Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sun, 10 Jul 2005 08:22:56 -0400

Ambassador Bill


(rerun from July 1998 RC)

Bill Rodgers' grand entrance was well orchestrated on his visit to the Fifth Season 8K in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Officials asked him to pass through the starting crowd from back to front as the announcer shouted his praises.

Bill went along with the plan, as he agrees to almost anything. The crowd respectfully parted to let him pass, but stayed close enough to shake his hand and pat his back as he jogged forward.

This scene illustrates the phenomenon that is Bill Rodgers. He receives royal treatment at races, yet retains the common touch.

This helps explain why he remains so popular, even among runners whose memories don't reach back to his prime racing years of 1975-80. These admirers don't come to see him for what he once did but for who he is now.

His hosts in Cedar Rapids arranged for him to give away hats carrying a "Bill Rodgers Running Center" logo. He signed dozens of these, and the recipients couldn't have been happier if he had handed them $20 bills.

He spoke briefly on two occasions, saying little that bears repeating here. His message didn't matter. He could have spoken in Swahili, and his audiences would have been just as pleased to have him with them.

Bill isn't at his best on stage, but no running celebrity does better one-to-one. He puts each runner at ease and makes each one feel important.

His almost-namesake Will Rogers said he "never met a man he didn't like." Bill Rodgers seems never to meet a runner who doesn't like him.

The Cedar Rapids event was just another stop on his endless road. He has done this a thousand times since the 1970s and couldn't be faulted for just going through the well-rehearsed motions.

But he doesn't. He still genuinely enjoys his work, and the runners he visits can tell.

Bill has collected several nicknames over the years. They don't quite fit anymore.

"Boston Billy" is too regional for someone whose fame and efforts span the country. "King of the Roads" makes him sound too regal and distant from the rest of us.

We might call him an "elder statesman" of the sport. But that makes him sound older than he is.

The term that fits best is "ambassador." He spreads through deeds and words the news of what's good and right about running.

Bill is one of the world's most youthful 50-somethings but not ageless. The mileage lines around his mouth and eyes have deepened, and his running times have slowed.

But his "slow" is still the envy of runners 10 or more years younger. His competitive fires haven't gone cold. He still talks about breaking records for his age group, still talks of competition with his contemporaries.

Yet he is just as likely to downplay his times to cut the apparent distance between himself and his audiences. He'll let dozens of local runners say they "beat Bill Rodgers," as happened in a Cedar Rapids fun-run while playing his diplomatic role. No one does it better.

UPDATE. Seven years later, Bill returned to this same race in Cedar Rapids. He hasn't recovered completely from the broken leg of 2003 and now runs his miles closer to nine-minute pace than his pre-injury sub-sixes.

Bill could have excused himself from the fun-run and Fifth Season 8K. He could have played a purely ceremonial role by firing the starting gun and then stepping aside.

But he didn't. His ego isn't so large that he can't let a thousand runners pretend they beat him. In fact, few ever did or ever will.


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