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Bizuayehu Tesfaye/AP
Bill Rodgers

Bill Rodgers Running Boston Marathon for First Time in 10 Years

April 19, 2009 07:00 AM
by Mark E. Moran
Fighting prostate cancer at age 61, Rodgers, a four-time Boston Marathon winner, seeks to raise awareness of the condition.

Rodgers’ Boston Comeback

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For many older distance running fans, Bill Rodgers, or “Boston Billy,” is synonymous with the men’s marathon, having dominated the event from 1973 to 1983, with four wins in both the Boston Marathon and the New York Marathon. Overall, Rodgers has won 22 marathons in 59 tries, including five wins in 1977. 

The Boston Globe described Rodgers as “a slender, amiable, and slightly drifty figure who personified the running boom.” Rodgers told Sports Illustrated that being the central figure in a sport whose popularity was exploding “was like being a surfer and being on top of a 40-foot wave. You’re just flying along.”

But Rodgers last ran the Boston Marathon 10 years ago, in 1999. He says he retired from “racing” in 1996 and is now a “runner,” and is also a cancer survivor, having been diagnosed with, and operated on for, prostate cancer in 2008.

Rodgers’ running has been mostly in half marathons and events that he promotes. These include the PACE Race series, sponsored by the Prostate Cancer Education Council. Rodgers also promotes his Bill Rodgers Running Center in Boston’s Faneuil Hall.

Rodgers’ main interest in competing in Boston is to raise awareness of prostate cancer. Rodgers is attacking the condition the way he used to attack Heartbreak Hill. He told the Globe, “[Y]ou have to attack it. Otherwise you feel kind of powerless, like a sitting duck.”

Rodgers’ ambitions for the race are modest. In the 1999 race he was trying to break an age-group record when he wilted in the heat, became dizzy and dropped out after Heartbreak Hill. He told Sports Illustrated last year, “I don’t want my last Boston to be a DNF.”

His goal is to break four hours, nearly two hours slower than his fastest time. He told the Globe, “I suspect I’ll be doing some walking along the way, which is OK. I want to get to the line and not have to be picked up. If I run carefully, I’ll do it.”

As Rodgers told Universal Sports, “after cancer, it means a lot more to me. If I finish it will feel like a victory. When I ran the 100th Boston, I didn’t race that one. It was pure celebration. That’s what I want this to be.”

Background: Rodgers’ legendary career

Rodgers won the fabled Boston Marathon four times; YouTube carries a grainy clip of coverage of his 1979 win. And the New York Marathon was little noticed outside the core running community until Rodgers defeated Olympic Gold Medal winner Frank Shorter there in 1976, the first of four Rodgers wins in New York; he is the only man to win Boston and New York in the same year twice. Rodgers likely would have won Olympic Gold himself but for the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games.

In 1979, Sports Illustrated reported on Rodgers’ fourth win in New York. With his typical cool, Rodgers overcame getting left in the pack when a crowd of runners started the race prematurely, and then steadily erased a 10-minute lead built by a 21-year-old University of Colorado graduate.

Rodgers’ appeal was so broad that he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated after his New York City Marathon win in 1978. He then fell prey to the fabled Sports Illustrated cover jinx, as a seven-race winning streak was snapped in his next race. But Rodgers rebounded to win his fourth consecutive New York Marathon in 1979, appearing again on the Sports Illustrated cover, and he remained a world-class marathoner into the 1980s.

Related Topic: Grete Waitz

Ironically, Grete Waitz, who was Rodgers’ female counterpart in the pantheon of long-distance running in the 1970s and 1980s, is also battling with cancer.

In 1978, Fred Lebow, founder of the New York City Marathon, invited Waitz to participate as a rabbit, pacing the top runners and dropping out. But fate had other plans. After setting the early pace, Waitz decided to complete the entire 26.2 miles. Despite not having done any training runs beyond 12 miles, she won the race and set a women’s world record of 2:32:30.

She went on to win the New York City Marathon an unprecedented nine times, and lowered the women’s marathon world record by more than 9 minutes. Such was her influence on the sport that, in 1979, she was the only woman to finish in the top 100 overall in the New York City Marathon. In 2008, 12 women did so.

In the spring of 2005, Waitz began battling cancer. Throughout her treatment and recovery, she raised money for various charities, including some that promote fitness for cancer patients. Waitz is also a staunch supporter of children’s health and has spent significant time mentoring the students at New York City’s elementary school P.S. 40.

In 1992, in her last NYC Marathon, Grete ran with Fred Lebow, who had terminal brain cancer and months to live. Though the run took them more than 5 and a half hours, Waitz treasures the memory of that run, saying it made up for the 10th win she never got in the race.
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