Rodgers, William Henry ("Bill")
RODGERS, William Henry ("Bill")
(b. 23 December 1947 in Hartford, Connecticut), long-distance runner who won both the Boston and New York Marathons four times, and whose accomplishments contributed to the popularization of recreational running in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s.
Rodgers was one of four children of Charles Andrew Rodgers, head of the mechanical engineering department at Hartford State Technical College, and Kathryn Malloy Rodgers, a nurse's aide. When Rodgers was two years old, the family moved from Hartford to suburban Newington, Connecticut. As a youth Rodgers was impatient in the classroom but loved the outdoors, so running suited his personality. As a senior at Newington High School, he was a state cross-country champion. In 1966 Rodgers enrolled at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. There, he came under the influence of fellow runner Ambrose ("Amby") Burfoot, two years older than Rodgers. Burfoot, who as a college senior trained for and won the 1968 Boston Marathon, routinely ran 100 to 140 miles per week. Rodgers, who had never run more than twelve miles as a high school athlete, increased his mileage when running with Burfoot.
In the spring of 1968 a particular training run proved significant. Rodgers, then a sophomore, accompanied Burfoot on a twenty-five-mile run during Burfoot's preparation for the approaching Boston Marathon. Despite the increasingly vigorous pace set by his mentor, Rodgers ran step for step until the final two miles, when Burfoot pushed himself all out. Rodgers had unwittingly provided Burfoot with the last necessary test before his Boston Marathon victory. More importantly, the performance foretold Rodgers's own enormous marathon talent.
From Burfoot, Rodgers learned to build training mileage slowly, increasing his endurance with long-distance runs and with moderate interval speed workouts. Moreover, Burfoot was an inspiration to Rodgers, who would later compare him to Abebe Bikila, the two-time Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia.
Nevertheless, with Burfoot's graduation, Rodgers's training fell off precipitously. By the time he graduated from Wesleyan in 1970 with a B.A. in sociology, Rodgers had stopped running. He began to smoke and frequent bars. To avoid fighting in the Vietnam War, which he found unconscionable, Rodgers applied for and was granted conscientious objector status. Alternative service was mandated, which Rodgers met by working as a low-paid escort messenger at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston. The job required him to transport mail, supplies, medical samples, and patients throughout the hospital. Rodgers found the work, which at times included taking bodies to the morgue, emotionally upsetting. The result was that by 1972, to raise his spirits, Rodgers returned to running and the accompanying sense of personal satisfaction. His running was spurred further by the thefts of his bicycle and motorcycle.
In September 1972 Frank Shorter won the gold medal in the marathon at the ill-fated Munich Olympic games, during which eleven Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. Shorter was the first American to win the Olympic marathon in sixty-four years. Although the two men would later become fierce rivals, Rodgers drew inspiration from Shorter's victory and began to train for the 1973 Boston Marathon.
Unionizing activities caused Rodgers to be fired from his job at the hospital. Out of work for a year, he eventually found a part-time job at the Fernald School, a state institution for the mentally impaired and emotionally disturbed in Waltham, Massachusetts. Despite his training, Rodgers failed to complete the 1973 Boston Marathon, dropping out after twenty-one miles. Undeterred, Rodgers entered and won the 1973 Bay State Marathon in Framingham, Massachusetts. While his winning time of 2:28:12 was not extraordinary, the experience proved valuable. Rodgers placed fourteenth in the 1974 Boston Marathon in 2:19:34. He joined the Greater Boston Track Club (GBTC) and was coached by Bill Squires. His transcendence into the world running elite was complete when, on 16 March 1975, he placed third in the 12,000-meter World Cross-Country Championship in Rabat, Morocco, finishing ahead of Shorter.
Still, Rodgers was unknown to the public at large when on 21 April he stood at the starting line of the 1975 Boston Marathon. In an era before widespread corporate financial endorsement, Rodgers wore a hand-lettered tee shirt reading "BOSTON" and "GBTC." The shoes he wore had been sent to him by Olympian Steve Prefontaine. He sported a headband that had just been handed to him by a fellow marathon runner, Tom Fleming, to "keep the hair out of your eyes." He wore a pair of white gardening gloves because of the cool weather.
Rodgers was not expected to be a factor in the race. Ron Hill, from Great Britain, held the course record of 2:10:30. Canadian Jerome Drayton had won the highly regarded Fukuoka Marathon in 1969, and had finished third at Boston the previous year.
Rodgers found himself next to Hill in the lead pack of runners for the first five miles. At six miles into the race, Drayton and another runner pulled away from the lead pack. Rodgers followed, and by nine miles was running alone with Drayton. When a spectator cheered Drayton with shouts of "Go Jerome! Go Canada!," Rodgers's competitive fires were stoked. He felt that a Boston crowd should support a Boston runner. Rodgers accelerated the pace and Drayton fell back. By the halfway point of the race, Rodgers was running by himself. Pushing his lead through the middle portion of the course, Rodgers became calm and composed, actually stopping twice to drink water, and a third time to tie a shoelace. He called out to a childhood friend he spotted on the sidelines. His insouciance belied the fact that he was setting a new record for the Boston course. Rodgers's winning time of 2:09:55 was the fastest marathon run by an American to that date.
While Rodgers's lighthearted nature at times masked a competitive spirit, it captured the public's attention. At five feet, nine inches tall and 128 pounds, with his long, reddish-blond hair and pale blue eyes, Rodgers appeared almost angelic while running, floating above the ground. Friendly by nature, he was known at times to actually slow his own training runs to accommodate joggers who recognized him on the street. Rodgers repeated his Boston Marathon victory in 1978, 1979, and 1980. He also won the New York Marathon four times from 1976 through 1979. His 1978 and 1979 New York wins were featured on the covers of Sports Illustrated magazine, the latter race chosen as the feature over the Pittsburgh Pirates' World Series victory. Along with Shorter and Jim Fixx, the author of The Complete Book of Running (1977), Rodgers is credited with the growth of recreational running.
"Being a runner is very ordinary, really," he has said. "I believe in living an active life—using your body and muscles. We're all meant to move. We're all meant to be athletes."
Rodgers won twenty-one marathons during his running career. He was ranked the top world marathon runner in 1975, 1977, and 1979. Rodgers subsequently set age group records while running in his forties and fifties. Despite his success, Rodgers was at times haunted by his rivalry with Shorter, noting, "Even though I've run the marathon faster than he has and twice broken his American records, even though Frank has never won Boston, people will always say 'Rodgers was good, but Shorter got a Gold Medal.'" Rodgers was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, New York, in 1998, and into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in Indianapolis, Indiana, in 1999.
Rodgers earned a master's degree in special education at Boston College in 1975. He is the owner of Bill Rodgers Running Center, a chain of running stores in the Boston area. A running apparel company, Bill Rodgers and Co., was lost to foreclosure in 1987, although Rodgers remained a spokesperson for a successor company, Bill Rodgers Sportswear. Rodgers's 13 September 1975 marriage to Ellen Lalone ended in divorce in 1981. On 8 September 1983 he married Gail Swain, with whom he has two daughters.
Rodgers has written an autobiography, Marathoning (1980), with Joe Concannon. In addition, he is the coauthor of Bill Rodgers and Priscella Welch on Masters Running (1991), with Priscella Welch and Joe Henderson; Bill Rodgers' Lifetime Running Plan (1996), with Scott Douglas; and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Jogging and Running (1998), with Scott Douglas. His Boston Marathon victories are extensively treated in Hal Higdon, Boston: A Century of Running (1995), and Tom Derderian, Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premier Running Event (1994). See also Diane Shah, "Master of the Marathon," Newsweek (21 Apr. 1980).