Burfoot On Training for Boston

Amby Burfoot winning Boston

In mid-March my Wesleyan track team took a spring training trip to Quantico, Virginia. With Boston a month away, I wanted to pile on the miles. The first morning, I was up early for a 17 miler. That afternoon I talked my teammate Bill Rodgers (yes that Bill Rodgers) into joining me for what promises to be a relaxed 12-mile run. And it was, until we got totally lost in the twisting trails of Prince William Forest Park.  After two hours in low-80s heat, we walked a couple of time, then started up again, and eventually emerged to some roads. The run took three hours. I wrote it down in my log as 22 miles. That gave me 39 for the day, a good beginning.

Amby Burfoot and Bill Rodgers

Over the next two weeks, I averaged 25 miles a day, hitting 350 miles for the 14 days. After a few days of recovery, I noticed that I was running fresher than ever. Even when jogging, I skimmed along at six minutes per mile.  This had never happened before. It has never happened since. But in April 1968, I was in the flow… I was totally focused on the upcoming Boston Marathon and totally energized by the process. 

– Amby Burfoot from the essay “Running Scared”

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.

70s Hero Bill Rodgers

A couple of weeks ago, a friend forward me the outrageous and funny weightlifting site 70sbig (warning – sexism abounds on this site). The site is basically an ode to getting really big to be able to lift heavier weights. It’s funny, and I love the motif of 70s weightlifters.

Anyway, 70s big got me thinking about sports in the seventies, this was the time of the first weightlifting boom, and also the time of the first running boom, when lots of people started getting very interested in getting fit. Marathons became major events; running books were on the best sellers list, and suddenly lots of people were interested in getting fit.

I’ve been doing some research into this era in running history and love the place it holds as time when people began taking running seriously, but where the study of running wasn’t as scientific as it is today. Many of these men and women were training in a near vacuum of scientific information, they experimented in how much they run and how fast. They test different types of diets. They were their own guinea pigs in attempts to get fast. I have really only just started to dive into the history of this time, but I bet there are a lot of great stories from those times, and I hope to document some of them here every now and again.

This week though, we’ll start off a little late, with Bill Rodgers American Record 2:09:27 finish at the 1979 Boston marathon. Amazing performance.

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.”

In the year leading up 1979, Rodger’s says he average 125 miles a week. Look like it paid off. Here’ s his finish: