SI Vault
Sarah Pileggi
October 02, 1978
In winning his 17th consecutive road race over the last seven months, Bill Rodgers discovered that the Diet Pepsi 10,000-meter national championship hit the spot
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October 02, 1978

Want One For The Road? Try Bill

In winning his 17th consecutive road race over the last seven months, Bill Rodgers discovered that the Diet Pepsi 10,000-meter national championship hit the spot

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When he had finished last week's race, happy with his progress, Shorter jogged to the head of the straightaway to watch his wife come in. As Louise Shorter, four months pregnant, was about to pass two middle-aged male runners on her way to a 43.19, Shorter shouted at the men, "Don't let my pregnant wife beat you!"

The event in Purchase was three ways unique:

?It was the first AAU-sanctioned national championship road race at 10,000 meters. Previously the shortest championship race had been 15 kilometers.

?It was run around the perimeter of PepsiCo's corporate sculpture collection—several million dollars' worth of Calder, Moore, Noguchi, Nevelson, Giacometti, Lipchitz, Smith and others, set about on 140 acres of pristine lawn.

?It emphasized the marriage of road running, the traditional poor relation of track and field, and Big Business. PepsiCo, No. 74 of FORTUNE'S 500, has decided to throw in its lot—a little of its lot, anyway—with running, and running can hardly believe its good fortune. A few purists may shudder at the sight of hundreds of thirsty runners gulping thousands of Pepsis while dozens of cameras record the happy event, but in running purists are not long for this world, and besides, the Pepsi show is already on the road. Over the last 12 months, there have been Diet Pepsi 10,000-meter races in 32 cities and towns, and Pepsi's public-relations people anticipate they will sponsor 100 or more next year. Under the Pepsi format local winners, a male and a female in each of four age groups, move on to regional races, and regional winners get a free trip to Purchase for the national. Other high finishers are invited, too, but they have to pay their own way.

Many did just that last week, opportunities for little girls and elderly men to run in the same race with Rodgers and Shorter being rather rare. Rene Elliott, for instance, came from Dallas with her father. She is eight, approximately four feet tall, wears horn-rimmed glasses, and her hair is in a pigtail. She finished in 45:48.4, which improved her previous best time by four minutes and caused Jim Lillstrom, the race administrator, to remark, "If she keeps up that rate, by 10 she'll have the world record." On the other hand, Leon Dreher, 57, of Philadelphia, ran a disappointing, to him, 38:58.5, but he was not entirely dissatisfied. "I didn't run very fast," he said, "but I looked good."

Mary Decker, who broke the women's world indoor record for 1,000 yards four years ago when she was 15 and again this year, won the women's division in 34:37.6. A student at the University of Colorado, Decker is back in training after several layoffs. Her leg muscles have a tendency to develop to the point where they create pressure on the fascia, the casings that enclose them, and debilitating pain results. She recently has had a second operation to relieve the pressure. Shorter has a theory about Decker. "She's too strong for her body," he says. "Her only limitation may be her talent. She may have too much of it."

Rodgers, by contrast, runs on and on, and nothing seems to go wrong. If he keeps to his current schedule, by the end of 1978 he will have run 35 races. His wife Ellen has been given charge of his schedule for next year, and she says, emphatically, that there will be no more than 20 races and preferably only 10 or 12. Meanwhile, though, the boom in road racing is on, and dozens of promoters are vying for Rodgers' presence every week. In fact, two weeks ago he ran a 10-miler in Lynchburg, Va. on Saturday and a 10-kilometer race in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Sunday, and won both of them. As Marty Liquori, one of several track men who are working more road events into their schedules these days, observed over a Diet Pepsi, "A road runner can start the summer six feet tall and finish 5'6"."

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