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

Sat, 14 Jul 2007 04:54:10 -0400

Permanently Popular


(rerun from July 2006 Marathon & Beyond)

Bill Rodgers is at least as popular a runner now as when he set his last PR more than 25 years ago. This enduring acclaim is as much a tribute to who he is as to what he once did.

Bill has a rare and wonderful gift. He makes anyone who meets him for the first time and spends a few minutes in his company feel like his friend.

In 1998 we met up at a race in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The story I wrote then could have been written any year from any of the countless races he has attended.

"Bill's grand entrance was well orchestrated on his visit to the Fifth Season 8K," I reported. "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.

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

But he didn't. He still genuinely enjoyed this work, and the runners he visited could tell.

He spoke briefly on two occasions that weekend in Iowa. His message from the stage wasn't what the runners came to hear. They wanted to talk with him in person, sensed this was okay, and he obliged them.

Bill isn't a world-class public speaker, but no running celebrity talks better one-to-one. He puts every runner at ease and makes each one feel important.

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

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.

I wrote in 1998 that "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."

At that writing his "slow" was still the envy of runners 10 or more years younger. His competitive fires hadn't gone cold. He still talked about breaking records for his age group, still talked of competition with his contemporaries, still talked of "trying to beat the first woman in any race I run."

Something changed by the next time I wrote about Bill. He wasn't the same racer in 2005 that I'd seen in 1998.

But unchanged were the traits that made us runners want to shake his hand, pat his back and hear his voice speak to us one-to-one. If anything, his popularity grew as his slowing pace made him less of an immortal and more one of us.

(continued in RC 685)

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