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Original Issue


Bill Rodgers, the American record holder in the marathon, races on and on, fearing his talent may desert him

Bill Rodgers' marathons go one of two ways. He wins without distress, finishing minutes ahead of the best runners in the world, as he did at Boston in 1975 and in the New York City Marathon last year, recording the two fastest times ever by an American, 2:09:55 and 2:10:09.6. Or he may run as he did at Boston last April. That race began at Hopkinton on a sunny morning redolent of cut sod and apple blossoms. Around him, Rodgers saw couples kissing, enjoying the sensual bloom of fitness before the ordeal. The start was a ragged, noisy stampede of 2,900 runners, in which Canadian Olympic marathoner Jerome Drayton was kicked and nearly trampled. Once they were on the road, there was no shade. Along the course the watching crowds were deep, totaling perhaps a million people, many of them listening to an account of the race on portable radios. At Wellesley, the halfway point, Rodgers and Drayton were alone in the lead. The commentator on WBZ was appallingly ignorant, identifying Drayton as defending champion Jack Fultz for mile after mile, enthusing over the "terrific weather for running," while the marathoners were glancing ruefully at the sky. Rodgers began to run with his head cocked slightly back, seeming to acknowledge the spectators' cheers, but in fact it was a posture of early ruin, a realization of the sun's supremacy. "It was deadly truckin' in that heat," he said later.

Drayton pulled away after 15 miles. Rodgers shrugged, slowing into what a friend recognized as his "survival stride." At the top of Heartbreak Hill, the 20-mile point, Rodgers stopped. "The old gut had gone," he said. "And besides, there were bigger crowds down the other side." Crowds that wouldn't understand.

Drayton won. Irritated by the race officials' traditional nonchalance about providing water and coherent intermediate times, he batted away the laurel wreath, "the crown of thorns," as Rodgers calls it. Rodgers caught a ride to the finish, walked to the Eliot Lounge, a favorite watering hole, and had a drink with his wife Ellen.

Back at the 20-mile point, on the crest of the hill beside Boston College, where in 1961 two-time Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila sat down to rub his freezing legs and so lost his race, the pack was still passing, another thousand people with miles to run, people perhaps as far from grace as we ever get—repetitive images of froth and chafe.

With runners still on the course, Rodgers had showered and was sitting wet-haired and relaxed, on the corner of a bed in his hotel. "From now on at Boston, I'll decide at the starting line whether it is cool enough to run," he said, making a vow he will not be able to keep. "If it's hot, I'll simply walk away." All marathoners suffer in temperatures above the 60s, but Rodgers suffers more than most. Conversely, he is supremely energized by what many consider stiffening cold. "No gloves," he says, "no good race."

On the street below, runners tottered on. Rodgers went to the window, then turned away. "I don't believe there is dishonor in dropping out," he said softly, "but in a way they are guttier than I, to run through that ugliness and pain."

Bill Rodgers, who is 29, grew up in Newington, Conn., near Hartford, where his father is the head of the Hartford State College Mechanical Engineering Department. His mother worked as a nurse's aide at Newington Hospital, and it is from her, Rodgers believes, that he received his extraordinary energy—as a boy he spent hours running after rabbits and squirrels in the woods—and a profound sympathy for the handicapped and retarded. "I'm involved with people who have been zapped," he says, as though involvement itself were an affliction.

During high school summers Rodgers worked as a porter in the hospital, then attended Wesleyan University, where no one seems to have noticed that he bears a resemblance to the young John Wesley, founder of Methodism and an inveterate visitor of the sick and imprisoned. Upon graduation, in 1970, Rodgers was granted conscientious-objector status, doing his alternative service at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. "I was dirt in that hospital," he says, his tone milder than his words. "I had one of those top-level jobs—washing dishes, emptying bedpans, taking bodies down to the morgue." It was a disturbing time. "There were lots of nasty, horrible cases; don't make me describe them. It bothered me most that here were people dying among strangers."

Rodgers had run a 4:28.8 mile in high school, then ran and roomed at Wesley-an with Ambrose Burfoot, who then won the 1968 Boston Marathon. After college Rodgers had quit training, and even had begun smoking. "I had had no commitment to fitness or real competition." he says. "Running was always associated with fun."

Now it became escape. "Running gave me an outlet from that stultifying job," he says. At first he worked toward the modest goal of finishing 10 miles—125 laps around the Huntington Avenue Y track. Then he was fired from his job for attempting rather clumsily to organize a union among the hospital orderlies. "For a year I couldn't find another job," he says, "so I ran 15 miles a day." He lived in a tenement, on food stamps. His first marathon was Boston in 1973. "It was a torrid day," he says. "Jon Anderson [also a conscientious objector, who washed dishes at a San Francisco area hospital] won. I dropped out at 20 miles, same spot as this year. Seeing Anderson run 2:16 in that heat, I knew I'd never be a top runner. It was impossible."

The next year, having changed clubs and come under the coaching of Billy Squires of the Greater Boston Track Club, Rodgers placed 14th in 2:19:34. His breakthrough, that revelation of a race that most good runners view as a passage to success, was a second place in the national AAU 20-kilometer road race in the autumn of 1974. The following spring he was a spectacular third in the World Cross-Country Championship in Morocco and, on a perfect day, broke Frank Shorter's American record for the marathon by 35 seconds with his 2:09:55 at Boston, an average of 4:57.3 per mile.

Throughout this sudden rise, Rodgers was working at Fernald School in Belmont, Mass., a state institution for the retarded, and studying for his master's degree in Special Education at Boston College. At Fernald, he was in charge of a ward of eight retarded men, an experience that forced as much self-discovery as the grimmest of marathons.

"You go in and one of two things happens," Rodgers says. "You reject them or you want to help them. The first time on ward duty was intimidating. They were like babies, but huge. There was the paradox of grown people needing so much care, the messes of food and elimination, the seizures. I didn't like it, but it was satisfying to work there. These people get nothing from life. They're rejected by everybody, even their families. Yet the smallest things make them happy. Working there, you had to recognize your own streak of cruelty. There are times when disgust overcomes reason. I once let a guy lie in his soiled bed for a day because I-was sure he had done it on purpose. My supervisor made me ashamed; it wasn't my job to reject or to punish, for any reason."

Rodgers speaks fondly of his work at Fernald, of an autistic child who all day addressed the wall in monosyllables, but who, once Rodgers reached him, turned out to be quite intelligent. Rodgers tells of running by the school after he had decided to work full time on his master's and of going in to say hello. Yet these recollections don't have point-serving conclusions. The remote little boy never improved enough to leave the institution. Of those Rodgers returned to visit, he says, "Some recognized me, I think." He falls silent. Then, unbidden, gives voice to the root of his attachment to these people. "You have to always realize that there could be you."

For the last two school years, Rodgers has taught emotionally disturbed children, a far different proposition from teaching the retarded. "E.D.s are not happy," he says. "They're smart enough to know what a rotten break they've got. They have real problems, and you can't teach them anything until those problems are solved."

Rodgers' young charges were raucous, manic, nearly unreachable souls. Daily he had to break up fights, sometimes finding himself with fistfuls of hair. Some authorities recommend a teacher not work with such pupils for more than three years at a stretch, lest the teacher turn permanently misanthropic. This year Rodgers quit, to explore the possibility of entering the sporting-wear business and to devote more time to training. "I'll get back to them," he says with a trace of apology, as one noting the inevitable.

When he is preparing for a marathon, Rodgers trains roughly 170 miles a week, which he does by running twice a day, usually 14 miles in the morning and 10 at night, with intervals on the track once a week. He is a boon to the sport in Boston because of his success, more so because of his accessibility. He loves company in training and gentles his pace to whatever the slowest man or woman in a group can keep. This makes for ease of conversation. When he runs with Vinnie Fleming (fifth at Boston this year) and Randy Thomas (third in the AAU 10,000 meters), there is much retelling of races—talk that seems random at first, but gradually reveals a philosophy. Rodgers says he was appalled when Jos Hermens of The Netherlands ran a tactical race against Miruts Yifter in the World Cup 10,000 meters, allowing the Ethiopian to save his kick. Hermens said afterward, "He would have beaten me no matter how fast I set the pace." Rodgers says, "Nobody should win by intimidation. I ran suicidal in the Olympic Marathon because of Lasse Viren [Rodgers knew he had little chance because a foot injury had curtailed his training, but nonetheless set a hard pace for the first 13 miles]. It wasn't right that he get an easy ride out of it." Viren finished fifth, Rodgers 40th, certifying his pattern of boom or bust.

Rodgers competes a lot. Since the Olympics he has run 26 races, including seven marathons, and next week will defend his title in the New York City Marathon. Friends say he is acutely conscious of the rapidity with which he suddenly became world-class, that he regards his ability as a gift, and is afraid he might lose it just as suddenly. Conceivably for this reason he is driven to race as much as possible now that he is at his peak. "I do have a feeling that once you take a break from running good marathons, something happens," he says. "It takes so long to come back. It's the scariest thing." He cites England's Ian Thompson, the 1974 Commonwealth Games marathon champion (2:09:13.2) and 1974 European champion, who failed to make the British Olympic team in 1976.

"Every time I bomb out, I have to come back," Rodgers says. "I have a feeling after a bad race that my next one will be good. Of course, after a couple of good ones, I get the feeling I'm going to bomb out. Yin and yang." Five weeks after this year's debacle at Boston, Rodgers won the Amsterdam Marathon in the year's fastest time, (2:12:47).

Rodgers and friends are training on the bike paths along the Charles River at noon. As they sometimes do, they jog a few blocks through busy traffic to the Eliot Lounge, where—startled businessmen looking up from their martinis—the bartender Tommy Leonard greets them with shouts and "sea breezes"—two parts cranberry juice to one of grapefruit. When the refreshed runners have gone, Leonard, a thickset, passionate man who has run the last 23 Boston Marathons, waxes eloquent on Rodgers. "You should have seen the shrug act," the bartender says. "Breaking four records in one race in August [when Rodgers ran a U.S.-record 12 miles, 1,351 yards in an hour, and also set U.S. records for 15 kilometers (43:39.8), 10 miles (46:35.8) and 20 kilometers (58:15.0) along the way], and every lap, hearing the time, he would give an amused shrug. His golden hair was flowing in a rose sunset...he was even lapping his pacers, for God's sake. It was beautiful. A mist came over my eyes. It was my most poignant experience in running."

It happens that Rodgers' wife Ellen is sitting within earshot and growing restless. "For romance," she says, "I'd rather go see Elvira Madigan." Ellen has been married to Rodgers for two years, and has been his best friend for six. A former art teacher, she has one green eye and one brown, and a Liv Ullmann look of clear good sense. She runs twice a day herself, not to race but simply to keep in the rhythm of the household. "When we were first going together and he would leave to run, I thought, 'He'd rather do that than be with me?' " Now she is, for want of a better word, his agent, lamenting and occasionally countering his inability to say no. "I thought he had learned his lesson. He actually wrote Amsterdam after Boston and said no, he would not be there. Then they called and pleaded, and he said yes." She says this with such loving forbearance that one concludes that she is Rodgers' greatest gift, a buffer between him and the draining demands of TV documentaries, coaching clinics, charities and two races per weekend. At the conclusion of the Boston Marathon week, she had a cold sore on her lip from so many kisses from strangers.

The Rodgerses live in Melrose, 10 miles north of Boston, on the second floor of a dark green three-story frame house. There are the flags and trophies common to the walls of runners, and a butterfly collection, but the most affecting thing about this house is its apparent existence within a gravitational vortex. Pens and teacups slide off tables, you rush involuntarily from the kitchen when you only mean to stand, or find yourself with one foot poised above the living room threshold, unable to move further. Barring occult explanation, this seems to be caused by a settling of the interior of the house, which has created downslopes from the outside walls.

Rodgers spends much of his time in the kitchen, eating. He will sleep 10 hours a night, if permitted, but even so will rise at three a.m. for his fourth meal of the day, raiding the refrigerator, which always contains a pitcher of apricot nectar mixed with flat ginger ale, quart bottles of cola, chocolate chip cookies and mayonnaise, which he will eat straight out of the jar with a tablespoon. "Sometimes I wonder," he said one such morning, yawning, heading back to bed, "whether I run high mileage so I can eat like this, or do I eat like this so I can do high mileage?" Whatever the reason, his dimensions are 5'8½", 128 and 9E "and flattening."

Awake, Rodgers is always on the phone, to friends who call from all over the country with results, plans, hopes. He tries to hang up, but so gently that he rarely succeeds.

"That was really an, uh, interesting guy," he says to a friend in a respite between callers.

"Sounds like a euphemism to me," says the friend.

"Why, do you know him?"

It is a dreary, rainy morning in early autumn. Rodgers had run 30 miles in training the previous day. Now, wearing a trim green and white sweat suit, he sits in a conference room with a director of the National Wheelchair Foundation and three John Hancock Insurance Company public-relations people, two of them un-self-consciously smoking up a great blue cloud. The windows on the 46th floor of the Hancock Building give a misty view of Back Bay, the Charles and MIT. The point of the meeting is to ask John Hancock to sponsor the National Wheelchair Marathon, run concurrently with the Boston race, as a symbol of what the handicapped can achieve. Rodgers speaks briefly of his respect for wheelchair athletes, noting that many paraplegics were athletes first, having suffered spinal damage from injuries. "Bikila was one," he says, with reverence for the name, then sees that it means nothing to these jowly, bland, brown-suited men. "The two-time Olympic gold medalist in the marathon," he explains softly. "Ethiopia...paralyzed from the waist down in an automobile accident." Rodgers gazes at his thighs as he speaks.

The senior PR man, who has an eloquent frown that at once conveys charity, good wishes and rejection, lists the reasons—previous budget commitments, too few people in the race, little publicity "rub-off'—why Hancock cannot sponsor the event. But he is willing to set up a subsequent meeting with other likely sponsors, maybe even pledge a thousand dollars.

"That would be a terrible life," Rodgers says, once out on the street in the rain, jogging. "To have to say so elaborately every day why you couldn't spare more than a grand."

Rodgers occasionally refers to himself as a radical, and that is surely true, to the extent that his concerns often run counter to the self-interest of our species. By example, he calls for understanding of the poor, the retarded, the disturbed, the crippled and dying: "There, that could be me." What is extraordinary, what is truly radical about Bill Rodgers, is the inclusiveness of his concern, extended evenly to the smokers, the bosses, the deniers, to insensitive hospital wardens. Bill Rodgers is sympathetic with everyone.

Even in racing, an activity that would seem the essence of self-assertion over weaker competitors, Rodgers is at pains to remove the element of rejection of others. In his finest race, last year's New York City Marathon, Rodgers felt that the competition was irrelevant. Something else drove him. "I remember going over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge after the start and finding myself very serious," he says. "I remember checking my form, holding my hands just right to be perfectly efficient."

For a time Rodgers ran near Frank Shorter, who had taken the Olympic silver medal 2½ months before. Shorter's stride was the more fluid, his feet falling more softly, yet Rodgers' was the more beautiful. There can be something hard in Shorter, a scornful quality, especially when he is out front and applying pressure. But Rodgers, blond and open-faced, simply ran faster, ghosting away with a look of amazement. "I wanted to stop near the East River and go to the bathroom," he says, "but there was something working that day, an imperative to get the thing done right." He finished three minutes ahead of Shorter. "And of course there was Mayor Beame shoving the crown of thorns on my head." Rodgers resented the fuss. "It's over," he said to the mayor. "Somebody had to win. It just happened to be me."



When preparing for a training run, Rodgers must fight the gravitational idiosyncrasies of his house.



Ellen Rodgers runs to keep in stride with Bill.



At the Montreal Olympics, Rodgers ran "suicidal," so Viren (far left) "wouldn't get a free ride."



Rodgers' 2:09:55 in the 1975 Boston Marathon stands as the fastest time ever run by an American.



This year, Frank Shorter and Rodgers dueled over 10,000 meters in Atlanta, with Shorter winning.



When he isn't racing, or giving phone callers advice, Rodgers shops for gear to stock his store for runners.