Q&A: Marathon Legend Bill Rodgers
For many people, Bill Rodgers is the Boston Marathon. The New England native, now 65, won the race four times, in 1975, ’78, ’79, and ’80, and twice set the American record (1975 and 1979), on the course. But beyond the impressive times and being thrice ranked the number one marathoner in the world by Track & Field News, “Boston Billy” is known for his everyman appeal—doing things like winning the 1975 race in a shirt he found in a dumpster and drinking water from a shampoo bottle.
So when bombs exploded at the finish line of the marathon this year, Rodgers, who also won four New York Marathons and a bronze medal at the World Cross Country Championships in 1975, was among the many grieving for the city. “It’s almost like you can’t really put it into words because it’s a contradiction,” Rodgers says. “Running is a sport where everyone gets along pretty good. The Boston Marathon is such a positive event; there’s nothing negative about it. It was just so strange and sad.” But, Rodgers says, it isn’t all bad. “Out of this, next year, is going to come a great Boston Marathon,” he says. “I’m going to run next year.”
Rodgers is also running the AllState Life Insurance half marathon, a race whose proceeds will benefit the One Fund. The race will be September 15, exactly six months after the bombing, and will begin at Suffolk Downs. But, Rodgers says, he has another source of motivation, too. “Of course, my old arch rival Frank Shorter is running,” he says, “so I have a chance to maybe beat Frank again.”
Whether or not he beats Frank, Rodgers is one of the most enduring symbols of Boston running, so we took the opportunity to ask him about how he runs.
What does your training schedule look like these days?
I run usually five or six days a week. I run probably 40 miles a week. I still try to do some speed work and longish runs. But it’s not like it used to be. I was trying to win every race I went to when I was younger, and so was Frank. Now it’s a different deal. We’re kind of trained to be people who can reach out to the new runners. That’s what our sport is all about, really.
What are your favorite local running routes?
I love running along the Charles River, I like running around Jamaica Pond in Jamaica Plain. Where I live now [Boxborough, MA], I run on the trails or on the roads. You’re always looking for the beautiful places, the best places to run.
What shoe do you run in?
I don’t have a shoe deal so to speak. I’ve run for Asics, I’ve run for Puma… I’ve had a long career. I just try to find the shoes that feel good, that fit my feet really good and that I like a lot, and that varies. The shoes I’m racing in now are a pair of Adidas, but I train in a pair of Asics. You just have to go to specialty store and get your foot checked out, see what kind of a foot you have and what works best for you.
Do you ever dabble in the shorter races?
I’ve raced everything. When I was in high school, I ran even the 800 meters and the mile, but I was really more of a 2-miler. I tried the 10,000 meters. I was fourth in the trials for the Olympic games in Montreal. I just missed that, but I wasn’t aiming for it; I was aiming for the marathon. That was my event.
These days it’s the half marathon or the 10 miles or the 15K. But I like five miles.
Do you have pre-race rituals?
I like to warm up a little bit on my own and sort of get into my race focus. I’m not anything like I used to be though—a lot of times I get to races and I don’t warm up at all. I just jump into the race somewhere. Every race is different. Sometimes you feel great, and other times you just feel really tired. It’s really how you prepare for the race, and if you’re rested for the race. And some races will mean more to you than others. I really believe sports are psychological, and your feeling about what you can do is built up over time.
What advice do you have for new runners?
I would tell them to go to the specialty running store, get the shoes they really love, get some clothing they really want to run in. Check out the race course if they can. Don’t be afraid of races; races are fun. It’s a place to kind of give yourself a focus while you’re running.They’re just spectacular celebrations of life, something you aim for. If you take a look at it, you’re going to have fun with it. You’re going to keep going. You’re going to make this a lifetime kind of sport. It’s not like football, where you struggle as a young person and you can’t keep going. In this sport, you can keep going.
What’s your favorite race?
The Boston Marathon. I’ve won New York four times and I’ve won a marathon on five continents. More than Frank by the way, I’ve won more than Frank! But the Boston Marathon was my big win in ’75. When I won Boston in ’75, my life changed.
What’s your diet like?
My diet as a young guy was not so good. The science of exercise, the knowledge of nutrition, it wasn’t there 40 years ago. That’s why athletes are better today, partly—they know more about how to rest, how to train, coaching’s better, nutrition, everything comes together. I’m not a fanatic, I’m really not. I was with my training a bit—I was trying to win.
Do you listen to music while you run?
I love to hear music during a race, and I hope to have it in September at the half marathon because it gives you a thought, it gives you energy. Particularly a sport like this, when you’re kind of running within yourself and you’re competing, in a way, for and against yourself, you’re pushing yourself, and you’re competing with maybe other runners as well. It’s a complex sport in a way. I know a lot of runners wear their headphones, and I think whatever gets you out there is key. You’ve got to find a place you love to run and why you love to run.
Want to know more about Rodgers? Check out his book, Marathon Man: My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World, now.