Wednesday, August 19, 2015

V 5 N. 78 Review of Bill Rodgers Biography

Going through our local library the other day among the myriad of books on how to run your first marathon, triathlon and God knows what else there is to know about running, I found a noteworthy tome in that pile of rehashed drivel.  I'm staggered by all the books that have been produced about the sport geared for the newcomer.   Glad I'm not starting out now, because I wouldn't know where to begin.  I might have to resort to a personal trainer/guru to inform me on how to get started, buy five pairs  of shoes, learn the proper diet, receive online updates and encouragement, get a therapist, and masseur/masseuse, select several thousand dollars of running clothing, and inspirational tapes to listen to while torquing down the pike and then wonder if I'm running at my lactate threshold often enough, so that I can go with confidence into my first $200 dollar entry fee marathon.   A marathon weekend can go well over $1000 with plane tickets, hotel, food, taxis and double that if you are traveling with  an attendant groupie, kennel fees for your dog and possibility of losing your smart phone while checking on your Garmin wristwatch to know if you are maintaining your $5,000 guru's recommended pace and keeping up with your in race hydration and nutrition plans.

.   Fortunately I did find one book that an oldtimer could get his head around.    It's by Bill Rodgers with the help of Matthew Shepatin titled,  "Marathon Man, My 26.2 mile journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World".    I've found the book to be a most enjoyable read about a guy who was inspired by Frank Shorter's monumental 1972 Olympic gold medal performance in Munich.  In 1972 Bill was a 'former runner' albeit not a bad one having run an 8:58  indoor 2 mile his senior year and then abruptly hanging up his spikes to be a smoker, drinker, motorcycle riding  and somewhat aimless individual who was serving a two year hitch as a conscientious objector to the Viet Nam War working as a hospital attendant and trying to organize a union in that hospital.   Bill describes what changed in him when he saw Shorter's win on TV.  He had grown up an ADHD kid who liked to chase butterflies and struggled with his studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  He had been a state cross country champ in high school but never took running  or himself very seriously.  Ironically his small college team had two pretty decent runners his freshman year,  Jeff Galloway, who would become a 1972 US Olympic team marathoner and Amby Burfoot.   Galloway graduated after that first year that Bill was there, but Bill would go on to room with Burfoot for two years.  Burfoot, a dedicated runner to the extreme, introduced long runs to Bill, but often went without him because Rodgers couldn't get up in the mornings due to  his fondness for partying on the weekends.  In fact Burfoot couldn't convince him to run five miles a day in the summer to get ready for cross country season.   Nevertheless, Rodgers was able to witness what it took to be a champion when Burfoot won the Boston Marathon while still a senior at Wesleyan.

After deciding that he did want to be a born again runner, it took Rodgers three years of dedication and 'learning by doing' to win his first Boston Marathon in an American record 2 hours 9 min. 55 sec, after two failures in his first attempts.   The main part of the book describes his first Boston attempt in 1973 when he dropped out and his win in 1975.  It flips back and forth between those two races detailing what was going on in both races and in his head as each race progressed.  Once I got into the routine of reading the jumps back and forth I began to enjoy the book more and more as we moved toward the finish line in 1975.   Rodgers didn't make it to the finish line in 1973 and instead had to walk off the course to his apartment a few blocks away.

The book also details the years after 1975 as the running boom took off in America and how this unassuming individual dealt with his fame and how it was still a struggle to make ends meet with the amateurism rules that were in place in those days.  Bill also pays hommage to the Fukuoka Marathon that in the 1970s  was the major marathon along with Boston,  and how he wishes today's runners would start going back there.  It was an elite marathon limited to about 80 runners, and  they were all very good wonks lining up behind the studs.

Bill describes his relationships with Shorter, Burfoot, Tom Fleming, Jock Semple, Billy Squires and his two best friends his older brother Charlie and Jason Kehoe.  Charlie, Jason, and Bill were inseparable as children and as adults running the Bill Rodgers Running Center for 35 years in Boston.  Tales of the Eliot Lounge and Tommy Leonard, the Eliot's bartender and founder of the Falmouth road race are found throughout the book.  Bill also speaks briefly about the break up of his two marriages and about his current prostate cancer situation that he is dealing with.   I can highly recommend the book , published in 2013, to anyone who was  running before and  during the 1970s and 80s.    It also might not hurt the recent converts to the 'new running boom' to drop their I Pads and stick their noses into this book while they sip their chai lattes.   Below are a few quotes that I bookmarked, more to show what was going on in Bill's head during his races and in some other aspects of his life.

About the 1975 Boston Marathon (his first Boston win)

I crossed the train tracks, waving happily to the crowd gathered outside the train station.  Funny thing, I don't remember doing that.  This was the other side of my ADHD, the good side, especially if you happen to be a distance runner.  Most normal people could not run for over two hours without a single break in concentration, but my condition gave me an abnormal talent for immersing myself in a single activity I enjoyed, in this case running (like he did chasing butterflies as a kid ed.).  Once I went into this zone of hyperfocus, I shut out the rest of the world.  I could have been running through an artillery range with live mortars going off around me and it wouldn't have bothered me.  Being able to lock it down for 26.2 miles while disregarding the messages of worry, confusion, and insecurity that can infect the mind and deplete the body gave me a special edge.  Which was kind of funny because, the rest of the time when I wasn't running, my mind was all over the place.  Everything has a flip side, I suppose.

On your opponents' effect on you:

It only takes one man to out run you and you've lost.  Just ask the hundreds of runner-ups in this race.  All of them at some point along the 26.2 miles of road, had the same thought:  I'm going to win the Boston Marathon.  Maybe the thought only lasted a brief , intoxicating moment, but that's all it takes for hope to take hold.  And hope is a dangerous thing to have as a marathon runner because all it takes is one man, at any time, at any mile to wipe you out.  He has ravaged your psyche, obliterated your spirit, crushed your will to win, but that's not the worst of it--because don't forget, your body is still on the course, and you still have the agonizing business of getting to the finish line, which could be several  miles away.  It's not like boxing, where one uppercut is all it takes to put you out of your misery.  In the marathon, you have the chance to watch your dream get pummeled slowly, yard by excruciating yard, knowing there's nothing you can do about it......The rest of the way is pain and heartbreak.  Until it's over.  But it's not really over because you'll be muttering to yourself for years afterward:   I was going to win the Boston Marathon.

In the book, Bill also describes how shortly before his 1975 Boston win, he received a pair of Nike 73 shoes in the mail from Steve Prefontaine who congratulated him on his recent third place showing in the World Cross Country Championships in Morocco.  Rodgers wore the slightly too big shoes in that winning marathon and even had to stop once to re-tie them.  Prefontaine was working then for Blue Ribbon Sports (later Nike).  A month later he was dead in a tragic car wreck.

Bill talks  about the Greater Boston Track Club which he ran for in those days.  It was a group of really good local runners from the Boston area, inluding Randy Thomas, Bob Hodge, Greg Meyer (a Michigan import), Fred Doyle, Mark Duggan, Scott Graham, Kirk Pfrangle, Alberto Salazar, Dick Mahoney, Don Ricciato, Bob Sevene and Walt Murphy, mentored by coach Billy Squires.  They did their long runs and track workouts and traveled together often taking the back roads to races, because they didn't have enough money to pay the toll road fees, and slept 8 to a room in hotels just to get to races.

Here are a few more memorable passages:

The more experienced marathoners will take advantage of a day like this--cool with a tailwind.  It's only the inexperienced runners that don't.  Or the runners who hove no competitive fire.  They're running the same course, but they're not running the same race.  They're solving crossword puzzles in their head or thinking about their grandma or talking to people along the way or visually embracing spectators.  They're in a world of heartwarming delight.....

In my world , I was running beside Jerome Drayton and he was as light and cheery as the Terminator- his eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, reinforcing the sense that he was a cold-blooded killer.  But Drayton didn't intimidate me.  Not for a moment.  I had to deal with him but at the same time, he had to deal with me.  And I was determined to stand my ground.  You have to be like this.  You can't let anybody throw you off.  You have to be feisty.  Respect your opponent, as I respected Drayton, but never fear them.  This is a duel.  I'm there to beat him.  He's there to beat me.  I can't think of anything more fun.

For runners progress is the root of pleasure.  While progress in life can be hard to see, sometimes impossible, all I had to do was open up my ten-cent running diary and peer inside. My physical evolution was clearly laid out before my eyes.... I felt good.  I felt fit.  Now I was really tapping into my human potential.  No substance on the planet can rival a rush like that.

Progress in the marathon is not a steady upward curve.  It's an uneven , jagged trajectory, where one minute you''re on top of the world and the next you're a heartbroken wreck on the side of the road.  Perhaps this is even more true for someone like me-- a more aggressive runner, a more emotional runner.  Sometimes you get great days in the marathon and everything comes together. Other times, things go very badly in a race, and you don't know what happened to you.  I think partly it's that , in those days, I raced a little too much--three or four times a year in the marathon, whereas today's marathoners run once or twice a year, with more of a focus on more concentrated training for fast times and for a higher  level effort.  Runners like me and Tom Fleming went all over the place, hardly ever turning down an invitation to race.  Shorter didn't race too much.  He was careful and that got him his gold and silver medals.  But I just loved to race.

By the time I broke though in 1975 , race directors were offering me a ticket, a hotel room, and a small per diem fee.  By 1979, I was getting as much as $20,000 for a marathon, and $3,000 to $10,000 to show up for a road race.  I had done what I had set out to do-become the first professional road racer.  

He wore Asics shoes, because they offered him $3,000 to wear their product compared to $500 the young Blue Ribbon Sports Co. could offer as well as the $500 New Balance offered at the time.

Shorter and I know we are lucky to have come of age as marathoners during the running boom of the 1970s.  While I know running is going to be a huge sport for a long time to come, there's never going to be a period quite like the one we lived through.  We were at the birth of something extraordinary, when the first flowers came up through the spring soil.

Below from my collection is a copy of the 1978 Fukuoka Marathon program with signatures of  Bill Rodgers (just under the numbers 1978) as well as Chris Wardlow (Great Britain), Anthony Sandoval (USA), Trevor Wright (Great Britain), Rich Hughson (Canada), Len Johnson (Australia), and Lionel Ortega (USA).  This had been sent to me by Minoru Hirota, a Fukuoka resident who attended grad school at Ball State University when I was there from 1976-79.  We lived in married student housing at the time and our families became good friends.  Minoru knew what a marathon nut I was at the time and must have jumped over a lot of bodies to get these autographs.

Marathon Man, My 26.2 Mile Journey from Unkown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World, by Bill Rodgers and Matthew Shepatin, Copyright 2013, St. Martins Press, NY, NY, 317 pages.

George, Roy,
I remember when Bill came to Dayton to do a promo and John Wilderman asked me to do a training run with him on a Saturday morning, 13 miles.  Bill was a kind person, we talked the whole way, he ran my pace.  John had a foot injury so he rode his bike.  The three of us running/biking the hills of Oakwood and talking like the best of friends; a day I will always remember.

After we were done I asked about when the first issue of Runner magazine was coming out because Bill was a writer.  He said I should have already received a copy.  3 days later I received a Bill Rodgers signed copy of the initial magazine and then a week later my real subscription copy arrived.  Bill did this on his own.  What a gentleman.

Thanks for posting this George.

Ray Olfky
Dayton, Ohio

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