Our breath emerged in lung-heated plumes, our footfalls as soft crunches muted by freshly fallen snow. January 6, 1982, out on a 10 mile run with Bill Rodgers, long-time king of the American roads.
From his eponymous store in Boston’s Cleveland Circle to Jamaica Pond, around and back was perhaps the training loop Bill had run more often than any other in his career. I’m sure he could well have run it blind-folded, such was the comfort and familiarity of those now-wintered miles.
Pleased to be back into routine following the holidays, Bill admitted to getting in four solid 120 — 140 mile weeks of training through December, including a couple sharpening track workouts as he prepped for the following weekend’s Orange Bowl 10K in Florida. As it turned out Bill would run his road PR of 28:15 in Miami behind Alberto Salazar (28:03) and Greg Meyer (28:09).
While lapping the 1.5 miles of Jamaica Pond three times, Bill and I fell into our traditional roles, me peppering him with questions, and he as the modest responder. As always, I carried a cassette recorder to tape our conversation for a later broadcast on my Runner’s Digest radio show. With the crunch of our footfalls and rhythmic breathing as a backdrop, I asked what Bill had learned in 1981, given that it was the first year in seven years that he hadn’t won either the Boston or New York City Marathons.
“Even though I didn’t win Boston and didn’t even run New York City, I was pleased overall with my year,” Bill said amidst the easy pace. “I got third at Boston in 2:10, but I began my season a lot earlier than in the past. I ran Houston in January and Tokyo after that. So by the time I reached the end of the year, I learned that I can’t run 35 races a year anymore.”
Imagine one of today’s top marathoners running 35 road races in a calendar year? Times were different, and runners like Bill were still in the blossoming stages of the money era in running, anxious to take full advantage of even modest opportunities.
I bring up my old run with Bill because these past two days I’ve been in Chicago attending a Running USA Board of Directors meeting, and I wanted to know from someone who had to fend totally for himself as a runner what an organization like RUSA might be able to do for today’s athletes?
“Wear and tear is the deal in this sport,” Bill said, “especially for high level efforts. After 8 years we marathoners are usually feeling it. But today’s marathoners race less, which is a big plus for longevity. Maybe Running USA could lobby big races /marathons for ½% of proceeds sent to Olympic hopefuls to assist with such needs as training center rent, massage, medical treatments if required. I recall our Jingle Bell Run actually sent RUSA a check way back when they first got started.”
But with road races filling fields in record time, why would they, why should they contribute to the development of USA athletes?
“International recognition and prestige?” answered the four-time Boston and NYC Marathon champion of old. “We are no longer visible. Other nations are getting stronger. We ought to care. If we want to compete economically, we have to compete across the board, and that includes in running. Nationalism counts!”
Bill’s speed may have decreased over the years, but not his passion.
“Look at Frank Shorter, Alberto Salazar, Joan Samuelson, Lynn Jennings, and Deena Kastor. We all got support and did well. We still have top athletes, but we shouldn’t delude ourselves. You know what money means in Kenya. What is it, a $1000 annual income per capita? But if Kenya and Ethiopia are the two dominant countries in the world in distance running, maybe the U.S. is # 3.
“Americans want to see Americans win. It’s the patriotic angle. If we could get American names, past and present, to sign a letter to the top road race directors asking for a flat fee or percentage to go to Olympic development, signed by Shorter, Salazar, Dathan Ritzenhein, Ryan Hall, Solinsky, Shalane Flanagan, all the top people – do we mean nothing to them? Then make clear which races and companies are doing most for Americans. It’s what the USOC and USATF should be doing, but aren’t. So who walks the walk? These same people pay to support basketball, football and baseball. Would they help support American running excellence?”
It’s the reason Running USA was developed 12 years ago: “to improve the status of road racing in the USA through collective marketing and promotions, services to runners and events, and the development of American world-class stars”.
Through the development and support of Team USA in Mammoth Lakes, California, RUSA’s efforts paid Olympic Marathon dividends when Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor won silver and bronze medals at the Athens Games in 2004. Then followed the rise of Ryan Hall.
In 2009, however, RUSA changed. The founders had all left, and the organization and Mammoth Lakes went their separate ways, and Running USA turned from trying to build the sport to “advancing the growth and success of the running industry”, an altogether different, inward facing mission.
Over time the annual Running USA industry conference in January has become the centerpiece of the organization’s existence, generating both the preponderance of its revenues and drawing the greatest percentage of its expenses. Yesterday, however, the Running USA Board of Directors voted unanimously to adopt the Youth Committee’s proposal on youth running as a strategic initiative for the coming year.
As committee chair Russ Pillar, formerly of the L.A. Marathon, e-mailed his committee members: “While the none-too-trivial specifics of funding and execution have yet to be decided, securing the Board’s approval–especially unanimously–is an accomplishment of which we all can be proud.”
Without losing its desire to build and service the industry components of running in America, there seems reason to believe that Running USA may be prepared to readdress its original intent of helping maintain the foundation of excellence that men like Bill Rodgers helped create on those cold January mornings around Jamaica Pond nearly 30 years ago.
Perhaps one day young runners will have their own picture of running’s appeal to match ours of Bill atop the winner’s podium at the 1978 Boston Marathon, when running was king.
As we ran Billy would deconstruct his latest race, maybe spin out potential strategies for the marathon just ahead, or more often than not inveigh against the amateur code that had locked his beloved sport in the dark ages of poverty and public anonymity. And as we listened and ran we’d forget that normally we couldn’t run this fast, except for the fact that we were running with him, which made everything possible.