Marathon Man, By Bill Rodgers (Book Review)
By Bill Rodgers & Matthew Sheptain
Type: Non Fiction (Memoir
“Running wasn’t an escape from life; rather, it was an embrace of it”
In the few years after Frank Shorter won the Olympic gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon, officially starting the running boom in the United States, there was no marathoner more famous or more accomplished than Bill Rodgers. A small town, easy going, aloof, simple man, who decided to quit the party, smoking and drinking scene to discover his gift for running and embraced it to the fullest. He won the Boston Marathon four times and is the only man with four victories in the New York City Marathon. He also was an Olympian in 1976.
Rodgers was an above average runner during his high school years. Faster than whatever you or I can run a mile to 5K, but not enough to be a legend or anything close. But in college he happened to room with Amby Burfoot, whose dream was to one day win the Boston Marathon, which he did in 1968. Burfoot was tutored by Young Johnny Kelley, the 1957 Boston champion, who in turn had been tutored by Johnny “The Elder” Kelley, winner of two Bostons plus a record seven second places.
Rodgers trained with Burfoot in 1968 and even kept pace with him in long 20+ milers after a night of drinking and partying. Yet, he never thought of running long distances competitively.
In Marathon Man, Rodgers treats us with a first person account of his journey from an ordinary citizen, a teacher and an ok runner to the most decorated long distance US runner in history. This is not your typical “look-how-great-I-am” biography, it is a journey with many ups and downs; with struggles, both physical and financial; it is a story of both DNFs and breaking finish line tapes.
Most of the book is centered on Rodgers’ win of the Boston Marathon on April 21st, 1975. Fifteen of the 21 chapters start with an exquisitely detailed account of the race, enriched throughout with the lore of this, the most famous footrace in the history of footraces. From there one, the second part each one of those chapters are flashbacks to his life starting eight years before that day and finishing at the start of that particular race. Two chronicles of the same story are happening simultaneously, which provides incredible dynamism to the narrative. Once he wins, he focuses on his Olympic experience and his first New York City win. The latter one was the one that happen to put that marathon in the map.
Bill was not just an airheaded runner. He stood for and by certain political beliefs, becoming a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and paying consequences. He had clashes with the AAU and voiced his displeasure at them taking away the monies athletes won while not allowing them to make a living off their talents. There are also plenty of insights about the early days of the running boom. This is great stuff for anyone who enjoys or has enjoyed long distance running or followed it 30-35 years ago.
On a personal note, Rodgers has always intrigued me because when I started running as a teenager he was the top dog. He won the very first marathon I ran, (Orange Bowl 1983) and I had the chance to see him fly by twice throughout the course. After my second Marathon (New York 1983), my dad bought me a Bill Rodgers set of short and shirt, which I used only for my top races, including my 3rd and 4th marathons (Caracas 1984 and 1985), where I had my two best times. My 5th Marathon (Philadelphia 2012) was won by Rodgers way back when. So somehow he’s been a presence during most of my long distance endeavors.
This is a fascinating biography about a fascinating character narrated in a fascinating way. Worth not only every penny but also every minute you’ll invest reading it.
By Bill Rodgers + Matthew Shepatin