This was a pivotal race in my running career. I was attending the University of Lowell at this time, but was ineligible to compete because of my recent transfer from Johnson & Wales Junior College. I had been a member of the Greater Boston Track Club for about a year and had done some training with Bill Rodgers, who had recently become the American record holder in the marathon. Bill had also finished third in the World Cross Country Championships prior to Boston, and that was when we first knew he was for real.
I first remember racing Bill in the Manchester (Conn.) Thanksgiving Day 4.748-Mile Road Race in 1973. We raced neck and neck over the last mile and he finished 6th while I was 7th. Back then, the newspaper always had a string of pictures of the top ten finishers; I still have a copy from ’73. While watching at the finish line as Bill won the Boston Marathon in 1975, I thought about that Manchester race and just how far Bill had come in less than two years. If I could accomplish anything close to what Rodgers had, I had to give it a try; that was my thinking.
The Lowell Half-Marathon, held on Oct. 5, was organized by my college coach, George Davis. The organizers had done a great job of obtaining prizes from local merchants, and it was hoped that this would attract some of the area’s better runners. Unfortunately, the word didn’t get out, and the field for the race consisted of a paltry 11 runners. The race had prizes for the top 12!
The evening before the race, a GBTC friend, Alan Mills, had a get-together at his house and we tried to convince as many as possible to run the half the next day as they would almost certainly win a prize. Among the recruits were Bob Sevene and Brad Hurst. Bill Rodgers had agreed to run in advance, so we knew he would lend the race some credibility.
The course was the same one used today for the Bay State Half-Marathon and Marathon. I felt relaxed and confident as I warmed up, and expected Bill and Ray Currier to be the people to watch. My teammate and friend Vin Fleming was running “only for a workout,” but I’d heard that line from him before, only to be soundly beaten by him afterward. So I was wary of him as well. (Fleming would go on to win that fall’s NCAA D-III Cross-Country Championship at Franklin Park in a photo finish.)
Two miles into the race, Bill and I had broken away. We chatted and ran along at 5:00 pace. I was feeling very good. Obviously Bill was the man – when would he make a move? We cruised through ten miles and suddenly he increased the pace. I reacted slowly, but it was just a softener, not a major move; I caught back up. We went back to chatting, and a mile later, just as suddenly as before, he was off again, and this time he kept going. I tried to hang close; he slowed and I was right back on him. This time there was no chitchat – only a mile to go and I was still hanging around. As soon as I caught him he was off again, and that was it for me. I finished second, running 1:06:26 – a good effort for a 19-year-old grasshopper.
Racing one of the world’s best in my backyard and running a creditable race was a great experience. I knew he was toying with me, but could tell he still respected my effort. This gave me a great boost of confidence in my continuing efforts.