admit it. I've been known to get lost easily. And forget stuff. And lose track of time. But come on, Charlie. My mind was focused like a laser beam on one thing today. For countless months, I had trained like a man possessed, running over a 150 miles a week, spending solitary hours circling the dirt path around Jamaica Pond. I'd punished my body on the very hills I would soon face, pushing everything else in my life to the periphery. For so long, I'd thought about nothing but winning this race. And standing there, moments before the gun sounded, I felt ready for a battle.
Speaking of battles, the race has been held every Patriots' Day in April since 1897, in part to commemorate the anniversary of the most famous run of all, Paul Revere's midnight ride on April 18, 1775, to warn the patriots in Lexington and Concord that the British were coming. Fifteen runners participated in that first race in 1897; ten finished. John J. McDermott of New York emerged victorious, crossing the finish line in a new world record time of 2:55:10.
Boston oozes prestige and tradition. It's the oldest continuously run marathon in the world, held on almost the exact same course for over a century — a course that was patterned after the ancient route from Marathon to Athens. It's also famous for being the only marathon in the world in which all runners have to qualify. Many families over many generations have returned annually to run the race, or to watch the drama unfold from their go-to spot along the road, creating a festive row of lawn chairs and barbecue grills. Stroll around Boston on Marathon Monday and you'll know why they call it the world's biggest block party, or what's known around these parts as "a seriously wicked ragefest."
Truth be told, I didn't always grasp the romantic, almost mythical, attraction that runners have felt toward the race, going back to the early 1900s. In those days, hundreds of immigrant workers came from far and wide to the city for a shot to prove themselves worthy of the greatest honor a runner could achieve — the laurel wreath crown of the Boston Marathon. Some of these dusty-faced dreamers would hop freight trains to Boston with nothing but a pair of sneakers in their knapsack and a few cents in their pocket. What made the marathon different from many of life's other competitions is that sometimes this was all a man needed to come out on top.
Take Frank Zuna, a wiry, 150-pound plumber from Newark, New Jersey. In 1921, the twenty-seven-year-old man of Czech Bohemian descent jumped the train to Boston, wearing his racing gear under his dirty work clothes. Zuna conquered the field in a record-shattering time of 2:18:57, then almost skipped the public celebration in his honor. He told the BAA officials he had to grab the next train home or else he would be late for his plumbing job the next morning.
To this day, runners from all over the world, from remote parts of the Ukraine to the mud-hutted villages of Kenya, grow up dreaming of running just one race — the Boston Marathon. Given all the lore, the tradition, the epic stories of athletic triumph and tragedy, the one-of-a-kind personality of the course, the city where it takes place, and the people who make up the huge crowds along the way, it's no wonder many consider this the Holy Grail of marathon running in America and the world over.
There I was, a pale, drifty grad student, warming up on the town green, same as Frank Zuna and all the other dirt-poor, skinny-legged dreamers who had come before me. I hopped up and down a little in my lucky, faded gray Camp Wonderland warm-up sweatshirt, blowing on my cold hands. Just then I felt a hard slap on my shoulder. It was my friend Tom Fleming. He was wearing a smart-aleck grin, along with a white mesh T-shirt that exposed his nipples, and could easily have come from the closet of wrestler Randy "Macho Man" Savage.
This was Tom — a Jersey dude, amped to ten on the dial, ready to go toe-to-toe with anybody, anytime. If I glided swiftly over the road like a gazelle, Tom charged down it like a bull. Hanging on his bedroom wall was this sign: SOMEWHERE IN THE WORLD THERE IS SOMEONE TRAINING WHEN YOU ARE NOT. WHEN YOU RACE HIM, HE WILL WIN. Tom wasn't about to let that happen; he put in more hard miles than anybody I knew. But under all that hot-blooded, chest-puffing drive, Tom was a nice guy with a big heart.
"Hey, Bill," said Tom. "How do you plan to see where you're going with all that hair in your face?" Before I could respond, Tom threw a white sweatband over my head, causing my hair to cover my face and blind me.
With my long hair, skinny frame, ratty sweatshirt, and discount tube socks, I certainly didn't look the part of the typical track athlete. Then again, none of the guys in our little crew — the Greater Boston Track Club — fit the picture of dedicated, word-class competitors. Alberto Salazar, an eighteen-year-old kid from Wayland, Massachusetts, used to tag along with us on our workouts (hence his nickname, "the Rookie"). He described us as "oddball hippie outcasts" and me in particular as a "sweet, friendly ragamuffin guy; a hippie with a dirty-blond ponytail."
We might have been a bunch of rogue runners with our long hair and free-spirited lifestyle, but good luck finding a more hardcore group of athletes in 1975. We ran more miles in a week than most people drive in their cars. Day in and day out, we trained to the point of exhaustion, through bone-chilling New England winters and sticky-hot Boston summers.
None of us made any money road racing because there wasn't any to be made — if you won a race, you were thrilled to come home with a new blender. It was an amateur, Chariots of Fire–style situation: We ran for the love of the sport and the thrill of pushing the boundaries of what could be done in that day and age. Roger Bannister, the Oxford medical student who became the first man to break the four-minute mile in 1954, a feat previously thought to be humanly impossible, called it "a challenge of the human spirit." That's exactly how we saw it. (Coincidentally, 1975 was the year Bannister would suffer a near-fatal car accident that forced him to give up running.)
I parted my hair out of the way so I could see again. Tom was staring back at me with a cocky grin
"Looking good," Tom said. He held for a couple more seconds, then took off toward the high school, which had been turned into a makeshift staging area for the top runners. As I watched him disappear into the crowd, Charlie returned with a pair of white gardening gloves.
"Try these on for size," he said.
I slid on the gloves. Almost instantly, my hands started to warm up. I was lucky to have Charlie there to support me. It was nice to have the company. Kept the nerves calmer.
As for my girlfriend, Ellen, she'd camped out somewhere along the second half of the route. She had the idea to write BOSTON — GBTC in black marker on the front of my singlet the night before in our apartment. She felt, even though the crowds lining the course had no clue who I was, they'd be moved to cheer for me once they saw I was a local kid. I thought it was worth a shot. Besides, I took pride in representing my team and my city in the world's most famous footrace.
I had found my mesh singlet a month earlier in a Dumpster outside our housing complex in Jamaica Plain. I loved that it was so lightweight — it felt like I was wearing nothing — and it didn't chafe while I ran. What in the world a perfectly good shirt was doing in the trash, I have no idea, but I've always had an eye for finding treasure among the discarded.
I found my shirt in a Dumpster, my water bottle was an old shampoo bottle, and my racing gloves came from the gardening aisle. As for my footwear, I assumed I would be running the marathon in my beat-up Asics with the holes and rips and broken-down arches. But a week or so before the race I received a mysterious package at my apartment with this letter attached:
April 9, 1975
Mr. Bill Rodgers
Jamaica Plain, Mass. 02130
First of all congratulations on a fine race in Rabat. You have really improved this last year and hopefully will continue to until the Olympic games.
The reason I'm writing is because Jeff Galloway told me you were interested in training in our shoes. I'm sending you a pair of Boston '73s and a training shoe. Any comments would be greatly appreciated. Just feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you think.
Wishing you continued success for '75.
I was awestruck to get a personal letter from Prefontaine, then America's biggest track and field sensation. While I had never met the middle-distance rock star runner from Oregon, I felt a kinship with him. Maybe because we were both skinny scrappers, each with one leg longer than the other. Like me, you could count on Prefontaine to run from the front, to push the pace, and to give it everything he had from start to finish. The whole country loved Prefontaine for the same reason I did — he left it all out there every time he raced, heart and soul. As he once said, "Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it."
I admired that Prefontaine brought the same gutsy determination to his battles off the track that he did on them. He took on the overbearing rule enforcers of our sport at a time when few dared to do so. He knew it was wrong that the AAU dictated where and when U.S. athletes could compete. He was sick of these corrupt old men who maintained the belief that no matter how much time and passion a runner devoted to his sport, he should be barred from making a decent wage doing what he loved. According to them an American runner should make his own way, perhaps as a part-time bartender, like Prefontaine, but still compete against the best athletes from other nations like the Soviet Union and Finland who were fully funded, could train year-round, and, in some cases, were doped up on steroids. It bothered him that he had to turn down a $200,000 pro contract in 1975, then the largest ever offered to a runner, to maintain his amateur status for the 1976 Olympic Games. Instead, the world famous athlete was forced to live in a trailer with his dog, Lobo, and survive on food stamps while maintaining his tireless training program, which included grueling runs alone in the winter in Eugene, Oregon.
While Prefontaine was busy racking up records and winning titles at the University of Oregon, his legendary track coach Bill Bowerman created a shoe for his star runner by pressing lightweight foam rubber into his wife's waffle iron. The result was the first modern athletic shoe sole. In 1972, Bowerman added a "swoosh" logo to his sneakers, modeled after the wings of the Greek goddess Nike, and the rest is history. Meanwhile, Prefontaine became the face of Nike, as well as American distance running.
I had never before owned a pair of shoes that felt this light. They weighed zilch. Maybe five ounces. The waffle soles also provided better traction. They were made for running fast on the road. I loved them. The only problem: When I put the shoes on, they were slightly too big.
"Well, they're better than anything else you've got," Charlie said.
He was right, of course. I was a poor grad student. My running life offered no financial opportunities, and even if it did, I'd have to forgo them in order to maintain my amateur status, just like Prefontaine had. I didn't have money for state-of-the-art racing shoes. If Prefontaine hadn't sent me those Boston '73s a week before the marathon, I'm not sure what I would have done. After all, I wasn't likely to find a pair of brand-new, light-as-air, waffle-soled running flats, not even if I searched every Dumpster from Jamaica Plain to Dorchester.
Charlie walked with me to the starting line. The scene bordered on total chaos. There were no race officials, no volunteers to help corral the eager spectators. No ropes to hold anybody back. Just a feisty, bald, seventy-one-year-old barking out orders in a thick Scottish accent. This was Jock Semple. Longtime unofficial caretaker of the Boston Marathon. He alone arranged all two thousand racers, like some crazed conductor.
Excerpted from Marathon Man by Bill Rodgers, Matthew Shepatin. Copyright © 2013 Bill Rodgers and Matthew Shepatin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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