Forty-seven years ago, Bill Rodgers crossed the Boylston Street finish line to win the Boston Marathon for the first time in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 55 seconds. He hasn’t stopped running.
Rodgers will turn 75 this month and though he refers to them as “little ones,” he has competed in 10 races this year.
When he won the marathon in 1975, he was 27 and had returned to running in the hopes of improving his lungs after quitting smoking. Now a running legend, he was to be honored at The Tradition.
The Sports Museum will hold its annual fund-raising gala Wednesday at TD Garden, also honoring Johnny Damon, Lawyer Milloy, Chanté Bonds, Jillian Dempsey, M.L. Carr, and Mark Recchi.
Though he remains an avid runner, there’s one big difference Rodgers has noticed.
“I can’t win anymore,” he laughed. “It’s so frustrating because I go to the Falmouth Road Race, and I always think, ‘Maybe I can win my age group,’ and it gives me something to work for, but now it’s like Father Time and Mother Nature have a grip on me.”
Rodgers came to the 1975 marathon after a “breakthrough race” a month earlier at the World Cross-Country Championships, where he beat Frank Shorter, an Olympic gold medalist.
“I was totally stunned,” Rodgers recalled. “[My team and I] were really just guys that wanted to keep going, and we were lucky enough to meet a coach like [Bill] Squires.”
Squires coached Rodgers at the Greater Boston Track Club, which had existed for less than two years when Rodgers won. Rodgers started the club with Jack McDonald and a few other runners, in an effort to improve the professionalization of marathoning as a sport.
“[Squires] helped all of us succeed. It was a group of us track, athletics people, but we needed a leader. We needed a coach, and we needed Coach Squires,” Rodgers explained.
Rodgers said the professionalization of running has meant a great deal to him because running is a sport for everyone. However, he cited the early 1970s, before women were allowed to race professionally as a particularly difficult time in the sport
“The guy runners, we completely opposed [the exclusion of female runners], but we had no power. We would speak up or do what we could, but we had no power,” Rodgers said. “I think it’s as competitive as any other sport in the world. It’s a tough one, but it’s a great one.”
Rodgers emphasized the sport’s global nature as being one of its most important assets.
“I was at Newark a few weeks ago, meeting runners from countries I’d hardly ever heard of, and I love that,” he said. “We all have that opportunity. When you’re in a race, you don’t have all the barriers that seem to divide people in the world.”
Being honored at The Tradition is meaningful for Rodgers because of the attention it brings to the history and sport of running, which has been sparse in comparison to other sports.
“It’s a great honor,” he said. “Visibility is so important for our sport, so key from the media, so it’s just a good, good feeling.”
Although it’s not the same level of competition as during the peak of his career, Rodgers still competes, and he won two races this year. Rodgers explained that this is where his love of running comes from, the lifelong nature of and benefits from the sport.
Rodgers initially took up running as an outlet for his energy, explaining that he was “a little too rambunctious,” but he had stopped running by the time he moved to Boston. He described his postgraduate return to running: “It was wintertime, and [I was] not running very fast, but just trying to get my health back, slowly quitting my cigarette smoking, and that works. It works for everybody. That’s what I love about running. Everyone benefits, everyone succeeds, and the door is wide open. It’s got a lot of power to it.”
Though his love lies in the sport itself, Boston will always hold a special place in Rodgers’s heart.
“Nothing is going to stop the Boston Marathon,” he said. “The bombings didn’t stop it and COVID isn’t going to stop it, because we love this race. We all do. I always love being a part of Boston. It’s just fun, it’s pure fun.”