Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom

Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom

by Cameron Stracher
Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom

Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom

by Cameron Stracher


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A “lively, informative history” of distance running’s 1970s heyday—including the famous Falmouth Road Race—written “with a true fan’s contagious enthusiasm” (Newsweek).

It was 1978. Jimmy Carter was president; gas prices were soaring; and Americans were hunkering down to weather the economic crisis. But Jim Fixx’s The Complete Book of Running was a bestseller. Frank Shorter’s gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon had put distance running on the minds of many Americans. The odd activity of “jogging” became “running,” and America was in love.
That summer, a junior from the University of Oregon named Alberto Salazar went up against Shorter and Boston Marathon champion Bill Rodgers at the Falmouth Road Race. Though he lost to Rodgers’s record-setting 32:21, the competition set the stage for an epic rivalry among the three greats. Each pushed the others to succeed and, in turn, inspired a nation of couch potatoes to put down the remote and lace up their sneakers.
“[A] lively, informative history.” — Newsweek/The Daily Beast
“Essential reading for runners both competitive and casual.” —Kirkus Reviews
Kings of the Road is about marathon legends. It’s about running Fast. It’s about Will. It’s about the Real. It’s about drama of the finest kind.” —Bernd Heinrich, author of Why We Run and Racing the Antelope
“A rollicking, informed account of . . . how distance running helped define a generation.” —John Brant, author of Duel in the Sun and coauthor with Alberto Salazar of 14 Minutes

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547774008
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 11/01/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 256
File size: 17 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Cameron Stracher is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the author of The Laws of Return, Double Billing, and Dinner with Dad, as well as YA dystopian thriller The Water Wars. Stracher is also a media lawyer who has written for the New York Times; the New York Times Magazine; the Wall Street Journal; the American Lawyer, where he is a contributing editor; and many other publications. He lives in Westport, Connecticut, with his wife and two children and is a dedicated runner.

Read an Excerpt


Duo in the Sun (1978)

I've never met a runner who didn't think he could run faster.


The hand-drawn sign was taped to the wall over his bed, a reminder of failure and an exhortation against defeat: YOU WILL NEVER BE BROKEN AGAIN. After his disastrous sixth-place finish in the 10,000 meters at the NCAA finals, he swore he would not be out-trained or outraced again. He was no longer "the Rookie," the skinny kid from Wayland High School who trained with the big boys from the Greater Boston Track Club on the Boston College track. Alberto Salazar had just completed his sophomore year at the University of Oregon, chasing the promise of his high school potential. His frame had filled out, and his arms flexed with new biceps and triceps. He was tall, good-looking, and olive-skinned, with a thick swatch of hair on his chest and head. The son of Cuban émigrés — his family had fled to the United States when he was two years old — he was a prodigy, heralded for his speed as much as his work ethic and fierce competitiveness.

But now he was trailing his mentor and former teammate, Bill Rodgers, after four and a half miles. Rodgers was the people's champion, the face of American distance running. Fans along the road called out to "Boston Billy," cheering him on. Frank Shorter was the Olympic champion, yet it was Rodgers who carried the torch. If Shorter was the past, Rodgers was the present. Alberto Salazar, however, was the future.

So he pulled up alongside Rodgers. The sun beat down on both runners. The temperature was a deceptive 78 degrees, the humidity 70 percent. They had run the last mile, a straight shot along the beach, at a 4:30 pace. Now the heat had taken its toll. Both runners were drenched in sweat, their shirts clinging to their chests, their nylon shorts chafing their thighs. They doused themselves with water at every opportunity, but it made little difference with the humidity. Nothing evaporated in the thick ocean air. There was no respite; there was only the road.

Salazar turned to Rodgers and asked if the older man wanted him to take the pace. It was an old ploy to dishearten a rival. Let him think you felt so fresh you would willingly set the pace. And it worked. "Take it. It's yours," said Rodgers.

Alberto Salazar put the hammer down to take the lead on the roads at the height of the running boom. The future, he thought, was now.

On the morning of August 21, 1978, four thousand runners flooded the streets of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, for the sixth annual Falmouth Road Race. A seven-mile run from the Captain Kidd bar to the Brothers Four tavern in Falmouth Heights, the race was the brainchild of Brothers Four bartender Tommy Leonard. It had become so popular that the field of four thousand runners filled up nineteen days after registration opened, and yet six hundred more crashed the race and ran unofficially. The list of registered runners read like a Who's Who of American road racing. Thirteen sub-four milers; sixteen NCAA or AAU champions; nine Olympians. There was Garry Bjorklund, the Olympic 10,000-meter finalist; Mike Roche, winner of the Peachtree Road Race and an Olympic steeplechaser; Craig Virgin, the AAU 10,000meter champion, who had flown in from Brussels for the race; and Alberto Salazar, the previous year's runner-up. On the women's side, course record holder Kim Merritt was back to defend her title against Boston Marathon winner Gayle Barron, 10,000-meter road record holder Martha White, and Joan Benoit, who had won the 1976 race as a Bowdoin college sophomore.

Topping the list, however, was Bill Rodgers. Rodgers was coming off a string of victories at the marathons in New York, Boston, and Fukuoka, Japan, making him the only runner ever to hold the title of all three races at the same time. He had set course records at Boston and New York and was also the course record holder at Falmouth. Although Falmouth's shorter distance would seem to favor the 10,000meter runners (10,000 meters is about 6.2 miles), no one underestimated Boston Billy. On the roads, Rodgers could push a punishing pace, surging on the downhills and breaking his competitors. The only way to beat him, according to conventional wisdom, was to try to stick close and then outkick him. If it came down to a sprint, Rodgers was most vulnerable. His fastest mile was only 4:18, a pedestrian time that even a good high school miler could beat. Of course, Rodgers had no intention of letting anyone stay close enough to outkick him.

By 7 A.M., the air was already moist with humidity. A slight breeze off the water provided little relief. In the distance, a ferry horn sounded a sonorous bleat. It was still three hours to race time, but Woods Hole looked like a town prepared for a foreign occupation. Red barrier fencing lined Water Street from the post office all the way down to the aquarium. Porta-Johns clustered in rows of tens and twenties in the Marine Biological Laboratory parking lot, near the Swope dormitory, and along Church Street. Traffic cones demarcated starting zones, and a police cruiser with flashing lights blocked passage over the town's drawbridge.

At the crest of the first hill, where Water Street merged into Route 28 and ferry traffic bound for Martha's Vineyard funneled into the Steamship Authority, a group of volunteers in bright RACE OFFICIAL T-shirts gathered with local police to talk strategy. The Town of Falmouth had forced race organizers to limit the field this year because of the narrow start and the crush of runners at the finish. But organizers worried about "bandits," unregistered runners who would jump into the pack after the race began — hence the barrier fencing. The fencing was only a partial solution, however; it couldn't be extended over the entire course. Indeed, beyond the library, where the fencing ended, several runners without numbers were already stretching.

The finish line was another problem. Because of crowd control, this year it had been shifted two hundred yards farther down the hill in front of a large grassy field. The idea was to funnel the runners through longer chutes and avoid the backup onto the course. But recording the times of four thousand runners was a logistical nightmare. In the days before personal computers, barcodes, and radio frequency devices, this involved matching runners' numbers on their racing bibs with an electronic printout of their times as they crossed the finish line. If a single runner was missed, it screwed up the entire count. In that case, according to a local newspaper, a volunteer with a high-tech device known as a tape recorder would "stand at the end of the shoot [sic] and say the numbers of runners into the tape."

There were dozens of other problems — large and small — associated with planning and pulling off an event with thousands of participants and tens of thousands of spectators. At that time, there were very few races bigger than Falmouth — Peachtree had more runners, but the Boston Marathon had fewer — and except for the expanded finish area, the course was just two lanes wide.

The most serious problem race organizers had to face, however, was the heat. Legend has it that the first "marathoner" — the Greek messenger Pheidippides — ran from Marathon to Athens to announce the Athenians' victory over the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. Then he promptly dropped dead. Falmouth was not the rocky, sun-bleached terrain of Greece, but the race started later than most, and it was exceptionally humid, which impeded the body's ability to cool itself.

If Salazar wasn't worried about the heat, he should have been. The race began at 10 A.M. in the middle of the hottest month on Cape Cod. The slowest runners would not finish until high noon. Dr. Arthur Robinson, the medical director of the race, had expressed his concerns to the local paper. His daughter, Nancy, had been a track star at Falmouth High School and was dating Salazar. The couple met in high school while racing on the Massachusetts track circuit. Everyone knew the boy wonder from Wayland, with his dark eyes and invincible aura. What was a little heat to such a phenom? Something to generate, dissipate in waves off his brown shoulders, roil the girls (and their mothers) on the sidelines.

Around 7:30 A.M., the buses started to arrive. Falmouth was a point-to-point course, like the Boston and New York City Marathons, but there was no room in Woods Hole for four thousand cars. Instead, race organizers closed Route 28 and provided free transportation to the start. The buses dropped runners at the top of School Street and, except for the elite and sub-elite, they had to walk about half a mile around Eel Pond to the starting line. The drugstore was still open, as was the small grocery store, but by 8:30 it was too difficult to enter the latter, and the former was packed with runners buying last-minute items such as Vaseline (to prevent chafing) and Band-Aids (to prevent men's nipples from bleeding). The smell of Ben-Gay was strong in the aisles as several runners unabashedly rubbed down their calves and thighs. Local residents fought their way through the throng to buy the morning Boston Globe and New York Times. A couple grumbled about the crowds and the smell, but most knew someone who was running, had run themselves, or simply felt lifted by the spectacle.

It was hard not to be inspired by the sight of thousands of fit, healthy, athletic bodies. Muscled legs, flat bellies, taut arms. Men and women stripped down to shorts and tank tops, lightweight clothing and shoes made especially for running by Dolfin, Tiger, and Etonic, as well as by new companies owned by Rodgers and Frank Shorter. The race was a competition, but it was also a social event. The runners chatted amiably as they soaked up the camaraderie, energized by their common goal and their moment in the sun.

The elite runners arrived in Woods Hole less than thirty minutes before the race began. Each had his own routine, but they all shared certain similarities: a warm-up, a massage, stretching, then some sprints up and down Water Street. Nothing too fast, but enough to get the legs loose to avoid cramping or tears during the early part of the race. They gathered in the parking lot behind the main building of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, seeking the only shade around. For the first time, the race had a corporate sponsor — Perrier, the French mineral water company — which kicked in the whopping sum of $5,000. But there was no prize money for the winners, and some elite runners had to pay their own travel costs. Falmouth families hosted many of them, and although this was a charming tradition, it had grown out of economic necessity: the race simply could not afford to pay the travel costs of all but a handful.

Spectators sitting on the stone wall in front of the post office shouted good luck to Rodgers, and every few minutes another runner came up to shake his hand. It was distracting, and even a little annoying, but Rodgers handled it all with good cheer. He waved to the crowd and accepted their good wishes like the captain of the football team. When he spoke, he sounded as if he had just taken a hit of really good weed, the kind that makes you wide-eyed and amiable. His sudden fame was still strange to him, and he moved among his fans in a kind of winsome daze.

Salazar, however, remained aloof from the fray. He stretched by himself and said little to anyone. Some mistook this for arrogance, and, in truth, he was supremely self-confident. His coach, Bill Dellinger, said he was "obsessed with being the best in the world." The editor in chief of Runner's World called him "the fiercest, most combative runner I've ever met." He had been a star for so long, a prodigy on the track and the roads, that his self-confidence was well earned and rarely challenged. But his intensity also masked profound insecurity. The son of a dogmatic and strict, religious father, and the youngest of three brothers, Salazar could be painfully shy. He took failure hard in a sport where finishing second and losing were rarely distinguishable, and the sting of his NCAA sixth-place finish was still fresh and raw. Even when he won, he seemed to derive little joy in victory. Not losing was more important than winning.

Despite their differences, the two men shared certain characteristics common among distance runners: asceticism, introversion, neurosis. You could not run mile after mile at a sub-five-minute pace without a bizarre dedication to self-abnegation. Even now, distance running has yet to produce the equivalent of Usain Bolt parading around the stadium with his finger in the air. Instead, runners tend to save their celebrations for the bar after the award ceremony.

The first three miles from Woods Hole to Falmouth favored the distance runner. With its tight start, twisting roads, and short, quick hills, most participants were exhausted before the race opened up on Surf Drive. Then it was a flat mile in the hot sun, followed by five turns before heading back up a small hill toward Falmouth Heights. If Rodgers could not shake his pursuers by the time the runners got to Surf Drive, it was anybody's race. Speed would be tested against endurance; legs measured against heart.

Now they lined up at the start, shoulder to shoulder, as the crowd pressed in. Spectators stood on the roofs of Fishmonger's and the Captain Kidd. All along Water Street, people pressed three or four deep against the barrier fencing. In the sky, helicopters buzzed, news crews jockeying for the best position. Latecomers were still hustling down the street, but race volunteers were closing it down. Linking arms, they walked in lockstep toward the starting line, funneling everyone across the drawbridge. A man with the wrong bib tried to get through, and a race volunteer barked at him: Seeded runners only. Everyone else around the block. He shuffled off sheepishly like a truant schoolboy.

Salazar found a place at the front, one spot away from Mike Roche. Several former Boston teammates tucked in near him. Rodgers, however, was two rows back, content to let the speedsters set the early pace. A man with a megaphone was telling everyone to move back, make room for the top seeds. They were not quite behind the starting line, and the race would not be official until they were. There was some pushing, and more exhortations from the man with the megaphone, and the runners moved back a couple of feet. Sweaty bodies wedged against sweaty bodies, with nowhere to go in the crush.

Finally, with a few more shoves, everyone was behind the line. The helicopters thrummed overhead. A police escort flashed its lights, clearing the road with a whoop from its siren. The press truck gunned its engine, belching diesel and soot. A tape recording crackled over the loudspeakers, and the runners stood at attention as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played. There were flags everywhere, and necks craned in different directions like supplicants praying to different gods. Then the megaphone man gave final instructions and hurried back to the pace car. The starter raised his pistol. Legs tensed; arms raised; breath held. The race was about to begin.

When the gun sounded, the field surged out of Woods Hole like a crazy centipede. The lead runners were over the bridge and up the hill in a straight shot, but it took ten minutes for the rest of the field to get over the line, and even longer before they could run at a comfortable pace. The front pack quickly established itself. There were always a few kids who went out too fast — either for the glory or from sheer ignorance — and the experienced runners let them go. The adrenaline of the start, and the way the hill quickly leveled off and then descended all the way to the first mile mark, made for unwise decisions. But because no one had a clear view of the leaders on the winding road, the elite athletes would let them go only so far; losing the thread in the early stages of a race was a tactical blunder.

They hit the first mile in 4:25. It was almost unbearably picturesque: Nobska Lighthouse in the foreground, a rocky bluff overlooking Vineyard Sound, a snaking tail of runners stretching back as far as the eye could see. Two helicopters hovered above the bluff, and a flotilla of boats bobbed just off the beach. It felt like a festival, or a carnival, except up at the front some of the best runners in the world battled for position. They were all business as they took the hill and then descended back into the woods.


Excerpted from "Kings of the Road"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Cameron Stracher.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
Duo in the Sun (1978),
Birth of the Boom (1972),
A Man. A Plan. A Road Race. (1973),
"Will Rogers" and the Car He Drove In With (1974),
Cuba Libre (1965–1975),
The Good Die Young (May 30, 1975),
Boston Billy (1974–1975),
Showdown at Noon (1975),
Cheaters Prosper (1976),
Three for the Road (1976),
New York, New York (1976),
The Ligaments That Bind (1977),
Show Me the Money (1977),
Death's Door (1978),
Foreign Footsteps (1979),
A Brave New World (1980),
The King Is Dead. Long Live the King. (1981),
Boom's End (1982),
About the Author,

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