Questions by Christine Bishop and Steve Obermayer
Bill Rodgers is an integral part of the history of marathons in the United States, so the chance to interview him generously given to me by BBL management was beyond thrilling. Rodgers has broken both national and international records. He is the only person to hold the titles of three major world marathons in one year: 1977- Boston, NYC, and Japan (Fukuoka). He was victorious at Boston four times, including three straight 1978-1980 and at the New York City Marathon between 1976 and 1980. In 1978 he won 27 of the 30 races he entered. Unknown to many is that he has American track and field records that have yet to be bested in 20,000 meters, 58:25, 1977; one hour, 12.77 miles, 1977; and 25,000 meters, 1:14:11.8, 1979. In addition to all else, he helped to increase and maintain the running boom that started in America after Frank Shorter won the Olympic gold in the marathon in 1972. Bill with his amazing wins in Boston and NYC and his humble demeanor, inspired millions in the late ‘70s and ‘80s to run myself included. After all these years, I am still running and have him to thank.
– C. Bishop
Q. What keeps you running?
A. I became a runner a long time ago. For me running was always with my teammates, including my brother Charlie, and my good childhood friend Jason. As kids Jason and I begin running cross country but Jason later quit because he thought running ended after his high school and college years. Once you were on a high school or college team, then you quit. At that time it was sort of like Brave New World when you don’t know what’s happening in your life. I had stopped running and become a smoker armed with my Winston’s. As the ad said, “Winston’s taste good like a cigarette should.” I moved from the Hartford, CT, area where I was from to Boston and I saw the Boston Marathon for the first time. The Boston Marathon was held right around the corner from where I lived. It was an odd experience after having been a runner to watch the Boston Marathon. So, I joined the Boston YMCA, started working out, was running again, gradually stopped smoking and then I ran Boston. I had become a runner again.
Q. Did you have much success in high school and college?
A. I was a solid runner. I was first in the Triple A, but not the State Open. I did win the State Class A big school’s cross country race and was third in the two mile race. I was a solid runner but not like Alberto Salazar or a Craig Virgen who were at the national level. I was, however, at the statewide level in the two mile race.
Q. Did you ever do long distances in high school?
A. The longest distance in high school was two miles. In college we didn’t even have the 5K race. In addition to the two mile races, I ran cross country, which was 5 miles. I was a solid runner but never an All American. I never reached the level that Alberto Salazar achieved and didn’t even know what it was all about. Salazar ran the NE Cross country and the IC4As Courtland Park. I did okay but there was so much talent in the US at that time that luck determined how things went. For example, one of the guys I ran against in both high school and college had a lot more talent than either Frank Shorter or I. My friend got injured in his last year and had an Achilles problem. There was no money in the sport then so he became a teacher, a high school coach, and then a principle but not a runner. He had great talent. He ran a 4:04 mile in high school while I ran a 4:28. That’s polar opposites. In high school and even to a degree in college the big big focus was on speed. Because I’m a slow twitch runner I did better in a 10K or a marathon. I was born with slow twitch muscle fibers. I was unaware of that in high school when all those guys were nailing me in the last 400 meters. I just thought I hadn’t trained as hard. The science of exercise is so much higher today than it was then. That explains why runners are so phenomenal today. We have so much more information about training. There have been so many advancements that it is a night and day situation since my high school days.
Q. Was living in Boston the first time you were exposed to the marathon?
A. Not really. Amby Burfoot was my roommate in college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT, and he won the Boston Marathon in 1968 but none of us understood what the marathon really was about or what it was like to run one. One of the guys in college who also ran it returned after and was barely able to move. He hardly survived the race. But after Amby Burfoot returned we learned, at a dual track meet with the University of Connecticut that day that he had won Boston. I said, “Amby you won it!” He was only 21 years old and he never talked about it. He didn’t have his medal, and there were no shirts in those days so it was much different. The Boston Marathon wasn’t even on TV. Today you could find it on NBC Sports Gold. In the late ‘60s it was still a New England event and less well known. You had to be one of a small number of people who were really into the marathon. Jeff Galloway was another college running teammate of mine but he did not run Boston until after he had graduated from Wesleyan College.
Q. How old were you when you ran your first marathon?
A. I ran my first marathon in 1973 at age 25 and DNF’d. It was a hot day and I did not pace myself. There were no pacers then or GPS watches. So it was little wonder that most runners hated the sport. There were no drinks in the race and certainly no Gatorade. Our sport was in its infancy. It was a long struggle and of course there was the women’s side of it. Women had to fight tooth and nail to get into the sport. The first were Roberta Gibb and Kathrine Switzer. All the guys who were runners said that women should be out there too. When I ran my first race while in high school I was with Amby at the Manchester Road Race. I was a high school senior. There were officials at the race and they wouldn’t let women run. The real issue is that both then and now the International Olympic Committee controls our sport. They determine the rules for track and field, the marathon, other road races, and cross country. They currently control everything in 110 countries worldwide today. Since they determined the rules, they thought that the science wasn’t there to allow women to run. Doctors reinforced this view thinking it was bad for women who planned to have children and that their bodies were not strong enough to endure a marathon. They were afraid that they would keel over if they tried. The doctors didn’t know better.
Q. How much do you run now?
A. My highest distance was last week (mid May) when I ran 48 miles. The week before that it was 29 miles. Basically I run five or six times each week for a total of 30 to 40 miles. Remember I was a marathoner and trained twice a day. At that time it was train, train, train. I think we are the first generation of marathoners to get older and we were the guinea pig generation. There are a lot of us out there who are now older like Kathrine Switzer, Joan Benoit Samuelson and Frank Shorter who still run. There is also this new group of people who started at age 55 and even at 65 who are really good. This is what’s happening now and why this sport is just booming.
Q. You have been talking about changes in running and one of your really big pushes as a runner was to get more money into sports. For example, Lasse Viren was a great Finnish runner whose running was being totally financed by his country while you had to live on Food Stamps. Would you like to talk about that?
A. Well I was just one of them. We formed a group after the 1980 US Boycott of the Olympics but it had been building for decades. There was always some under the table money for running, tennis, and even golf. It wasn’t much and what would happen was to get someone like Paavo Nurmi to come over to the US from Finland and he would be given a gold watch, a diamond ring, or some other expensive item. We all knew that the sport was going to be successful so we wanted to make racing awards legitimate and professional. It was a step-by-step procedure and it worked. Our theory was that once you put money into a sport, the public will notice and more corporate sponsorships will occur. The New York Marathon led the way with Boston following much later. In 1981 the NYC Marathon gave $20,000 as top prize to both men and women. It wasn’t until 1986 that Boston gave prize money-$30,000 and a Mercedes Benz for both top winners. Originally Boston refused because they thought that the top runners would come there but the runners did not. Instead they went to the London, to Pittsburgh, and to NYC but not Boston. The runners were like everyone else: they wanted to get paid. Can you imagine doing a job that you have to train extensively for and not be paid!
Q. It was said that some people would be given airplane tickets to a marathon and on the way in a van surreptitiously be given money.
A. I never did that routine but I did get paid and I always felt like a criminal because I had to go in a back room or something and an athletic person would give me an envelope with $250 in it. It felt like we were doing something wrong. But we also felt yes. We wanted to represent our country in the Olympic games or wherever and that we should do it the right way. There was this split system where the Russians and many others had a fulltime deal and were fully financed, whereas in the US it was not and we had to pay our way. Now, however, it is better.
Q. Do you think it is good now or could it be better?
A. I think it is pretty good now but I would like to see more prize money for the American marathoners. I know that NYC has a separate purse and I think Chicago does, and Boston is trying to bring in the top Americans. A separate purse is a recognition of their accomplishments.
Q. I don’t think $10,000 is enough money.
A. There is also appearance money behind the scenes and there are agents in running. When I signed up for Boston in 1986 I had an agent. Bob D’Allesandro from Utica who ran the Boiler Maker said that I couldn’t have an agent. The next guy who came along was Rob DeCostela from Australia who had the same agent as I did and then D’Allesandro relented. So it was topsy-turvy for a while but now all the top runners like Shalane Flanagan, Deena Kaster, and Meb have agents. Meb is a great guy and is very happy to have an agent. The real money is hidden. I think that this is a mistake because runners can only do one or two marathons a year at this level. So that’s what is going on but I think if you let the public know that if you win NYC you get one million dollars like in golf tournaments, it would be great. My gut feeling is that these race directors know that per capita incomes for the fastest runners from Ethiopia and Kenya are $2,000, so why bother, but to attract runners from the U.S., Canada, Europe or Japan, it has to an incredible incentive.
Q. So why not pay them the extra purse?
A. I have seen different incentive programs over the years as a support that Nike has built into its programs giving coaching jobs to leading runners. With Alberto [Salazar] and Shalane Flanagan who is now to become a coach for the women at Nike, we can build at higher altitude levels to have more depth. We have a lot of talent but we are competing against athletes who are winning races worldwide that are born at 7,000 feet while most of the world is at sea level. It is a tough thing. So you have to provide a purse for the Americans. At Boston this year there were tight exciting races between two elite American men and two elite American women that were thrilling to watch.
Q. One thing I am very curious about is because you are so modest.
A. No I am not [and then he laughed]
Q. I am curious about this, but you went to a great academic university and then started a career in the health field and would run over 100 miles in a week? How did you balance that?
A. When I was a teacher, I was very lucky that in my second year, it was the Olympic year in 1976, I asked for permission to run on my lunch hour and they said yes and it worked. My good friend Tom Fleming who was very high level and came in fifth at the trial was also a teacher. He didn’t make it because he didn’t rest. Everything is how much can you rest. The Japanese and the Kenyans have it down to a science. How much can you rest? Can you sleep as much as you want? Can you take a nap, which all top runners do? They are now signing kids out of high school like Mary Cain who Alberto is working with. What I would like to see is an alliance between some corporations and running. It needs to be more than just the shoe companies because then we could do programs that would make it a wider participatory sport like the Workforce Team Challenge does. We have to compete against the other sports mediawise. Golf has wide TV coverage at the same time that its numbers are declining while running is in the millions and growing. The tide is gradually turning with Olympic sports rising in America and around the world. We see everyone on their bikes. When I go swimming at the little gym I go to, I see a lot of people in the pool. People are exercising more and more and the rise of events like the Workforce Team Challenge and marathon numbers keep growing globally. A friend of mine wrote me saying that in Thailand there are now over 1,000 races each year. China is also big in the marathon. It is a good thing and will raise the visibility of the sport.
Q. The Boston game after the marathon is four hours and the marathon is two and a half hours and you get to see unbelievable sights. I’m surprised they can’t package Boston and New York into a must see TV.
A. My own belief is that when these Olympic sports and the healthcare sector combine things will shift and these sports will rise and then we will have the ultimate running boom. Doctors will begin writing it as a prescription and healthcare plans will cover it for a healthy life style. Most of us know what these sports do for us whether it is walking or swimming or running. Most of the world is advancing but still has a way to go. I think that healthcare is the key to running success but it’s hard to accomplish when only an altitude born athlete can win? An American golfer can win at golf. It’s mainly a North American and European sport. There has to be more brainstorming among people at the top. Still, these events are very successful and NYC now has 50,000 runners.
Q. Are you sponsored now by a shoe company?
A. You don’t really get that many deals when you get older. I don’t have a deal but I sometimes work with Asics. I ran for them and I like their shoes. Most of the older runners don’t have contracts. Joan Benoit is still with Nike but she has the gold medal whereas Frank Shorter has no deal. It is very interesting. He once was with Nike and then Asics but there is a lot of politics in the shoe company world. It’s very tricky.
Q. What about doping in sports? Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic Marathon and then came in second in 1976 to an unknown East German, Waldemar Cierpinski who was later found to be doping.
A. I beat Cierpinski and Frank the year before in the World Cross Country, a race which I never got credit for because no one knows about cross country even though half a million high school students run it and it’s a worldwide sport. But Frank has spoken out about it and it is a real issue in all sports. So now they are cracking down on that and Frank has done a great job in publicizing it. It is however a real issue in a lot of countries. Look what happened to Russia, and with the Kenyan Federation as well. No one is immune. In Kenya, they have been trying to build a laboratory for testing but the high level training camps are outside Nairobi in the Rift Valley. I don’t know about the Ethiopians. Most are honest but we all know that there have been issues. I think they are going to clean it up but what some athletes are doing now is called micro dosing where a little bit of EPO is taken frequently but in very small undetectable doses, but good things overshadow the bad. The runners are faster and the sport is better because more people are finding out about it and it is bigger. Events like tonight’s Workforce Team Challenge sponsored by the HMRRC is a great event to get people more excited about running and exercise.
Q. What was your most special race?
A. Winning the Boston Marathon in 1975 changed my life because I got invited to other marathons and I knew then that I was a marathoner. But before I won Boston, I had run the World Cross Country and won a bronze medal and that meant a lot to me as only four American have ever medaled in that event. Actually fewer Americans have medalled in that then they have the Olympic Marathon championship. That race set me up for Boston.
Q. What was your most hard fought win?
A. Probably winning Boston in 1979. I duked it out with the top Japanese runner Toshihiko Seko who was famous for his last minute winning spurt. I raced him in Fukuoka, which is the Japanese Boston, where he beat me. In Boston he didn’t know the course or the hills so I was able to move ahead of him and stay there.
Q. What causes do you now champion?
A. At the Boston Marathon I work with Impact Melanoma because my grandfather and father were hit by melanoma and I have been raising money for research to help prevent skin cancer and talking about how to be safe in the sun. We have a team of 30 athletes who run Boston and now New York City has a team too. Running is a great sport for fund raising and great things are being done.
Q. How do you see the future of running?
A. Bigger and bigger! It just keeps growing. Why would that stop? Things are going to change as I said and as these kind of sports come to be better understood more people will realize the health benefit along with the pure pleasure of running.
Bill’s Records - http://www.billrodgersrunningcenter.com/privacypolicy.html