Bill Rodgers, the man I consider to be the world’s greatest road racer ever, was born in Hartford, CT and raised in Newington (and his sister once lived in Bethel!). For those who don’t know, Bill won the Boston and NYC Marathons four times each between 1975 and 1980 and twice broke the American record at Boston with times of 2:09:55 in 1975 and 2:09:27 in 1979. He was an Olympian in 1976. The next year, he won the Fukuoka Marathon, making him the only runner ever to hold the championship of all three marathons (Boston, NYC, and Fukuoka) at the same time. In 1978, he won 27 of the 30 races he entered, set the new world road 10K best time of 28:36.3, and won the prestigious Falmouth Road Race and the Boston & New York marathons. Track & Field News ranked Bill #1 in the world in the marathon in 1975, 1977, and 1979. According to Track & Field News, Bill still holds the following American records on the track: 20km, 25km, 30km, and the one-hour run.
On occasion, throughout my 40+ year running life, I’ve been fortunate to have several completely chance encounters with Bill. The first was decades ago, after a race in Central Park, when I came upon Bill hanging out near the finish line, talking with other runners as he often does. At rest, Bill was hardly the intimidating presence he was when he was competing and floating at a sub-five-minute pace mile after mile, but I was nervous nonetheless about approaching my running hero. I got myself together, walked up to him,and asked him to autograph one of my Nike Eagle racing shoes, which he graciously did. After a brief conversation in which I realized how approachable and genuine Bill is, we wished each other well and I was on my way feeling pretty good about myself (and yes I still have that shoe).
Another encounter was during the 2002 Hartford Half Marathon. Running alone in the rain, late in the race I heard footsteps behind me. I maintained my focus and pace figuring someone was putting in a final surge to the finish. I was feeling good and determined to challenge whoever was stalking me. Those plans changed quickly though as I glanced over my left shoulder only to discover Bill as the culprit. I wished him the best as he easily glided past me but still tried hanging with him for about a half mile before I had to let him go.
My most recent encounter with Bill was during last year’s Redding Road Race – A Run For The Cows. The day before the race, I went to the New Pond Farm to pick up my race packet. Having grown accustomed to waiting in long lines prior to big races, I was pleased to see hardly anyone there. As I approached the check-in area, I spotted Bill and his brother Charlie sitting at a table setup for the vendors participating in the pre-race expo. (They work together at Bill’s Running Center.) Astonishingly, nobody was at their table and so I had another opportunity to connect with Bill for a lengthy conversation. Race day was cold and it poured the entire day; the pasture where we parked transformed into a mud pit and ruined a lot of expensive running shoes, but I won my age group in the half marathon and left satisfied. The best memory from that weekend though, is my time just talking with Bill and Charlie and admiring their genuineness, kindness, and commitment to the running lifestyle.
Fast forward to 2020. Hannah—The Bethel Grapevine founder and Managing Editor—and I are brainstorming ideas for my running column. She recalls how excited I was after talking with Bill last year and suggests we contact him for an interview. My initial reaction is a strong, “Are you kidding me!?” kind of laugh and I quickly dismiss the idea. But Hannah quickly finds Bill’s website and email address and encourages me to go for it. I write and two days later, I get a reply from Bill stating that he would be pleased to speak with me. I’m nervous again.
So what’s on Bill’s mind now? The pandemic looms large and we start by discussing Bill’s concerns. He’s doing well, wishes it was over, and expresses his apprehension about the elderly, especially for his mother who lives in a healthcare facility. He’s eager to get it over with so we can all get back on track. Bill is impressed with the Bethel Grapevine’s mission to encourage people to reach out to one another. He comments that: “Runners do that all the time and that’s the way our sport is. One of the strange things that came out of the pandemic is seeing more people outside walking and cycling and we have to look for those things. You want to try to do something, something to fight back against this disease and the only way we can beat it is by listening to the doctors. I hope we can get back to real running; we can do real running and that is a powerful thing.”
Regarding motivation, Bill says, “I’ve always been a racer, always a competitive runner. You can be both (competitive and not competitive) and both are good but I just think that as a competitive runner, I use my running like a weapon against the pandemic. We can support all those who are going to do the virtual racing and I’ve been doing a lot of those through Zoom. Gyms and pools can be tough to get into but you can get out the door. We can go for a walk with family or friends but it’s very tough when this is all going on. It all feels like we’re all caught in a whirlwind right now. But you know I’ve been a runner since 1963; I quit once I’m not going to quit again.”
We continued casually talking about running, how the sport has grown over the past decades with increased participation from women, and Bill’s lifetime commitment to the sport. Bill mentions that we can do more to improve diversity in the sport, particularly among Black and African Americans. Bill would like to see USA Track and Field and the major marathons do more to work with healthcare leadership and running clubs in the big cities. Bill emphasized that we need to stick together to make it through the pandemic. I can’t resist asking Bill about his legendary diet during his years at the top, including cold leftover pizza with mayonnaise for breakfast and sips of maple syrup as a post run beverage. He mentions that we know so much more now than we did about science, training principles, nutrition, and what’s not good for us. But we can still cheat a little by staying active.
You can hear the full interview with Bill by clicking here . You can also purchase an autographed copy of Bill’s book, Marathon Man. by visiting his online store. What a great holiday gift for the runners in your life! Visit The Bethel Grapevine’s Facebook page to learn how to win an autographed copy of Bill’s book.