Sunday, November 29, 2015

Marathon Man by Bill Rodgers

Want an engaging read about the running scene of 1970's New England?  Of course you do! Then look no further than Marathon Man by the marathon man himself, Bill Rodgers:

First a little background: Bill Rodgers was a New England road runner who dominated 1970's marathoning, and was most famous for his four wins apiece at the Boston and New York City Marathons.  He has won major marathons on five continents, finishing a total of 60, and now spends a lot of time doing guest speaking stints at marathons around the country, including the Philadelphia Marathon.  I saw him speak in 2013 and again at this year's marathon where I met him and bought his book.

The majority of the book toggles back and forth between a detailed description of his first win at Boston in 1975 when he was still an unknown in the sport, to his days as a high school and college student and a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.  About 3/4 of the way through, the book finally moves into a straightforward linear narrative that goes on to describe his meteoric rise and the ups and downs of his subsequent career in road racing.

If you've ever seen Bill Rodgers speak, you'll know he has undiagnosed ADHD (which he also mentions in the book), and his book follows a similar pattern of chasing down random thoughts to narrative dead-ends.  Also, the book is absolutely riddled with typos and misspellings, which makes the ornery grammarian in me a tad berserk.  Whoever edited this thing should be fired.

Here's the thing, though: I don't care about the writing.  The story is just that compelling.

In addition to a memoir of a running legend, it's a fascinating account of what runners had to do back then just to make a living.  The Boston Marathon did not dole out the hundreds of thousands to its winners that it does today. Winners back then received the famous laurel wreath and a bowl of beef stew.  Most road races of that era had similarly ridiculous prizes. Rodgers describes one race in which the winner received a new set of car tires.  Because he didn't own a car, he offered them to the second place finisher, who also didn't own a car.  The tires made their way down the line of runners until finally finding someone who could actually use them.  Guys were out there every weekend killing themselves for the sake of random household appliances.

This is how the Amateur Athletic Union wanted it back then.  Runners who wished to compete in the Olympics were denied the professional and commercial support of their counterparts in other countries, and were forced to receive appearance fees under the table just to make a living.  To the AAU, protecting the integrity of the sport meant forcing elite athletes to live a spartan life of training and hardship while trying to compete against the best the world had to offer.

Yet Rodgers and his counterparts of the era doggedly persisted in the name of competition and honing their skills.  He goes on to describe taking eight guys from his Greater Boston Track Club down to the Philadelphia Marathon in 1974, driving down back roads to avoid paying tolls and all eight sleeping in one hotel room.  Rodgers won the race the following morning, after which they all piled back into the car and slowly made their way back north.  I love that.

I think in order to be a part of any community, it's important to understand the history behind it and to recognize the pioneers that forged the path before you.  That's why I love this book, because it shows me a deeper understanding of the man that is Bill Rodgers and what he did for this sport.

From the man himself: let's run forever.

Scott, fellow teacher; world's greatest profession - Let's Run Forever! - Bill Rodgers

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