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Even in a crowd he runs alone
Kenny Moore
September 04, 1978
Bill Rodgers started with 4,000 at Falmouth but as usual he ended alone
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September 04, 1978

Even In A Crowd He Runs Alone

Bill Rodgers started with 4,000 at Falmouth but as usual he ended alone

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Henry David Thoreau called Cape Cod "the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts" and walked over it in search of "solitude sweet to me as a flower." In 1857, when lobsters were three cents apiece, he wrote, "When I go through a village, my legs ache at the prospect of the hard graveled walk. I go by the tavern with its porch full of gazers, and meet a miss taking a walk or the doctor in his sulky, and for half an hour I feel as strange as if I were in a town in China; but soon I am at home in the wide world again, and my feet rebound from the yielding turf."

Last week the Cape, or that 7.1-mile length of its triceps from Woods Hole to Falmouth Heights, resounded to the footsteps of some 4,000 overheated runners celebrating the sixth renewal of the Falmouth Road Race. Afterward, the bended arms hoisted no-deposit, no-return bottles, solitude was unavailable and thoughtful distance runners were forced to conclude that their sport is rapidly outgrowing its Thoreauvian roots.

There were 92 runners in the first Falmouth race in 1973. "We were mostly bartenders and college help," says founder and co-director Tommy Leonard. "We ran in the pouring rain after a hurricane and then had a great party." A tone of determined conviviality persists. "About 85% of the people we surveyed last year said they didn't go to work the next day, Monday," says Leonard. "It's not the race that does you in. It's the boogie."

A runner named David Duba won the inaugural in 39:16. Now the women's record is 38:40 by Wisconsin's Kim Merritt. Each year, because of the appeal of Olympians Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers, who traded wins for four races, the Falmouth fields grew ever larger and better. Going into this year's race, Rodgers held the record of 32:23, an average pace of 4:34 per mile. This year's starters included 11 sub-four-minute milers and 16 national AAU champions at assorted distances. Rodgers worried most about Garry Bjorklund of Minneapolis, the Olympic 10,000-meter finalist who is transferring his energies to road racing, and Oregon junior Alberto Salazar, second last year, who comes from Wayland, Mass. and had trained exhaustively for this race. Shorter passed—he is recovering from surgery for the removal of a bone spur from his left ankle—but Merritt, though aching in an Achilles tendon, was back to defend her women's title against Boston Marathon winner Gayle Barron, New York Mini-Marathon winner Martha White and 1,000 or so other women.

Falmouth is a nice, sociable little race that has exploded into D-day. Last May, when word went out that the field would be limited to 3,400 because city officials had threatened to end the event if it became unmanageable, the entry lists were filled in 19 days. For the 3,500 who were turned away, that left three months for them to influence Tommy Leonard to let them run. This they attempted with threats, with imprecations, with tears. He was touched by the young runner who came to Falmouth and sat in the race headquarters and cried for hours.

"It was like his not getting into medical school," Leonard says, still anguished. "I'm not Abraham Lincoln. I'm not God, or Solomon." Still, Leonard held firm. "I'm more concerned about physical safety than people's emotions. It's a narrow road with limited first-aid and water stations. We just can't handle any more." And yet, somehow, an extra 600 runners wangled their way in and ran unofficially.

The race began at 10 a.m. on the main street of Woods Hole, just up from its famed Marine Biological Laboratory. An hour and a half before the start, runners milled and trotted. The look of a road-race field has changed dramatically over the last few years. It is probable that three-quarters of America's 25 million runners have run for two years or less. With the vast new crowds has come a dilution of fitness. Olympic steeplechaser Mike Roche, who won the 12,000-strong Peachtree Race in Atlanta on the Fourth of July, was hard and brown as he warmed up, thus distinct among the hundreds of pale and jiggly novices.

"All these new people are so confused," said Bill Norris of Beverly, Mass., three times the IC4A steeplechase champion in the '60s and a seasoned marathoner. "I met a girl at a runners' barbecue yesterday, and she had dozens of questions about why she had to drink beer and eat spaghetti and stretch her calves. I said, 'Look, don't worry about all the new dogmas. Listen to your body, not what these six-month experts say.' So she lay down and had a cigarette."

At five minutes to 10, the throng pressed together, inhaling. One man several rows from the front knelt in a surreptitious attempt at relieving himself. When he stood, there was only a teaspoon of dampness on the road. "More nerves than necessity," said a girl nearby, and the gun went off. The front ranks leaped ahead into the relief of the first mile, nerves and mob slipping behind.

The air was cool, no more than 73�, but it was laced with 70% humidity—deceptive conditions. Once the runners' internal fires were stoked, their sweat couldn't carry the heat away. Rodgers, Salazar, Roche and Craig Virgin, the AAU 10,000-meter champion who had just returned from Europe, passed the mile in 4:25, two miles in 8:55, three in 13:35. Rodgers tried to surge on the downhills.

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