Paul Clerici of Walpole is the author of “Born to Coach: The Story of Bill Squires” (Meyer and Meyer Sport). This excerpt is reprinted by permission.
To date, 1975′s Boston Marathon field was the largest ever recorded in its historically-massive canon. Within that field were five former champions and a handful of writers and historians of the sport. It was Monday, April 21, the 79th edition of the race, filled to the brim with 2,340 runners. There was a semi-seasoned future national Hall of Fame coach eyeballing his local charge — a relative “newcomer” who belonged to a relatively new club — wearing bib number 14 for his place in the previous year’s Boston. While this was the runner’s sixth overall marathon start, which included a pair of course-record victories, it was also his third attempt at Boston, from which he dropped out in 1973.
Along with a new brand of running shoes on his feet from Oregon Nike rep Steve Prefontaine — mailed to him two weeks before Boston; five weeks before the legendary Pre’s untimely death — a 27-year-old Bill Rodgers also wore dark shorts, white headband, white gloves, and a short-sleeve T-shirt. His blue-collar outfit stood out among the slick singlets and bare hands and foreheads of the favorites. He also stood out as a member of the budding 20-month-old Greater Boston Track Club (GBTC), coached by 42-year-old Bill Squires, already a proven commodity in the world of running.
Squires knew there was great potential in Rodgers, of course. Six weeks prior to Boston, Rodgers returned from the International Association of Athletics Federations World Cross-Country Championships in Morocco as the third-best 12K runner in the world, and he also just set a 30K CR in March.
For the benefit of the local media and competitors, Squires downplayed expectations. He did not want a target on Rodgers’s back, so he often informed the press that he thought Rodgers would be in the top 10, perhaps top five. He kept glossing over his runner’s talent, despite the 34:20 a month earlier at the IAAF 12K, and the two CR wins at the 1973 Bay State Marathon and 1974 Philadelphia Marathon.
“I said to the press we were kind of aiming for fifth. Bullcrap! Aiming for fifth? We wanted to beat them all!” Squires said.
Sealed in an envelope and locked in the glove compartment of his car, Squires prior to the start scribbled on a piece of paper his prediction for Rodgers. It simply read “First place. 2:11:05.”
This was quite ambitious, since it was more than eight minutes faster than the personal record Rodgers set at the previous year’s Boston, and just 35 seconds over the CR of 2:10:30 set in 1970 by Ron Hill, who, in 1975, was wearing bib number one alongside Rodgers. During the race, Squires planned to first see Rodgers in Wellesley at around 15 miles, and then again six miles later at the bottom of the Boston College hill, near Lake Street, at the Chestnut Hill campus in Brookline where GBTC trained.
Just prior to Newton Lower Falls, at around 15 miles — and the first of the little rumblings of hills before the big ones in Newton — Squires saw Rodgers as the runners exited Wellesley via the Route 128 highway overpass and headed toward the Newton-Wellesley Hospital at around 16.5 miles.
“He was in fourth or fifth place then, and I think Jerome Drayton was in first. He was cruising then, and I yelled, ‘Good, good, good, Bill!’ and did the illegal thing and I go out there with water,” recalled Squires, whose delivery of water at the time was technically against the rules as coaches and their athletes weren’t to interact during competition. However, at this point in the race, Rodgers was running alone, just behind the small group of leaders, which afforded Squires the accessibility without interfering with other runners.
This was a strategic place on the course for Squires because he trained his runners to begin their race near the overpass. After mile 16, there is a slight incline over the highway, followed by a flat recovery period near the hospital and along the Woodland Golf Club in Auburndale, which leads to the right-hand fire station turn onto Commonwealth Avenue and the hills.
“I’d give the times there because that’s when my guys can start to beat the other people. That’s where we do the surge-and-pickups in training. The minute they get over that hill at Route 128, I’d have them bang away from the hospital to the fire station. Then a cool hill, and then bing, bing, bing, up the big ones.”
Rodgers dug in on Commonwealth Avenue and the Newton Hills, particularly Heartbreak Hill, the 88-vertical foot, 600-meter rise at the most inopportune location between miles 20 and 21. He was in a zone, all race long, having carefreely stopped to drink water and to tie his shoelaces. This was his moment.
Rodgers fed off the crowd. He was a local runner with many New England ties — born in Connecticut; graduate of Wesleyan University; resided just outside of Boston; and was about to receive his master’s at BC. So he felt right at home on these roads. And fortunately, as Squires hoped and planned, all eyes were on Hill and Drayton.
Since Squires last saw Rodgers with about four miles to go, and he himself made his way to the finish, Rodgers continued to create more distance from the rest of the field. He was in total control and on record pace. Due to the fact the race’s homestretch of Boylston Street — and its location to the entire area of the finish line — was obviously closed to vehicular traffic, Squires illegally parked his car several blocks behind the finish line, near the Eliot Lounge, part of the historic Eliot Hotel at the corner of Commonwealth and Massachusetts avenues.
“There weren’t any credentials for the finish area, but I knew enough to wear my AAU jacket with the shield on it, which meant something. And I was already head of the officials association, so I could get myself right out to the finish line.”
In 1975, however, although police and officials tried their best, crowd control was still at a minimum. On Boylston, cheering spectators stood dozens deep, which created a boisterously noisy funnel to the finish. It was equally congested at the finish line for the leader, who oftentimes barely recognized when to stop running until he was nearly on top of the painted line. Police on motorcycles and horseback added to the thickness of the masses, as spectators and officials blended together like an ocean of humanity and equine, pointing the way to the end of the race.
“I heard on the radio he had broke away, but I didn’t know by how much. Then, at the fire station on Boylston that was near Hereford Street, the firefighter guys got out there and they started getting all the people crazy, with their bells and sirens,” noted Squires of the point in the race several blocks from the finish where runners turn onto Boylston en route to the finish.
Rodgers indeed broke away, so convincingly and resoundingly, that he set a new CR and an American record in 2:09:55. He chipped off 35 seconds from the four-year-old Boston mark. He also destroyed his previous PR. Having only about 18 months with Rodgers — as he eagerly prospected what he could do with even more time together — Squires watched with great pride as his pupil became only the ninth different American to win Boston since Clarence DeMar’s record-setting seventh and final victory 45 years earlier in 1930.
Rodgers won by just under two minutes, and by more than three minutes over Hill in fifth, whose CR he just broke. Squires ventured toward the lower-level parking garage under the Prudential building where runners were directed after finishing. After a brief visit, he exited the celebratory hoopla, as was his wont.
Squires avoided the post-race media attention and awards ceremony, and eventually returned to his car, which, thankfully, did not have a parking ticket. The early exit was typical of Squires, who rather than for himself, preferred his runners receive the attention.
“You know what? If I go there, that means I get press. I’d get as much press as them. But I want the story to be them.”
And Rodgers was certainly the story. But he was so new to the majority of those covering the race that in the newspaper he was incorrectly referred to as Will Rogers. Even more confusing was no one seemed to have understood what was written on his T-shirt. Just prior to the start, his wife handwrote with a marker the word BOSTON in large uppercase letters and below it the initials GBTC for the newfound running club.
Squires sat in his car after the long day, which began early in the morning, and reflected upon his young club. He reached over to the glove compartment and dug out that piece of paper that read: “First place. 2:11:05.” While off by 70 seconds, he was spot-on about the place.