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

Sat, 21 Jul 2007 05:20:05 -0400

"Beating" Bill


(rerun from July 2006 Marathon & Beyond)

If you have the itch to race, scratch it. It matters not if you race fast or slow; race long, short or in between; race from the front, in the middle or at the back -- only that you give your all to the race. Keep racing until you don't need it anymore.

Some runners never stop needing the races. The sport's greatest thinker George Sheehan raced until his next-to-last year of life. Runner's World founder Bob Anderson says, "If I didn't race, I wouldn't run."

Neither can Bill Rodgers leave the races behind, no matter the gap between who he once was (four-time winner the Boston and New York City Marathons, Olympian) and is now. I saw how wide that gulf had grown when we met again in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on July 4th weekend 2005.

Bill hadn't recovered completely from his broken leg of 2003. "I have thin bones," he told me when we met to give our speeches. "My mom has osteoporosis, and I might have inherited the condition from her."

Bill suggested that evening, "Why don't we run together in Sunday's race?" I laughed at the silliness of this idea.

Me, run with Bill Rodgers? Does he know how slow I go? His slowest possible mile would be faster than I could race one.

"No, no," he protested. "I can't go fast anymore. Most of my running these days is at about nine-minute pace."

I thought he exaggerated. Maybe he did slow down that much to poke along with people like me on his recovery days, but his competitive fires surely would flame up in the weekend's race.

To my surprise, and some sadness, I saw Bill early and often during this 8K. This isn't right, I thought at first sighting, less than a mile into the race.

My pace was right for me, about a minute faster than I would dawdle along outside of a race. But my now-top speed looked wrong for Bill. He ran with the inefficiency of someone backing off too much from his normal pace.

I could have run with Bill that day but didn't. I wouldn't have known what to say to him.

Instead I shadowed him most of the way. Bill favored his bad leg. He tried and only partly succeeded in finding soft running in the grass strips beside the road.

At about three miles I had to pass him. He was slowing even more, and he wouldn't have expected anyone to wait for him.

Instead of giving him an encouraging word and a condescending pat on the back, I veered to the opposite side of the road, put other runners between us and sneaked past, saying nothing. He soon passed me back without noticing. We went back and forth this way through the final mile before he eased ahead at the end.

This seemed right. I didn't want to think that I'd "beaten" Bill. Being so near to him for so long was good enough.

Bill could have excused himself from running that 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 to beat him. None of us, of course, ever will.
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