As the running world gears up for the 50th TCS New York City Marathon next Sunday, November 7, 2021, here’s a look back at the time when the sport of marathoning crossed not only the Verrazano Narrows Bridge for the first time, but its own Rubicon, as well.
A light-boned 5’8”, 128 pounds of sinew and tousled blond hair, Bill Rodgers was ideally built for distance running, a proclivity he first picked up chasing butterflies for hours on end in his hometown of Newington, Connecticut. Yet it was always the same. Whenever somebody walked into the original Bill Rodgers Running Center in Boston’s Cleveland Circle and saw the eponymous store owner for the first time, a taken aback look would flash across their face.
“Jeez, I thought he would be much taller,” would be their invariable conclusion after Bill departed.
But here’s the thing: every picture in competition seemed to catch Bill floating on air, half a head above his fellow competitors, hence people’s impression of a much taller man.
Yet on 31 July 1976, Rodgers’ springy stride had been reduced to a ground-bound hobble as he entered the Montreal Olympic Stadium for the final 400 meters, a broken man, physically and psychologically. Fifteen minutes had passed since Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany, Frank Shorter of Boulder, Colorado and Karel Lismont of Belgium had finished their medal-winning performances at the 18th Olympic Marathon.
Of the 71 competitors from 36 countries who competed that Sunday, Rodgers would finish in 40th place in 2:25:14. More tellingly, he wore bib number 1 on his deep red USA singlet, denoting him as the top qualifier in the field, an honor earned by his 2:09:55 American record win in Boston 1975.
For the man who had dueled step for step with the defending Olympic champion at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon on May 22nd, the result at the July 31st Olympic Marathon was particularly stinging.
“I came into Montreal as one of the favorites,” said BR. “Seeing all those runners I could routinely beat in a training run ahead of me was devastating. I remember looking up at the big scoreboard and seeing, “see you in Moscow 1980” and thinking, wow, that’s so far away.”
For the first time since in his budding career, the Wesleyan University grad arrived at the start of a major marathon – THE major marathon – with a foot injury. Though not serious, it was enough to keep him from doing any speed work in the final two months leading to the biggest race of his career.
Rodgers began to experience his foot problem after the U.S. Olympic Track Trials in Eugene one month after the marathon trial. Wearing narrow track spikes on the Hayward Field oval, Bill pulled 28-seconds from his heat one victory in Saturday’s 10,000m prelim on June 19th with another PR in the Tuesday final. Yet his 28:04 clocking only managed a fourth-place finish behind Shorter’s 27:55, 20-year-old University of Illinois star Craig Virgin’s collegiate record 27:59, and, famously, one-shoed Minnesota grad Garry Bjorklund, who ran Rodgers down over the final lap to finish one tick ahead in 28:03.
The following is an excerpt from Bill’s 1976 training log from Saturday, June 26th, four days after the 10,000m Trials, as compiled by friend and GBTC teammate Bob Hodge.
|Ran 12 miles at easy pace in A.M. over flat course – feet hurt – rt. one especially from blisters from 10,000 track race (final) in Eugene plus more (importantly?????) rt. foot’s ligaments stretched (Tiger’s not enough support & are too narrow) …a wide shoe [ but rt. Size 9 too big (long)]. Ran 5-7 miles in P.M. (uphill run for 300 yds.) (8). Total miles today 17.|
Two weeks later, Rodgers’ foot ailment gave evidence of his slipping condition as he lost the Peachtree10K Road Race to fellow Olympian Don Kardong on July 4th in Atlanta.
Yet despite his foot issue and lack of sharpness, Rodgers helped push the pace in steamy Montreal.
While Frank Shorter had won the Pan Am Games Marathon in 1971 along with four straight Fukuoka International Marathons in Japan (1971-1974), and then kick-started the Running Boom with his Olympic Marathon win in Munich 1972, he remained a dedicated track runner, too. Rodgers, on the other hand, built his career almost entirely on the roads and carried a keen protectionist attitude against any he felt showed signs of disrespect.
“It takes a tremendous amount of training and guts to pull this baby off,” said Rodgers in preparation for a marathon. “I challenge trackees to run the marathon versus the top marathoners and say when they get to the finish line that it doesn’t.”
In Montreal, Bill was galled that double Olympic 5000 and 10,000-meter champion Lasse Viren of Finland had entered his debut marathon at the Olympic level, hoping to match the great Czech Emil Zatopek’s Olympic triple in Helsinki 1952 where he took gold in both distance track races, then a third gold in the marathon in his debut at the road distance.
So with his fitness down but his bile up, Rodgers helped push a hard pace through 25K to keep pressure on the great Finn. In his compromised condition, Rodgers simply hastened his own demise. Still, he contributed to keeping Viren off the podium in fifth place in 2:13:10, an altogether impressive debut run after two 10,000s and two more 5000s, the last of which was contested the day before the marathon, resulting in Viren’s fourth Olympic gold medal.
After the huge disappointment in Montreal, Rodgers returned to his home in Boston determined to make amends.
“There’s no way to describe how badly I wanted a chance to race again after being stripped of my status as an up-and-coming star and given the new label of one-hit-wonder in whiplash speed,” he remembered in his book Marathon Man: My 26.2-Mile Journey from Unknown Grad Student to the Top of the Running World. “I knew the 1976 New York City Marathon was the chance to rectify things, a chance for salvation.”
Knowing he would meet Shorter again in New York City in late October, Rodgers’ already obsessive nature kicked into an even higher gear.
With his foot injury settled, he began piling up more training miles than ever. Though he lost to Shorter again at the 7–mile Falmouth Road Race on Cape Cod in August, for eight weeks he ran between 130 and 150 miles. One week he racked up as much as 180. When he stepped to the starting line on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge on October 24th on an overcast 40-degree day – perfect! – he was in the shape of his life.
New York 1976 would prove an epochal crossroads event, both for the sport in general and in the careers of America’s two greatest marathoners.
Bill’s dominate 2:10:10, three-minute victory over Shorter on the new five-borough course, which included U-turns and climbing stairs at 17 miles, catapulted Rodgers to King of the Roads status, a position he would hold for the next half-decade. The king is dead, long live the king!
A subsequent foot injury of his own that would require surgery soon hobbled Shorter, who, though only seven weeks older than Rodgers, saw his career descend just as Bill’s took flight.
The first five-borough New York City Marathon, which some officials feared would not be well accepted in certain portions of the city, instead proved to be a success for the ages. Inspired by what they witnessed in New York, big cities all over the world soon followed suit, threading their courses through their most famous sections as the running/fitness movement boomed out across the globe.
Along with the NYRR’s irrepressible impresario, the late Fred Lebow, who directed Ted Corbitt’s idea of a five-borough race, and nine-time women’s champion Grete Waitz of Norway, who helped usher women’s marathoning into full acceptance and athletic respect, it was the shorter than he seemed, boyish butterfly chaser from Newington, Connecticut who served as marathoning’s combination Pied Piper & Peter Pan, reminding us all – and to this very day! – that “all the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
Good luck to all who will be running New York No. 50 next Sunday. I was lucky to cover 40 of the first 49, myself, often from the best seat n the house.
But in 2021 I will be following along from Los Angeles where the City of Angels will be staging its own 36th annual marathon on the same day in this pandemic-constricted season, yet another legatee of New York 1976, the race that changed the sport.
BTW, Happy belated birthday to Frank Shorter, who turned 74 yesterday, Oct. 31, 2021. Bill Rodgers will follow close behind, turning 74 on December 23rd.