SI Vault
Kenny Moore
October 24, 1977
Bill Rodgers, the American record holder in the marathon, races on and on, fearing his talent may desert him
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 24, 1977

A Gentle Radical Who Runs Scared

Bill Rodgers, the American record holder in the marathon, races on and on, fearing his talent may desert him

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Bill Rodgers' marathons go one of two ways. He wins without distress, finishing minutes ahead of the best runners in the world, as he did at Boston in 1975 and in the New York City Marathon last year, recording the two fastest times ever by an American, 2:09:55 and 2:10:09.6. Or he may run as he did at Boston last April. That race began at Hopkinton on a sunny morning redolent of cut sod and apple blossoms. Around him, Rodgers saw couples kissing, enjoying the sensual bloom of fitness before the ordeal. The start was a ragged, noisy stampede of 2,900 runners, in which Canadian Olympic marathoner Jerome Drayton was kicked and nearly trampled. Once they were on the road, there was no shade. Along the course the watching crowds were deep, totaling perhaps a million people, many of them listening to an account of the race on portable radios. At Wellesley, the halfway point, Rodgers and Drayton were alone in the lead. The commentator on WBZ was appallingly ignorant, identifying Drayton as defending champion Jack Fultz for mile after mile, enthusing over the "terrific weather for running," while the marathoners were glancing ruefully at the sky. Rodgers began to run with his head cocked slightly back, seeming to acknowledge the spectators' cheers, but in fact it was a posture of early ruin, a realization of the sun's supremacy. "It was deadly truckin' in that heat," he said later.

Drayton pulled away after 15 miles. Rodgers shrugged, slowing into what a friend recognized as his "survival stride." At the top of Heartbreak Hill, the 20-mile point, Rodgers stopped. "The old gut had gone," he said. "And besides, there were bigger crowds down the other side." Crowds that wouldn't understand.

Drayton won. Irritated by the race officials' traditional nonchalance about providing water and coherent intermediate times, he batted away the laurel wreath, "the crown of thorns," as Rodgers calls it. Rodgers caught a ride to the finish, walked to the Eliot Lounge, a favorite watering hole, and had a drink with his wife Ellen.

Back at the 20-mile point, on the crest of the hill beside Boston College, where in 1961 two-time Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila sat down to rub his freezing legs and so lost his race, the pack was still passing, another thousand people with miles to run, people perhaps as far from grace as we ever get—repetitive images of froth and chafe.

With runners still on the course, Rodgers had showered and was sitting wet-haired and relaxed, on the corner of a bed in his hotel. "From now on at Boston, I'll decide at the starting line whether it is cool enough to run," he said, making a vow he will not be able to keep. "If it's hot, I'll simply walk away." All marathoners suffer in temperatures above the 60s, but Rodgers suffers more than most. Conversely, he is supremely energized by what many consider stiffening cold. "No gloves," he says, "no good race."

On the street below, runners tottered on. Rodgers went to the window, then turned away. "I don't believe there is dishonor in dropping out," he said softly, "but in a way they are guttier than I, to run through that ugliness and pain."

Bill Rodgers, who is 29, grew up in Newington, Conn., near Hartford, where his father is the head of the Hartford State College Mechanical Engineering Department. His mother worked as a nurse's aide at Newington Hospital, and it is from her, Rodgers believes, that he received his extraordinary energy—as a boy he spent hours running after rabbits and squirrels in the woods—and a profound sympathy for the handicapped and retarded. "I'm involved with people who have been zapped," he says, as though involvement itself were an affliction.

During high school summers Rodgers worked as a porter in the hospital, then attended Wesleyan University, where no one seems to have noticed that he bears a resemblance to the young John Wesley, founder of Methodism and an inveterate visitor of the sick and imprisoned. Upon graduation, in 1970, Rodgers was granted conscientious-objector status, doing his alternative service at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. "I was dirt in that hospital," he says, his tone milder than his words. "I had one of those top-level jobs—washing dishes, emptying bedpans, taking bodies down to the morgue." It was a disturbing time. "There were lots of nasty, horrible cases; don't make me describe them. It bothered me most that here were people dying among strangers."

Rodgers had run a 4:28.8 mile in high school, then ran and roomed at Wesley-an with Ambrose Burfoot, who then won the 1968 Boston Marathon. After college Rodgers had quit training, and even had begun smoking. "I had had no commitment to fitness or real competition." he says. "Running was always associated with fun."

Now it became escape. "Running gave me an outlet from that stultifying job," he says. At first he worked toward the modest goal of finishing 10 miles—125 laps around the Huntington Avenue Y track. Then he was fired from his job for attempting rather clumsily to organize a union among the hospital orderlies. "For a year I couldn't find another job," he says, "so I ran 15 miles a day." He lived in a tenement, on food stamps. His first marathon was Boston in 1973. "It was a torrid day," he says. " Jon Anderson [also a conscientious objector, who washed dishes at a San Francisco area hospital] won. I dropped out at 20 miles, same spot as this year. Seeing Anderson run 2:16 in that heat, I knew I'd never be a top runner. It was impossible."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4