I worked at Runner’s World from 1972 to 1976.
When Bill Rodgers won the Boston Marathon in 1975, I distinctly call how there was significant grousing among the Runner’s World staff, as if to say “Who’s this Rodgers guy? Who does he think he is, to beat Jerome Drayton, Tom Fleming, and all the other guys we thought had a good chance to win the race?”
(In my defense, I didn’t share those views; Rodgers just seemed like an intriguing new character on the running scene, with his long hair, bright attitude, and obvious gift.)
I’ve been reading Rodgers’ new autobiography, which was published at the end of April: Marathon Man – My 26.2-Mile Journey From Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World.
In a nutshell: it’s wonderful – it’s the best autobiography of a top-class runner that I’ve read in over forty years, since Ron Clarke’s The Unforgiving Minute (1971).
Rodgers won the Boston and New York marathons four times each. As a runner, he was a natural. He was a guy that the other elite runners of the day were in awe of, for his beautiful running form, his obvious talent, and the way he seemed to soar effortlessly over the ground with boundless energy.
Until Boston in ’75, he hadn’t appeared on the national radar, having won a bare handful of minor races. And he’d bombed twice on Boston’s infamous Heartbreak Hill, going out too fast in the early miles of the race and suffering crippling leg cramps from dehydration.
His race at Boston in 1975 is an inspiring story by itself. How he got there is even more deeply moving. Rodgers and his co-author, Matthew Shepatin, have done a beautiful job of telling “Boston Billy’s” background story.
The book is packed with deeply interesting insider perspectives and useful information, told in a wonderfully natural and openly sharing style, as befits what we know of his generous nature. It’s clear at the start that Rodgers isn’t at all interested in impressing us, but that he’s a big-time flag-bearer for his own style of running.
If there’s one lesson he wants to share with us, it’s that training is most successful when it’s most deeply enjoyable. And that enjoyment comes in two ways: by running hard, always working at the edge of our present ability; and by running with a deeply relaxed, deeply calm mind.
Rodgers not only rose to the top, he had fun while he did it. As Arthur Lydiard said of his own runners, and as they have testified, Rodgers enjoyed his training. He took joy in running – it defined him, and it makes him an enduring icon and model for us all.
He also emulated Lydiard’s runners in the way he trained. He didn’t hammer himself every day. Most of his miles were done at a leisurely – for him – 7:00 to 6:30 pace. Round and round he ran, circling the 1.5-mile path around a nearby lake, enjoying nature.
Rodgers doesn’t attempt to hide or gloss over his down years as a penniless former runner and grad student who had lost his bearings in life, and who sought refuge in a haze of cigarettes and booze.
Thus his story embraces a theme that we encounter in virtually every book and film that has the power to inspire us and renew our hopes: a hero who tastes the bitter fruits of contractive actions, and then is redeemed when he adopts a broader view, expanding his heart to include others.
Rodgers found redemption in his work with the mentally ill, and in his close and enduring relationship with his wife, Ellen.
It’s my habit, whenever I read a book that inspires me, to mark with Post-Its the pages where the high points are hiding, and scan those pages after I finish reading. I’m tempted to share those pages with you – but I’ll refrain so that you can discover them for yourself and taste their full flavor. If you’re a runner, you will find inspiration in this book – it’s guaranteed.