Confine Bill Rodgers to a track and he can be beaten now and then. But point him toward the open road, six or 16 or 26 miles of asphalt strewn with pebbles, potholes and hills, and he is indefatigable, indestructible and apparently invincible. Rodgers has not lost a road race since the San Bias half-marathon in Puerto Rico in early February, and there he finished second to Henry Rono. Last week in Purchase, N.Y., a tony suburb north of New York City, Rodgers made it 17 straight when he shook off Randy Thomas, a teammate from the Greater Boston Track Club, and won the first Diet Pepsi 10,000-Meter National AAU Road Racing Championship.
Through four miles of the 6.2-mile race five different runners held the lead, but after that it was essentially a duel between Thomas and Rodgers, Thomas' stride smooth and contained, Rodgers' longer and striving. Behind them came still a third Bostonian, Bob Hodge, and 150 yards behind him, Garry Bjorklund. Then, on the only hill on the course, a steep 600-yard climb that began at about the four-mile mark, Thomas and Rodgers parted company. Starting up the hill Thomas lowered his head slightly and began to drive, pulling away from Rodgers, who seemed to be slowing a little. By the crest of the hill Thomas had opened a lead of 40 yards.
Then it was Rodgers' turn. On the gradual downgrade, it took him only a quarter of a mile to draw even with Thomas again. With 300 yards to go Thomas made one last surge, more like a lunge, into the lead, but immediately Rodgers took charge, his yellow hair streaming, his pointed face wearing its mildly puzzled racing mask. He reached the finish in 28:36.3, his best time for 10,000 meters on the road. Thomas was at his heels, less than a second behind.
"Hills are what separate track runners from road runners," said Thomas, a 25-year-old graduate student at Boston University and for the last two years a member of the U.S. cross-country team. "Hills make road racing a strength event. I knew I could beat Billy going uphill, but he is by far the best downhill runner there is. He was tired at the top, but he dug down deep and I admire that. He knows what it takes to win."
"Randy's in great shape," said Rodgers. "We ran a dead heat in a half-marathon in Cleveland two weeks ago, the fastest half-marathon of the year. We tied by mutual agreement. We decided in the last mile and a half to put it off to another day."
One reason Rodgers has the road to himself these days is that Frank Shorter has been convalescing from a foot operation and has been out of action for several months. He ran in Purchase last weekend but, because it was only his second outing since surgery in May, he finished well back, in 24th place.
Shorter's problems began about two years ago, when a piece of bone broke away from the navicular joint of his left ankle and began causing trouble and intermittent pain. As spurs grew up on either side of the joint, the pain increased. Stan James, an orthopedic surgeon in Eugene, Ore., diagnosed Shorter's problem and performed the operation, removing the piece of bone and grinding down the spurs.
For 2½ months, while his foot was in a cast, Shorter could only ride a stationary bicycle. When he was able to run, he began with only 15 minutes a day.
"The whole thing is contrary to a runner's mentality," said Shorter in Purchase. "Runners like to race because the result of the race is a function of their training. How you do is the result of how you train. In this case, there is nothing you can do to make it get better faster. It's a helpless feeling."
The only previous pause in Shorter's 10-year running career was one month in the summer of 1973, the result of a broken metatarsal bone. That time he was in good shape when the break occurred, and had no trouble getting back into racing condition. This time his condition had deteriorated over a long period. "It sounds bizarre," he says, "but it is possible to run 20 miles a day and get out of shape. It's a matter of intensity."
When he had finished last week's race, happy with his progress, Shorter jogged to the head of the straightaway to watch his wife come in. As Louise Shorter, four months pregnant, was about to pass two middle-aged male runners on her way to a 43.19, Shorter shouted at the men, "Don't let my pregnant wife beat you!"
The event in Purchase was three ways unique:
•It was the first AAU-sanctioned national championship road race at 10,000 meters. Previously the shortest championship race had been 15 kilometers.
•It was run around the perimeter of PepsiCo's corporate sculpture collection—several million dollars' worth of Calder, Moore, Noguchi, Nevelson, Giacometti, Lipchitz, Smith and others, set about on 140 acres of pristine lawn.
•It emphasized the marriage of road running, the traditional poor relation of track and field, and Big Business. PepsiCo, No. 74 of FORTUNE'S 500, has decided to throw in its lot—a little of its lot, anyway—with running, and running can hardly believe its good fortune. A few purists may shudder at the sight of hundreds of thirsty runners gulping thousands of Pepsis while dozens of cameras record the happy event, but in running purists are not long for this world, and besides, the Pepsi show is already on the road. Over the last 12 months, there have been Diet Pepsi 10,000-meter races in 32 cities and towns, and Pepsi's public-relations people anticipate they will sponsor 100 or more next year. Under the Pepsi format local winners, a male and a female in each of four age groups, move on to regional races, and regional winners get a free trip to Purchase for the national. Other high finishers are invited, too, but they have to pay their own way.
Many did just that last week, opportunities for little girls and elderly men to run in the same race with Rodgers and Shorter being rather rare. Rene Elliott, for instance, came from Dallas with her father. She is eight, approximately four feet tall, wears horn-rimmed glasses, and her hair is in a pigtail. She finished in 45:48.4, which improved her previous best time by four minutes and caused Jim Lillstrom, the race administrator, to remark, "If she keeps up that rate, by 10 she'll have the world record." On the other hand, Leon Dreher, 57, of Philadelphia, ran a disappointing, to him, 38:58.5, but he was not entirely dissatisfied. "I didn't run very fast," he said, "but I looked good."
Mary Decker, who broke the women's world indoor record for 1,000 yards four years ago when she was 15 and again this year, won the women's division in 34:37.6. A student at the University of Colorado, Decker is back in training after several layoffs. Her leg muscles have a tendency to develop to the point where they create pressure on the fascia, the casings that enclose them, and debilitating pain results. She recently has had a second operation to relieve the pressure. Shorter has a theory about Decker. "She's too strong for her body," he says. "Her only limitation may be her talent. She may have too much of it."
Rodgers, by contrast, runs on and on, and nothing seems to go wrong. If he keeps to his current schedule, by the end of 1978 he will have run 35 races. His wife Ellen has been given charge of his schedule for next year, and she says, emphatically, that there will be no more than 20 races and preferably only 10 or 12. Meanwhile, though, the boom in road racing is on, and dozens of promoters are vying for Rodgers' presence every week. In fact, two weeks ago he ran a 10-miler in Lynchburg, Va. on Saturday and a 10-kilometer race in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Sunday, and won both of them. As Marty Liquori, one of several track men who are working more road events into their schedules these days, observed over a Diet Pepsi, "A road runner can start the summer six feet tall and finish 5'6"."
About to cross the finish line in his accustomed position, Rodgers is shadowed by his friend Randy Thomas, who battled for the lead throughout the race.
Recovering from surgery, Shorter did a cameo.