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Two for the road

Many miles ago, Rodgers ran off to Boston glory

By Bill Griffith, Globe Staff, 4/9/2000

Bill Rodgers
Bill Rodgers reaches down to touch the bronze running shoes that are part of a plaque unveiled March 22 at the Faneuil 'Hall of Fame' honoring the four-time Boston Marathon champion. Rodgers' plaque joins tributes to Boston Celtics greats Larry Bird and coach Red Auerbach. (AP photo)

Year  Place Time
1973 DNF --
1974 14th 2:19:34
1975 1st 2:09:55
1977 DNF --
1978 1st 2:10:13
1979 1st 2:09:28
1980 1st 2:12:11
1981 3rd 2:10:34
1982 4th 2:12:38
1983 10th 2:11:59
1986 4th 2:13:36
1987 15th 2:18:18
1988 28th* 2:18:17
1990 31st** 2:20:26
1996 Centennial run 2:53:23
1997 DNF --

* 2nd master
**5th master


  • Rodgers still a force into his 50s


    Twenty-five years ago, it seemed that foreign runners had a stranglehold on the Boston Marathon. From Japan, New Zealand, Ireland, Belgium, Finland, Colombia, and Canada they came to capture this crown jewel of the marathoning world. There was no prize money involved in those days, just prestige. Then, in the 1975 race, a local runner named Bill Rodgers burst upon the scene, winning Boston and helping to usher in the running boom. It was the first of his four Boston triumphs, the last of which came in 1980. On the 25th anniversary of Boston Billy's first BAA victory and the 20th anniversary of his last one, we take a look back.

    Bill Rodgers had been there before, running in the lead pack of the Boston Marathon, only to have his legs say ''no mas.''

    In 1973, he'd dropped out at 21 miles; in 1974, he'd been in fourth place before dropping back to 14th as his legs - but not his spirit - gave way.

    Now here he was in 1975, dueling with favorite Jerome Drayton. They'd been joined by Mexican Mario Quezas as they followed early pace-setter Bernie Allen from the noon start in Hopkinton into Framingham. Course record-holder Ron Hill was just behind.

    As Allen faded, Drayton took the lead and Rodgers followed, knowing he was scrapping the game plan he'd worked out with legendary Greater Boston Track Club coach Bill Squires.

    ''I went after Drayton,'' Rodgers recalled. ''I caught him, but probably the two of us were unconsciously pushing too hard. There were a lot of people yelling for him, and that made me run harder.''

    The Rodgers-Squires plan called for a cautious beginning, then an accelerated pace through the middle stages of the 26-mile, 385-yard course that ended by the Prudential Center.

    ''The course is suicidal,'' Rodgers would say later of the downhill early miles. ''At 10 miles, I knew I was too fast.''

    The Globe's Jerry Nason, who wrote the paper's lead story on the Marathon for 50 years, saw it differently. They ran, he wrote, with their ''strides in perfect harmony, an unusual orchestration in a marathon.''

    Nason also recognized history in the making as the pack approached Wellesley Square and the halfway point.

    ''The Connecticut Yankee [Rodgers was born in Newington], started priming his musket,'' he typed. ''When he pulled the trigger, the race, the record, and Jerome Drayton were doomed.''

    At that checkpoint, Rodgers had 30 yards on Drayton and was 11 seconds ahead of Hill's course record.

    ''I don't know what it is, but I've got a compulsion to get up to the front,'' said Rodgers later. Now, there he was, out front with a motorcycle escort to bring him home - if he could keep up the pace.

    In retrospect, the signs of Rodgers's pending breakthrough were apparent, except that no one outside the world of high-level marathoning had noticed.

    The previous fall, he had won the Philadelphia Marathon in an unremarkable 2 hours 21 minutes, but, as he would show many times in future races, he ran to win, not necessarily for fast times.

    So that victory went largely unnoticed, as did his third-place finish in the World Cross-Country Championships in Rabat, Morocco, where he held the lead with only a mile to go. Among the top runners left in his wake that day was 1972 Olympic Marathon champ Frank Shorter.

    Squires, ever cagey, had told the few who inquired about making Rodgers the favorite to win Boston: ''Don't pick him. He's too inexperienced. A year from now, he'll blossom into the marathoner he should be, but not this soon against this field.''

    But Squires also knew Rodgers was special, saying, ''He has all the tools, the competitive instinct, the light build and the intelligence you need in a marathon.''

    And this would be a perfect day for the front-running Rodgers. It was sunny but cool (50 degrees) with a brisk 20-mile-per-hour northwest wind to push him.

    Meanwhile, as the 1975 edition of the Boston Marathon unfolded, a running boom was also erupting. It would sweep the nation first and then the world. Rodgers, who was scraping out a living as a Boston College graduate student in special education, little suspected that he was about to become the Pied Piper of that movement. He was more concerned about finding a decent job. ''You've got to be known to get a job today, and I'm not known,'' he lamented before the race.

    It was all he could handle to be running alone and a little scared at the front of the pack with 13 miles still to go - making a very public journey into unknown territory. That he was the right person in the right place doing the right thing at the right time never occurred to him until later.

    Fancy singlet and shorts? Hardly. The man who would go on to have his own clothing line was wearing a T-shirt with ''Boston'' and ''GBTC'' hand-lettered on it. His No. 14 signified his 1974 finish. He wore the white ''Mickey Mouse'' painter's gloves that would become his trademark for 10 miles. Then, instead of discarding them, he frugally carried them the rest of the way.

    Any time the thought that he might actually win the race crept into his mind, the thought that he might not even finish came right along with it.

    By 17 miles, he was convinced he'd been going too fast; he was 38 seconds under Hill's record pace at the Woodland checkpoint. ''I slowed down when I turned [at the Newton Firehouse] into the hills because I was worried,'' he said.

    And Squires was right: Rodgers was an inexperienced marathoner.

    When it came time to take water, he stopped. (''I can't run and drink.'')

    When his shoe came untied on Heartbreak Hill, he became the first runner of the day - but certainly not the last - to stop on the Boston course's notorious climb. However, he bounced back up and continued on his way.

    The Boston crowds were so big and loud that he couldn't tell how close his nearest pursuer was. At Coolidge Corner he was 1:18 ahead of the course record pace, and, unbeknownst to him, Drayton was done, dropping out not far from where Rodgers had tied his shoe.

    ''I had a vision of him sneaking up on me from the side,'' said Rodgers.

    If the crowd took away his ability to see his pursuers, it also gave him hope. ''The noise and the crowd support helped a great deal,'' he said. ''It kept me going when I felt like quitting, when ordinarily I would have quit.''

    Only in the final 2 miles did Rodgers really think about victory.

    ''I began to think that I might win if my legs didn't cramp up on me,'' he said. ''I know I'd get across the line if I could see it. I would have crawled in.''

    Rodgers neither crawled nor slowed. He came home in 2:09:55 to finish 35 seconds better than Hill's course record and set an American mark.

    Told his time, Rodgers shook his head.

    ''I just can't run that fast,'' he said. ''I can't.''

    But he had.

    Amby Burfoot, Rodgers's former roommate at Wesleyan University, had won Boston in 1968 in a time of 2:22:17. On this day in 1975, Burfoot ran faster than that (2:21:20) and finished 32d.

    He called Rodgers's record run - at the time the fifth-fastest marathon in history - ''one of the greatest, if not the greatest, marathons ever. Anything faster was done on a pancake course. This is a real course.''

    1980: Pure willpower

    Five years later, on April 21, 1980, the thermometer hit 67 degrees by 9 a.m. The temperature would be in the high 70s during the race. Normally, his opponents would take joy that the weather was too warm for Rodgers.

    But Rodgers already had taken the heat. He'd been boiling for months since President Jimmy Carter announced the US boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

    If times had been normal, Rodgers wouldn't have been running Boston; he'd have been preparing for the US Trials in Buffalo May 24. But Carter had decreed the boycott in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

    There would be no Olympics for the US athletes.

    Rodgers was crushed. Four years earlier, he had run second in the US Trials, then, hampered by a foot injury and more warm weather, finished 40th in the Montreal Games.

    The man who had been a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War now became an outspoken critic of US policy.

    How much would an Olympic medal have meant to Rodgers?

    ''An Olympic medal is like a rock from the moon,'' he said.

    He eschewed plans to wear a black armband to protest the boycott and went out to try to win a third straight Boston.

    If a normally meek and mild Rodgers was capable of thrashing the field, what would a well and truly angry Rodgers do?

    Battle the heat, is what he did. Survive, and use his knowledge of the course and his downhill running talent to take the lead at the halfway point.

    ''The only reason I won that race was that people I know were giving me water,'' he said. ''That's the only thing that got me through. The last 8 miles were pure willpower. It was the epitome of the Marathon. I was getting cramps for the last 6 miles. If anybody was moving at me at all, I might have stopped and started crying.''

    But there was no one there to move at him. Rodgers, a consummate downhill runner, had shed his final challenger back on the Wellesley downhills.

    Having outrun his anger, Rodgers savored his place in history by raising the four fingers on his right hand as he crossed the finish line, signifying his fourth Boston win.

    It gave him nine marathon ''majors'' - four Bostons, a Fukuoka (Japan), and four New Yorks.

    But this year there was no invitation to visit the White House as there had been following his 1979 victory.

    Indeed, Rodgers's win soon was overshadowed by the doings of Rosie Ruiz, who stole the women's race and the headlines for the next week.

    * * *

    Rodgers's four Boston victories turned out to be only a brief interlude during the foreign domination of Boston. Since 1980, only two Americans have won the Boston Marathon: Alberto Salazar (1982) and Greg Meyer (1983).

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