Seventies Hero: Bill Rodgers

I am fascinated by the seventies.  Perhaps that is because I just missed it.  Being born in 1975 I saw the decade in reflection from the much less interesting eighties.  I am fascinated by the music, the art, the fashion and the rebirth of recreational fitness culture in America.  The seventies was when everything we take for granted now as part of fitness obsessed America was new.  Arnold Schwarzenegger and the birth of gym culture, Bruce Lee and martial arts, yoga cults, and the first real running boom in America.  It was a fascinating time in the development of sport.  In all these areas, but especially in strength training and distance running, athletes were going out on a limb, experimenting with their bodies in ways no one had done before.  Taking sometimes dangerous risks with steroids, or punishing workout regimens, they were shooting in the dark acting as experiments of one before elite athletics became the giant science course it is today.  I plan to do a series of posts on some of the fascinating characters from the time, I’ll call them seventies heroes and I’ll start with the man synonymous with distance running, and the Boston Marathon in particular – Boston Billy, Bill Rodgers.

Bill Rodgers was a school teacher, a native of Hartford Connecticut, and, for most of the seventies, one of the most accomplished runners in the world. He won every major marathon and twice broke the record at the Boston Marathon.  His training method was laughably simple in comparison to how elite runners train now.  Asked in a 1979 interview with Boston Magazine (pdf) about how he trains, Rodgers said “I’ll get up in the morning, and just maybe have a cup of coffee. Then we drive down to our store on Cleveland Circle and in the late morning, I’ll go out for a ten mile run… [I’ll usually train] at a six or six and a half minutes per mile. . . But in the evenings I will sometimes run a fast eight miles instead, at about 5:30 per mile.”

That’s it.  He didn’t head to Boulder for altitude training, or worry about perfecting his stride.  He ran and he ran big.  A look at his training log from those years shows him running anywhere from 100 to 180 miles a week.  The hundred mile week is now common among elite distance runners but 180 miles a week?  Few attempt that kind of distance now, and it takes a special person to put up with that kind of training both physically and mentally.  But Rodger’s is a special kind of person.  He pushed the sport to levels no one had seen before.  Here is, rocking the short shorts and a great hat on his way to a win, and a new record, at the Boston Marathon in 1979, a race he would win in 2:09:27.

In the year leading up to that race, Rodgers says he ran an average of 125 miles a week.  With my proclivity to get hurt, and my interest in other sports, I’ll never get anywhere near that kind of mileage, but I am in awe of Rodgers and the others runners of the seventies who figured if fifty miles a week was good, 100 would be better and changed what we thought was possible at the marathon distance.

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