BILL RODGERS had just returned to his Barbados hotel room after having a rum and coke with friends last December when he got a call from his doctor back at Massachusetts General. His blood-test results were in: Rodgers had prostate cancer. The doctor recommended surgery for the following month.
Rodgers, who had been brought to Barbados to promote a local race series and run in the 10K, was shaken. "I said, What? I haven't been in a hospital for surgery since I was 10 years old and had my appendix removed." Rodgers had the surgery and is doing fine—a blood test in early June showed no signs of cancer—and he is now trying to help with a cure by doing what he became famous for three decades ago.
When Rodgers attempted his first marathon, in Boston in 1973, he didn't even finish, dropping out at mile 20, unable to handle the heat. He won the race for the first time in '75. In '78 he became the first man to win the Boston and New York marathons in the same year, and he repeated the feat in '79. (He is still the only person to have done it twice.) By '80 he would win 16 marathons—including four in Boston and four in New York.
As Rodgers ran, America was running with him. Thanks to such phenomena as Frank Shorter's '72 Olympic marathon gold medal, Jim Fixx's The Complete Book of Running in '77 and even the training montage in Rocky, jogging became one of the signature trends of the '70s, and Rodgers was one of the faces of the movement. "It was like being a surfer and being on top of a 40-foot wave," says Rodgers, 60. "You're just flying along."
In 1977 Rodgers and his brother, Charlie, decided to ride that wave and open the Bill Rodgers Running Center in Boston's Cleveland Circle, and then another in Faneuil Hall in '78. The stores were among the first in the U.S. to cater specifically to runners. The brothers chose the right time to get into the business. The year before, 25,000 people finished marathons in the United States. By 2007, according to Running USA, an advocacy group, the number had multiplied to 412,000. "People were coming in the door who had been tennis players, and they'd say, 'Gee, I'd like to try this running thing out,'" says Charlie. The Faneuil Hall store is still outfits runners today. Charlie handles the day-to-day operations, and Bill—who is twice divorced and lives 35 miles away in Boxborough, Mass., with his fianc�e, Mary ("We always say next Tuesday," says Rodgers when people ask him when they plan to get married)—comes in weekly to meet and greet and talk to runners about their training regimens. Boston Billy, as he came to be known after his success in the city's premier athletic event, has run in marathons from Houston to Holland to Vietnam. In August 2006 he even made an appearance at the inaugural Arctic Marathon, where he ran with his two daughters from his second marriage, Erika, 18, and Elise, 23. (It was a balmy 55�.)
Rodgers now runs 40 to 60 miles per week (down from the 130 he logged weekly in the '70s) and participates in 25 to 30 races a year, ranging from 5Ks to half-marathons, where he speaks to runners about training. "Many of them, they overdo it, and they think they have to run through pain," explains Rodgers, who has written books on the sport, including The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jogging and Running. "I say, 'No, no, no. You've got to rest, and you've got to try to run on dirt and grass and get good shoes'—of course, hopefully at our store in Boston." One thing he doesn't preach about is nutrition. "I certainly don't have what could be called the healthiest diet all the time," says Rodgers, who indulges by eating cookies and cheeses and continuing a 30-year habit of eating mayonnaise straight from the jar. "It's just so delicious. People think marathon runners all must have perfect diets. Of course that's not true. I definitely eat better than I used to. I just don't eat as much. We all know more about nutrition."
He last tried the marathon in 1999, in Boston. Attempting to set the 50--59 age record, he succumbed to the heat at mile 20 on Heartbreak Hill and, as with his first attempt, failed to finish. He's shooting for Boston again in April 2009, health permitting—but not for any records. "I don't want my last Boston to be a DNF," says Rodgers. This year he has already won his age group in two half-marathons, one in Orange County, Calif., before the surgery and one in Oklahoma City in April. "I've done a few other races, and I've gotten whipped in those," Rodgers says with a laugh.
In April he became the national spokesman for the PACE Race series, sponsored by the Prostate Cancer Education Council. The series, which includes races from 5Ks to marathons, began in 2002 as a way to raise awareness about the disease and boost early detection efforts by offering free on-site blood screenings. Rodgers is happy he can help while doing what he has always loved. "The office is out my front door," he says with satisfaction. "I always like that office in particular. It's a big office, not a little tiny cubicle. You can just go."