50 Years of Running: Hanging out with Bill Rodgers

The face that launched a thousand running questions.

My former coach and business associate Trent Richards ran a side hustle as a race director for road running events. He recruited his former athletes to work logistics, run timekeeping equipment and help with setup. It was always a bit chaotic working for Trent. He knew what he was doing but not always the best way how to do it. So we covered those tracks the best we could.

The only real problem we ever had was during a corporate road race held on the parking lots and side streets of a business district in Oak Brook. It was mid-summer and got hot out early, and we worked hard getting all the rigamarole set up in time for the race to start. The race was sponsored by a beer company and there were giant metal tubs filled with ice and beer near the starting line before the race even began. Some fool runner with a bad drinking habit dug into the stash and downed five or six beers before the race even started.

In those hot temperatures, he didn’t last long, and I found him lying in a culvert with his swollen tongue hanging out of his mouth. The guy suffered liver failure from drinking all that alcohol and trying to run on a hot day. I quickly ran to retrieve the emergency services team and that idiot survived, thank God. But later on, he tried to sue the race and its directors for having the beer available pre-race in the first place. Talk about lack of responsibility for one’s own actions!

There were other event mixups at races Trent directed, but none so serious as that. But when he called me in advance of the Deerbrook 25K to ask if I’d like to serve as the host for Boston Billy Rodgers at the race, I volunteered right away. My duties were to pick him up the morning of the race in a rented Volkswagen Beetle, since that’s the kind of car Rodgers requested. I was excited to help out and looked forward to meeting one of the most famous runners in the world at that time.

Rodgers in his heyday, wearing those Tiger racing flats.

Thinking that I wasn’t going to race that morning since I’d be escorting Rodgers around, I piled on the miles in the four days leading up to the race, which was held on October 1st. I wasn’t keen on racing again after that debacle of an overly long 10k run in Warrenville the previous weekend.

So I engaged in a big training week instead.

On Wednesday the 27th I ran seven miles at 6:00 pace. “Medium effort,” I wrote. “Light and strong.”

On Thursday the 28th I ran nine miles in the morning and another three with Linda in the afternoon.

On Friday the 29th, the workouts consisted of six miles easy and nine at night “Medium/strong.” In my journal, I noted some “dizzed out” feelings from the pile of training, but still pumped out another ten miles on Saturday the 30th, the day before the event at Deerbrook. That totaled 72 miles for the week. I’d gone 9, 9, 10, 7,12, 15, 10 over seven days’ time, and 44 miles in four days.

Driving Bill Rodgers around in VW Beetle was pretty damned fun.

I got up super early on Sunday morning for the 1.5 hour drive down to Joliet from Geneva. The morning was cool and fresh, and I secretly wished that I could race that day. For all the mileage that I’d done that week, my legs felt fresh. I drove my little Plymouth Arrow to the race site, picked up the keys for the VW and headed over to the hotel to meet up with Bill Rodgers.

It wasn’t a fancy hotel by any means. I parked outside and found the room number, which faced the outdoors, more like a motel than a hotel. I knocked and the door opened quickly. There stood Bill Rodgers in his underwear. “Hey Bill,” I responded in a nonchalant manner. “I’m here with the VW you requested.”

He grabbed his running stuff and changed in the bathroom, then doffed a set of Bill Rodgers nylon sweats. How many people can say that they get to wear running gear named after them? Yet there he was, the real Bill Rodgers sporting a full suit with that distinctive Boston Billy runner logo on it. “Okay, where we going?” he asked.

I offered him the keys but he walked around the other side of the car and said, “You drive. I don’t know where I’m going.” So we both climbed in and I tried to go back the same way that I arrived but got a little lost. We finally pulled up to the race finish and Bill muttered, “Oh wow. Lots of people!”

Rodgers has aged much like the rest of us.

There were. A ton of people considering the distance of the race. 15.5 miles! A 25K. I knew of only one other race of that distance in the entire country, held over in Grand Rapids. I remember that Greg Meyer had won it. He later went on to win the Chicago Marathon.

As we sat there in the car for a minute, Bill turned to me and said. “I’m not feeling that great today. If you want my number, you can have it.”

While I wasn’t planning on racing, I always carried my racing shoes with me in the silvery Frank Shorter running gear bag that was sitting on the back seat. “Um, huh,” I replied. “I ran a bunch of miles this week.”

“Up to you,” he said, tossing his race number and pins on the seat. “It’s here if you want it.”

Now, I’ll admit to being a bit inspired in having the chance to escort Bill Rodgers around. He was charming and affable, even a bit daft in person. Just like they said he was. That eternally open expression of his was an open invitation for people to approach him, and right when we pulled up in the car that morning, a runner saw him in the car and came jogging over to tap on the window. Bill rolled it down and said, “Hi there. What’s up?”

The guy got a serious look on his face and asked, “Do you have any advice for a four-hour marathoner?”

Without missing a beat, Bill responded, “You can run for four hours?”

That was a genuine question. I think Bill hadn’t done the math that most runners do, and failed to realize that it takes a 9:00 per mile runner about four hours to complete the 26.2-mile distance. Some day, when I got much older, I would come to appreciate what that meant to a runner of that pace. But back then, I just found it humorous the way Bill responded. He once got into trouble by calling the efforts of plodders “graceless striving.” And in many respects, he’s absolutely right as compared to the running elite. Rodgers later modified those views. In any event, the guy at the window that day laughed, and said, “Yeah, I can.”

But for Bill, it was “on to the next thing.” And he turned to the other window to answer the next question. I felt like the squire to a running king. I sat there in the car with Bill as people approached the car and peppered him with questions. It was getting close to race time, and Bill said “C’mon, come run with me.”

That looks like Boston Billy next to me in this photo. It wasn’t but I was racing with the ghost of his fame chasing me that day.

We jogged a half-mile together and my legs felt absolutely great that morning. But Bill, not so much. “I’m not feeling all that great,” he told me. And then sensing my state of mind, he repeated again, “Do you want my race number?”

I though to myself, “Aw, what the hell…” I’d run so many miles leading up to that race all I’d had to do was jog a block or two and I felt ready to go. Probably not the smartest thing to do, but I was gonna go for it. I was ‘friends’ with Boston Billy now. How could I turn him down?

And luckily, right from the starting gun, I felt incredible. Racing along at 5:10-5:20 pace, I found myself in third place overall.

Several spectators called out to me, “Go Bill!” Apparently they’d looked up his race number and figured that I was Bill Rodgers. Finally I turned to someone and said, “No, he’s not running today. He gave me his number.”

That’s how relaxed and smooth I felt the whole race. At one point, the TV truck with a full camera crew pulled in front of me while I cruised along. “How’s it going?” they asked. I felt so super I responded, “Great! I might not win this thing but it’s going well…”

I wish that I’d asked for a copy of that video before Trent Richards passed away a few years ago. It would have been fun to see my young self running along that day. But a few years after his death, his wife Joan disposed of all the running stuff. I’d missed the opportunity by only a few days.

If I’d won that would have been a true fairy tale finish. But I got third overall, finishing about thirty seconds behind an old college rival, Ralph Longus, who ran for Willam Penn. I was impressed how far he’d progressed as a runner. He looked strong and smooth and I could not make up any ground on him the last mile or so. I finished in 1:24:47, a pace over the whole distance of 5:20. If I’d have run a marathon that day it is likely I’d have finished in 2:26 or under.

Given the mileage that I’d run that week and especially in the four miles leading up to the race, there’s a good chance I could have run even faster that day in Joliet. But one never knows, and it does no good to engage in woulda-coulda-shoulda. I’m proud enough of that third-place finish.

I did have a tight hamstring following the race. And meeting up with Bill to take him back to the hotel, I tried to hide the injury. But a guy that smart is used to old runner’s tricks. When I bragged a bit about the race I’d had on top of all those miles, he said, “Well it’s fine, if you don’t get injured.”

That was humbling. But in the end, I didn’t care. It had been a fun day and one to remember for a lifetime. I had been a good escort of Boston Billy, and he told me so. I think he appreciated the fact that I did not barrage him with conversation or questions during our time together. It’s quite a bubble in which world-class athletes sometimes exist. They’re treated like a commodity by so many people who encounter them. Thus far that year, I’d avoided being an intrusive jerk with the likes of Sebastian Coe and Eamonn Coghlan. But it was hard not to be a bit awed by the presence of Boston Billy. He was considered the “people’s runner” for his offhanded approach to success and uncalculating person.

And yet he was a man of keen precision in his own running, even citing the fact that while winning the New York Marathon one year, he paid attention to every detail, like the right way to carry his hands for maximum efficiency. If you ever know the factors that add up to greatness, the evidence is right there. Bill Rodgers was a man that respected his craft.

About Christopher Cudworth

Christopher Cudworth is a content producer, writer and blogger with more than 25 years’ experience in B2B and B2C marketing, journalism, public relations and social media. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @genesisfix07 and blogs at werunandride.com, therightkindofpride.com and genesisfix.wordpress.com Online portfolio: http://www.behance.net/christophercudworth
This entry was posted in 10K, 13.1, aging, Christopher Cudworth, competition, healthy aging, marathon, running, running shoes and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to 50 Years of Running: Hanging out with Bill Rodgers

  1. Jim Nielsen says:

    Pretty cool!

  2. OmniRunner says:

    I met Bill in 2019 after the Bill Rodgers Jingle Bell Run 5K in Somerville, MA.
    We were in The Burren with 1,000 other runners and I think he talked to everyone.
    While I was talking to him it seemed like he had all the time in the world for us to talk. And can that guy tell a story!
    What a great story. It must have been hilarious when you realized people thought that you were him.

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