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Book Reviews

Three new books look back at Boston Marathon

Bill Rodgers crosses the finish line in 1980 for his fourth Boston Marathon win.

Associated Press/File

Bill Rodgers crosses the finish line in 1980 for his fourth Boston Marathon win.

As any marathoner will tell you, running 26.2 miles is an intensely personal experience. There may be hundreds or thousands of others competing, but each person does it alone. It seems fitting, then, on this morning of the 117th running of the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest annual marathon and an undeniably American event, that we turn to three new books that take us up close and personal with some of our nation’s greatest runners and with the event itself.

When talking about Boston and about American runners the conversation invariably begins with four-time winner Bill Rodgers. What sort of fellow was Rodgers before he became famous? Perhaps it depends on which book about the accomplished marathoner you choose to read.

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When Rodgers was a conscientious objector working as a hospital orderly, perhaps he “quickly came to hate it.” Or, as Rodgers himself (with Matthew Shepatin’s help in his memoir “Marathon Man’’) writes, maybe “the part I liked about the job was that I was always moving and interacting with people throughout the hospital,” in “a cool city” where “we drank beer, we went out to clubs, we chased girls, and we listened to rock ’n’ roll. It was great.”

Rodgers, his coauthor, and Cameron Stracher, author of “Kings of the Road ,’’ all agree that things got a lot greater when Rodgers decided in the early 1970s to return to the training that he’d done as a college runner. He eventually became a hometown hero by winning the Boston Marathon multiple times as well as various other races, large and small. Some of the small ones eventually got large, in part thanks to Rodgers. Not surprisingly, Rodgers characterizes winning Boston in 1975 as “the greatest thrill of my life.”

He and Shepatin take the reader through that race step by step, with breaks in the account to describe what preceded the triumph, such as the aforementioned days and nights of beer and rock ’n’ roll, and what followed it, such as sufficient celebrity and capital to open some running shoe and apparel stores, which were first successful and then not.

One of the more surprising contentions in “Marathon Man” comes when Rodgers says that his Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder helped him become successful. As he puts it, “most normal people could not run for over two hours without a single break in concentration, but my condition gave me an abnormal talent for immersing myself in a single activity I enjoyed, in this case running.” Much of the rest of the book suggests that what set Rodgers apart was his appetite for countless hours of solitary training and his determination to demonstrate to the various people who believed in him — previous Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot, for one, and Jock Semple, long the Lord of the Race, for another — that he could be as good as they thought he could be.

Stracher, in “Kings of the Road,’’ demonstrates that he is not content with simple explanations, and he paints the accomplishments of the runners about whom he writes in bright, dramatic colors. “Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar did not set out to be heroes for a generation weary of war and unrest,” he writes. He credits those three with inspiring “an industry worth billions.” This point of view perhaps accounts for Stracher’s contention that when Rodgers woke up on the morning of the aforementioned 1975 Boston Marathon, “he knew God smiled on him.”

The individual stories of how Rodgers, Shorter, and Salazar grew as competitors are compelling. The motivations they discovered are distinct and personal. According to Stracher, Salazar’s was the most bizarre and unfortunate. He writes, “Running was his form of sadomasochism; he took pleasure in the abuse.”

According to Stracher, “the running boom ended on August 15, 1982,” when Alberto Salazar won what had become the enormously popular Falmouth Road Race while Frank Shorter provided the TV commentary. After that triumph, according to Stracher, Salazar began to “wane,” and “the decline of American male distance runners on the international scene” started to become evident. This development makes the author cranky. He’d prefer for US runners to win US marathons.

The Boston Athletic Association was founded in 1887 by a collection of men who “looked to the New York Athletic Club as their model.” People who know the BAA only as the organization behind the Boston Marathon may be surprised to learn via John Hanc’s thoroughly illustrated history that part of the BAA’s mission at the outset was “to break down the stiff barriers of classes.” In the late 1800s, the founders felt that “men who exercise and eat together will naturally and necessarily come to understand each other, so that besides the physical advantage, it will be a social gain to Boston.”

Several decades ago the BAA also began to be an organization that was protective enough of its logo to take unauthorized T-shirt sellers to court. The importance of
money was becoming apparent in various other ways. Corporate sponsorship arrived, and the runners now receive prizes of which Johnny Kelley and Bill Rodgers would not have been able to dream. Actually, few US runners dream of those prizes now, since they generally go to runners from Africa.

In any case, like various other institutions from Little League to the Supreme Court, the Marathon and the BAA have embraced — or at least seen the wisdom in including — girls and women. The best of the female competitors now are faster than the men who used to win the Marathon.

John Hanc’s account of
the history of the BAA ends with the happy assertion that 125 years after the BAA organized itself, the purpose of the Marathon remains the nurturing of “the dreams of thousands of ordinary individuals who toil to cross their own
finish lines.”

Bill Littlefield hosts National Public Radio’s “Only A Game’’ from WBUR in Boston. He is writer in residence at Curry College in Milton and can be reached at blittlef@wbur.bu
.edu.

Correction: Because of incorrect information supplied by the Associated Press and an editing error, a caption in an earlier version of this story was incorrect. The photo shows Bill Rodgers crossing the finish line in his fourth Boston Marathon victory in 1980.

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