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

Sat, 19 Jul 2008 05:08:13 -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.

In 1999 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 visits 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 1999 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 fire 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 1999.

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.


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.

Neither can Bill Rodgers leave the races behind, no matter the gap between who he once was and is now. I saw how wide that gulf had grown when we met again in Cedar Rapids 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 for 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, but it 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 Bill." None of us, of course, ever will.

UPDATE. At age 60, Bill Rodgers has been treated successfully for prostate cancer that was discovered last December. He continues to travel widely, racing 25 to 30 times a year.

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