Bill Rodgers: Marathoning

Excerpts from Marathoning by Bill Rodgers with Joe Concannon pages 87-89.

The MARATHON. It is not one of the ultimate challenges, like going to the moon or climbing Mount Everest. The marathon is something that is readily within reach, and when I reached for it, I won Boston. I set the American Record. That opened doors. It changed my life. It also set me up for some failures. I learned how the marathon can humble you.

From the considerable gossip and feedback I had heard and read in the press, it was clear many runners felt my record race at Boston was a fluke. I’d had the wind at my back, it was a downhill course, and it was point to point. Put simply, I had set it on an easy course on an easy day.

The Olympic Trials became my next objective, and I had to cope with the interrelated aspects of climate and occupation.

I was getting up at six o’clock to run, and in the freezing cold of January and February, it was starting to drive me crazy out there alone in the dark. Also it was dangerous.

I can remember one day going out, running a half mile and flipping out. I ran back to the house and started to jog in place. It was physically and mentally depressing. I started asking myself, “How am I going to make the United States Olympic Marathon Team by jogging in place?”

So I went to the school committee and asked for permission to run on my lunch hour. If they vetoed my request I was prepared, like most dedicated amateurs, to quit my job, and as usual, go it alone. But they did grant my request and on most days I did six or seven miles. Nine was a good day. Then I did ten or twelve after school. It made for a long day.

The tension in Eugene was incredible. Even though I was the American Record holder, was ranked number one marathoner in the world for 1975, and had two fast times to my credit, I still did not think of myself as being the superior or even the equal to Frank Shorter. I found it difficult to sleep in Eugene and frequently felt dizzy and disoriented. I thought it was jet-lag from my cross country trip, but it was mostly tension. I bought junk food from the vending machine outside my motel room and managed to enjoy it.

It was a fantastic feeling making the Olympic Team. It was a downright emotional moment crossing that line. It made all of the runs on the ice and snow clogged streets of Melrose worthwhile.

I went back to Eugene in June for the ten thousand meter trials. I was feeling pretty good and actually won my heat in the trials in 28:32 flat. In fact, I was surprisingly, the fastest qualifier.

Squires and I talked it over before the final and we decided not to go for the Olympic Team for ten thousand meters. Just run a fast time.

The final was run on a cool day and I can still recall how worried I was when we passed two miles in 9:00. My PR at the time for two miles was 8:53.6. The race was hotly contested by Shorter, Bjorkland, Virgin and me until Bjorkland, who had lost a shoe earlier in the race, fell off the pace with a mile to go and I slipped back with a half mile to go.

Bjorkland saw me falter, began sprinting and passed me with ten yards to go to make the Olympic Team. I was pleased with my PR of 28:04.4.

After the track trials I did not do any more track work before the Olympics. I now know that you simply have to do some form of speed work for the marathon. I was afraid if I went on the track it might aggravate the foot injury and make it worse. I didn’t want to be knocked completely out of the race.

When I arrived in the Olympic Village in Montreal, the foot hurt more. I finally went to see the American medical team and they used ultrasound treatment and iced my foot. That helped.

It seems amazing to me that I, the athlete with the fastest qualifying time for my event, who was now limping around the Olympic Village, was not given more assistance by the staff at Montreal. It was as if everyone assumed we knew everything there was to know and all of the bases were covered.

The after race: I can’t remember much about that night. All I recall is that it was somehow a very significant experience. This was the end of it. It was as if your running career had come to an end on a sour note. I didn’t go out and get drunk. I had no desire to. I ached too much. I had cramps. I just went home had something to eat, and went to bed. To be succinct, it was massively depressing. Just crushing. Words cannot convey the utter feeling of losing that one feels over a poor performance at the Olympics.

On the New York City Marathon: It is still the easiest marathon that I have ever run for a fast time. It may have been my best marathon and it certainly gave me a lift. I was close to my Boston time and it was equally gratifying. I had beaten Shorter for the first time in three attempts at the marathon.