Boston Marathon

40 years ago, ‘Boston Billy’ turned running world upside down

BOXBOROUGH — The man is sporting a T-shirt with a retro photo of him in mid-stride on the day when he turned the running world upside down. He is wearing a headband, white painter’s gloves, a mesh jersey on which he has inscribed BOSTON GBTC in black marker and a pair of Nike shoes sent from Oregon by Steve Prefontaine. He is all by himself.

Four decades have passed since Will Rodgers, as the newspapers called him the next morning, won the first of his four Boston Marathon titles in a time so fast — an American record of 2 hours, 9 minutes and 55 seconds — that he amazed himself.

“This is absurd,” Rodgers declared after he’d chopped 35 seconds from Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter’s domestic mark despite stopping five times. “I can’t run that fast. This is ridiculous. I must be dreaming this whole thing.”

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While many observers, including Rodgers himself, believe that America’s road running boom began with Shorter’s breakthrough victory in Munich in 1972, “Boston Billy” was the iconic Everyman who inspired the average citizen of any age to lace up and take to the hardtop.

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“I don’t know if people knew who I was,” says Rodgers, who was a 27-year-old Boston College graduate student that year. “But that’s how the marathon was in those days. It was still a sport where an unknown could win.”

For his efforts Rodgers received a gold medal, a Bicentennial-themed, grasshopper-topped trophy that vanished after he set it down during his press conference, and the traditional bowl of beef stew. His four Boston triumphs came without a penny of prize money. But Rodgers never has wished that he was born a decade later.

“I loved the golden era,” he says. “We were part of the old era of marathoning with [Clarence] DeMar and [Johnny] Kelley but we were also part of this new change and it was so exciting. It was the spring of marathoning. We could still identify and connect with Johnny Kelley but there was something in the air.”

The 1975 Boston Marathon had a field of 2,365.
Globe file photo
The 1975 Boston Marathon had a field of 2,365.

When Kelley won in 1945, only 90 men took the line in Hopkinton. In 1975, there were a record 2,365 entrants, 52 of them female. By 1979, when Joan Benoit smashed the US record, there were 527.

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“Women changed the sport big time,” says Rodgers. “Jock [Semple] didn’t know that in the ’60s.”

Semple, the race’s longtime Scottish gatekeeper, had torn off Kathrine Switzer’s number during the 1967 race. Rodgers, who grew up in Connecticut, was running cross-country and the 2-mile then for Wesleyan. His roommate Amby Burfoot won Boston a year later.

But Rodgers drifted away from the sport. What brought him to Boston was his conscientious objector’s job at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital, where he wheeled corpses into the morgue. He began running again after his motorcycle and 10-speed bike were stolen and he was too impatient to take the trolley to work.

His first two Boston attempts proved a painful tutorial. In 1973, he dropped out at Heartbreak Hill. In 1974, he faded to 14th after sitting fourth after 19 miles.

“Boston is a cruel place to learn if you’re a marathoner,” Rodgers says.

Globe file photo
Bill Rodgers after his 1975 victory.

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By 1975 he was no longer a novice. Rodgers had won the Philadelphia Marathon, collecting an $8 watch for his work. But what convinced him that he could duke it out at the international level was his third-place finish in March at the world cross-country championships in Morocco, where in borrowed spikes he outraced several past and future Olympic champions such as Shorter, Gaston Roelants and Waldemar Cierpinski.

“After that race I thought I could run with anyone,” Rodgers says. “That race proved it to me.”

Still, few of the clockers and watchers had him among the favorites on Patriots Day. Tom Fleming and Jerome Drayton, who’d placed second and third the previous year, were back as was Ron Hill, who’d set the course record (2:10:30) in the rain in 1970. But Rodgers sensed that he’d finally gotten The Day, with temperatures in the mid-50s and a tailwind.

“It was a beautiful day to run,” he recalls. “I was in good shape and I was feeling feisty because of that world cross-country bronze medal. I was floating high.”

So when Drayton took off in Natick, Rodgers went with him. When he heard someone calling ‘Go, Jerome!’ Rodgers was irked that a spectator would favor a Canadian over a homeboy and bolted in Wellesley Square.

“Drayton was probably freaked out because he didn’t know me,” Rodgers says. “He let me go after a while probably thinking that this guy doesn’t know what he’s doing and I’ll catch him later. But I kept going.”

By the time Rodgers came out of Wellesley he was off and away.

“When everything comes together, that’s your chance,” he says. “And you only get a few chances.”

Once he was amid the Newton hills, Rodgers was so far ahead he could afford to stop four times to sip water and once to tie an errant shoelace atop Heartbreak.

“Keep rrrunnin’,” Semple shouted to him in his Glaswegian burr. “Ye’rrre underrr the rrrecorrrd.”

With the police motorcycles ahead of him and the crowds closing in around and behind him as he came through Brookline, Rodgers was more concerned that Drayton suddenly might close on him. But the Canadian, who would win two years later when Rodgers DNFed in the heat, had dropped out. Rodgers broke the tape two minutes ahead of countryman Steve Hoag in the year’s fastest time in the world and the fourth-best ever.

Bill Rodgers, now 67, still runs the Falmouth Road Race.
Globe file photo
Bill Rodgers, now 67, still runs the Falmouth Road Race.

“I remember getting to the finish line and I was just shocked to run 2:09,” says Rodgers, whose personal best was 2:19:34. “People said, “What are you going to do after the race?’ I was pre-Disney. I said, ‘I’m going to the Eliot Lounge.’ ”

The Eliot, at the corner of Commonwealth and Massachusetts Avenues, was the hangout for the Greater Boston Track Club and what soon became a group of homegrown marathon stars. Rodgers, who made the Olympic team the next year, went on to win at Fukuoka, Japan’s storied marathon, collected a record four straight New York titles and made the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Alberto Salazar, who held off Dick Beardsley in the famed “Duel in the Sun” in 1982, won New York three straight times. And Benoit set a shocking world record in 1983, when Greg Meyer took the men’s title.

“Boston became the center of global marathoning for a little while,” observes Rodgers. “We were like Iten with our depth. We were like the Kenyans.”

The American century ended once the Kenyans arrived in force after prize money finally was offered in 1986. Until Meb Keflezighi’s breakthrough last year, no Yank had won here since Meyer. Keflezighi was born in 1975, two weeks after Rodgers’s victory.

“All of us from those days were like DeMar and Kelley and the other top runners of that era,” muses Rodgers. “I was almost closer to them than I am the runners of today.”

Rodgers, who is a cancer survivor, still laces up at 67. He still runs the Falmouth Road Race and he and Benoit Samuelson are annual fixtures at the Bix 7-miler in Davenport, Iowa. But Boston has become a sometime thing for him.

“Every year I say maybe I can run it again,” Rodgers says, who last did it in 2009. “Then I get out there and run 6 miles and I’m tired. But I probably will run it again. DeMar and both Kelleys set a precedent. You don’t quit. You keep going.”

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John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jpowizglobe.