By Alissa Groeninger
It was the fall of 1963, and President John F. Kennedy spoke to the nation about the importance of physical fitness.
Bill Rodgers was in 10th grade, just 15 years old.
That’s when it started.
Rodgers ran a mile for gym class – and proved to be the fastest kid in school. He’s hardly stopped running since. In the process, he’s won marathons on five continents, thrice been named the top marathoner in the world, and won the Boston and New York marathons four times each in five years.
“People have asked me for years, ‘Why do you run?’ And my thought is, ‘Well why don’t you?’” he said.
Rodgers attributes his youthful speed to bike riding. “Build your quads, build your hearts,” he says about biking. With his brother Charlie and best friend Jason, the future marathon legend joined the high school cross country team.
“Once you become a runner, once you get over those early weeks and months where you’re kind of struggling,” Rodgers said. “Once you can get beyond that … You really change your life.”
And you stay a runner.
Aside from a brief post-college period in which he took up smoking, running has been a mainstay in Rodgers’ life. During his competitive career he ran 130 miles a week.
His running statistics are otherworldly.
Between 1975 and 1980 Rodgers won the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon four times each. Twice, he broke the American record at Boston, running in 2:09:27 in 1979.
His success at the Boston Marathon led to his nickname, “Boston Billy.” It’s a fitting name for the man who is perhaps America’s most iconic distance runner.
Rodgers has entered 60 marathons, winning 22 of them. He’s one of the few runners who’ve won marathons on all five continents. In 1975, 1977 and 1979 Track & Field News ranked Rodgers the number one marathoner in the world.
“I know the sport really well,” Rodgers said. “I raced all over the world, you know, trying to win on behalf of the US,” Rodgers said.
Now at 68 he still runs 40 miles per week. He’s competed in about 15 races this year.
“I believe everyone should be an athlete, live as an athlete,” Rodgers said. “It doesn’t matter your age.”
“We’re like football players, but we have the extra 30-40 years of going strong,” he said of runners.
These days Rodgers looks to compete in his age group. Surprisingly, he doesn’t always win. He talks about “new, older” runners – people who’ve found the sport later in life.
“It’s hard to compete against someone who’s new at it, and very fresh and determined,” said Rodgers, who estimates he’s run 200,000 miles in about 50 years.
"I still like to compete sometimes, and I get beaten a fair amount of the time,” he said.
Rodgers relishes interacting with runners of all ability levels. He attends more than 20 running events around the country every year, something he’s done for more than four decades.
“I still love this sport. I still love to travel to races across the country,” he said.
Tampa, where he’ll be running in the Fit Foodie Race this upcoming weekend, has a special place in Rodgers’ heart.
He’s the winner of the inaugural Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K. He won the race with a time of 44:29 in 1978. “It’s a great running location,” he said.
He returned to the race throughout the years. In fact, in 2009 he set out to run Gasparilla one month after undergoing surgery for prostate cancer. It didn’t work out, but he wasn’t away from his sport for long. “It took me a few more weeks to recover and then I could get back to running,” Rodgers said.
Running proved physically and mentally key in helping Rodgers through his cancer fight, he said. In fact, when he received the diagnosis in 2007 he was in Barbados for a 10K. “I ran the 10K,” Rodgers told Runner’s World. “That’s what you do.”
Rodgers enjoys watching the sport of running grow. “The sport keeps changing all the time. It’s bigger than ever,” he said.
He credits women, pointing to Roberta “Bobbi” Gibb, the first woman to run the entire Boston Marathon. Women “started to change the sport,” he said. “And now they’re half the field or more.”
His hope is that running keeps growing. ““How can you beat this? We don’t make the big money athletes in the domestic sports make … but we’re all happy with the sport,” Rodgers said.
“It doesn’t get any media coverage,” he said about running. “Globally, internationally, we’re stronger … We’re also the ultimate health and fitness sport.”
“We’re the equal of any athletes in the world,” Rodgers added.
Rodgers expressed admiration for people who find running later in life. He’s focused on health and believes running – or swimming, biking or walking – is the way to change the world, our present and our future.
“We can all make comebacks. I don’t care who you are or what you’re deal is, you know? You can change your life. You really can,” Boston Billy said.