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Same roads, new direction

At 51, Boston legend Bill Rodgers takes aim at Marathon veterans mark

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 04/11/99

HERBORN - There are times when Bill Rodgers wonders whether he's crazy for even thinking about taking the line in Hopkinton again.

''I remember this article that Johnny Kelley the Younger wrote when he ran Boston in his 50s and he said, `This is ridiculous,''' Rodgers is saying. ''I keep thinking, `Johnny, you might be right.'''

A look at the 50-59 age-group records that Bill Rodgers, 51, will be chasing in the April 19 Boston Marathon

  • US mark - 2:25:46
  • Course mark - 2:27:17
  • American course mark - 2:31:34

    A look at Rodgers' four victories with winning times in Boston:

  • 1975 - 1:09:55
  • 1978 - 2:10:13
  • 1978 - 2:09:27
  • 1980 - 2:12:11

  • Rodgers is sitting on the sofa in his rambling brown house on a country lane with a grandfather clock ticking in a corner and a display case crammed with trophies from the '70s and '80s in the hall.

    ''I always think I'm going to feel good when I go out the door,'' he says. ''I think, `Hey, I'm 27.' And then I go out and I'm still 51.''

    Boston Billy is a ''veteran'' now. He has not run the Boston Marathon competitively in nine years. His appearance in the centennial race three years ago was just that, a ceremonial trot along a 26-mile memory lane. This time, it's for real.

    When he answers the gun a week from tomorrow, Rodgers will be chasing three age-group records: the US point-to-point mark (2:25:46), the course mark (2:27:17), and the American course mark (2:31:34).

    Whichever African wins the open race will have been wreathed, medaled, interviewed, and massaged by the time Rodgers crosses the line and waves to his two daughters.

    ''If I can get a record, I'll walk away a very happy runner,'' he says. ''All I want is by one second.''

    From 1975 through 1980, when he won four times, Rodgers owned this race. He would come bouncing down from the Wellesley hills around 1:15 p.m. and see nothing but police motorcycles and macadam ahead of him.

    ''Now, I'm back in the pack a lot,'' he says. ''I see the good runners take off and it's fascinating how far they pull away. By the mile, they're not too far ahead. By 2 miles, it's, `Holy cow, this is getting bad.'''

    Not that Rodgers harbors any illusions of hanging with the Kenyans. The last time he ran Boston seriously, in 1990, he posted a respectable 2:20:46 - and came in fifth in the masters category.

    Rodgers has long since conceded what the calendar and the clock tell him.

    ''I think like an age-grouper now,'' he says. ''I'm like most of the other runners. I run for the time. I go by my watch, I look at my splits, I go how I feel. I look for certain people whom I know run whatever time I'm looking for. And if I don't get my time, that's OK.''

    He has nothing to prove to the world anymore. Rodgers's face, with its unruly shock of blond hair and its quizzical expression, is already chiseled onto the Rushmore of modern American marathoning, along with Frank Shorter's and Joan Benoit Samuelson's. But Rodgers laughs if you call him an icon.

    ''I don't know if there's such a thing in marathoning,'' he says. ''Pheidippides was an icon. Maybe Rosie Ruiz is an icon.''

    It has been two dozen years since Rodgers, an unknown grad student with ''GBTC'' (for Greater Boston Track Club) penciled on his T-shirt, won his first Boston in 2:09:55 and was hailed as ''Will Rodgers.'' (''Got some advice for you,'' a stranger told him. ''Never take a plane ride with a one-eyed pilot.'')

    Rodgers stuck with paved roads and quickly became the affable Everyman in the forefront of the country's running boom. Besides his four Bostons, he also won four New Yorks. He ran in the 1976 Olympics and was leading until he ran out of gas and finished 40th. ''A beginner's mistake,'' he says now.

    Those were the glory days for US males in the marathon, when it seemed there would be a continuum of Virgins and Salazars and Beardsleys and Meyers, and Boston would be a made-in-America showcase. But no Yank has won here since 1983 and none is expected to next week.

    ''Who is the top American marathoner right now?'' Rodgers muses. ''I don't know. It seems we've come to the end of a generation.''

    Rodgers ticks off a few who have shown a recent aptitude and a taste for the distance: Mark Coogan, Todd Williams, Jerry Lawson, Rod De Haven. But only Bob Kempainen has run under 2:09 since 1982, and no American ranks in the all-time world top 50.

    ''We have the talent, but a lot of our best people now go to track and cross-country,'' Rodgers says. ''Like Pat Porter. I remember talking to him about the marathon because he was doing 130 miles a week. But he was already doing great and he said, why move?''

    Why switch to an event dominated by altitude-born Africans who compete as a team, who play cat-and-mouse with the lone challenger until they break him? Why take on a distance that you can run well only three times a year with little chance of winning the major events that bring the big paychecks?

    ''You could do almost any job in America now and make a better living at it than being a marathoner,'' Rodgers observes.

    It's a different world on the road now, and Boston Billy understood that by 1988. He was 40 that year and no longer chasing the laurel wreath, even if the faces lining the course didn't understand that.

    ''Usually you have a five-year span when you can be at your very best,'' Rodgers figures. ''Then physically or psychologically you hit the wall and you can't do it anymore.''

    Rodgers had a decade of lining up in the front row with the world's best, and the record that most satisfies him is the global one he set for most marathons (28) under 2:15.

    ''I was so proud of that, but I don't think anybody knew about it but me,'' he says. ''Then some Ethiopian guy passed me last year. I don't even know his name, but I want to meet that guy and buy him a drink.''

    The days when Rodgers could peel off a 2:15 are a decade past and more, and he accepts that.

    ''Usually, I'm duking it out now with the leading women,'' he says. ''And the very best women kick my butt. Fatuma Roba, I just wave her goodbye.''

    He races for time now, and for his livelihood and for the pleasure of the chase. Rodgers and his brother Charlie still have their running store in Quincy Market and Rodgers still has a shoe endorsement (Etonic), does work for Ronzoni pasta, and has other corporate tie-ins. He leads employee fun runs, speaks to execs, turns up at running expos.

    ''It's great fun going to a marathon,'' Rodgers says, ''without having to do the marathon.''

    Rodgers does only as much as he wants now. His driven, top-of-the-world days are many checkpoints behind him.

    ''There's a world of difference between trying to win Boston and running it when you're 50 and you have kids,'' he says. ''I used to run around Jamaica Pond a lot and pass a park bench and think, I just want to sit down there and look at the water. Now, I'll do that.''

    Rodgers has done enough marathons - 57, he says - for a lifetime, once as many as five in a year. There are enough 5Ks and 10Ks and half-marathons around for Rodgers to easily run the 25 races he's penciled in annually for more than a quarter-century.

    What lured him back to Hopkinton this time were the veterans records for runners between 50 and 59, which he had looked up and concluded were within reach. Rodgers was undefeated last year in 29 races at shorter distances and the times he posted in half a dozen tuneups this year convinced him he was ready to run 26 miles and mean it.

    Though many macadam clockers and watchers are buzzing about a possible age-group duel between Rodgers and New Zealand's John Campbell, Rodgers shakes his head.

    ''Campbell just killed me in a 10K in Alabama,'' he says. ''If he's here, he's the top guy, without question. I don't know a 50-year-old who can beat him. He says he's trying to crack 2:20. I don't think he can run 10 minutes faster than me. Maybe he can, but ...''

    Rodgers is chasing not Campbell but a mark in a record book.

    ''I might totally wipe out,'' he says, ''but if it's a cool day I shouldn't be too far off, even if I miss it.''

    He is going to run steady and smart, Rodgers says, and not let adrenaline and ambition pull him too far ahead of himself. He has learned much since 1976 and Montreal.

    ''What I don't want to do is what I did twice here when I was younger - run hard and then keel over,'' Rodgers says. ''I've had enough of that.''

    Rodgers just wants to run a sound and sensible 2:31 and not be trucked in with the blister brigade. After all, his daughters will be waiting for him.

    ''It's very strange just sitting here thinking about it,'' he says. ''I wonder, am I crazy? It's a scary thing.''

    Rodgers hears the grandfather clock ticking and a voice in his head that reminds him that 1990 was a thousand years ago. Is he sure he wants to go through with this?

    ''We'll see if I make it to the line,'' Boston Billy says, with an impish grin. ''I still might chicken out.''

    This story ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe on 04/11/99.
    © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.

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