Believe it or not, Bill Rodgers’ first Boston Marathon resulted in a DNF.
As a 25-year-old marathon rookie from Hartford, Conn., in 1973, he went out too hard, drank too much water and struggled from not knowing the course, forcing him to drop out at the 21-mile mark. But two years later—40 years ago this spring—Rodgers went on to win the race in a new American record of 2:09:55. In doing so, he became just the fifth runner in history to break 2:10.
“That race allowed me to expand my horizons,” the 67-year-old Rodgers now recalls. “The running world opened up for me after it. I got invited to other marathons around the world and landed a shoe deal. The world started shifting gears thanks to that race.”
In the race itself, 40 years ago, Rodgers pretty much dominated from the starting gun in Hopkinton. Wearing a homemade Greater Boston Track Club race shirt with a number 14 pinned to it, the Wesleyan University graduate benefited from the trademark Boston tailwind that can occasionally influence the race. His winning time ended up shaving 30 seconds off the course record set by Ron Hill back in 1970.
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The ironic thing about Rodgers’ incredible performance in 1975 is that even happened in the first place. After his DNF at Boston two years earlier—which ended up being his first career marathon—Rodgers decided to quit.
“I couldn’t run for three months,” he recalls. “It was a hot day in 1973. There were no pacers back then.”
Rodgers made the ultimate Boston Marathon rookie mistake by barreling down the hills that come in the race’s opening miles. After the race, he decided that the extremes of the New England climate were not ideal for serious marathon training, and he and his wife at the time picked up stakes and moved to California.
“I ended up having no contacts out there and had no support,” he recalls of his California experiment, “and decided it wasn’t working out so I returned to New England—back to my roots. In the end it was the right decision, but at the time I had considered myself a marathon failure.”
But Rodgers didn’t give up on his dreams. He told himself during those difficult early years that he always liked to run. “It was something I could fall back on in terms of my life,” he says. “I had struggled with jobs and my careers, but running was always something that lifted me up.”
He says that he felt confident going into the start of that historic 1975 race. Rodgers had just placed third at the World Cross Country Championships a month before in Morocco, defeating the likes of Frank Shorter and Emil Puttermans.
“I had beat a lot of good runners at the cross-country championships. I was third in the world, and so I knew when I was on the line at Boston, I was riding that wave. I didn’t know if I could win, but I felt like I could race.”
Once the race kicked off Rodgers said that Boston Athletic Association’s Jock Semple was in the lead vehicle yelling back to him that he was on course-record-breaking pace. But Rodgers says he wasn’t going for time; he wanted to win the race.
“When I saw the tape and broke it and realized my time, I couldn’t believe that I had actually run 2:09,” he admits. “It was fun. I couldn’t believe that I had did it.”
From 1975 to 1980, Rodgers was the world’s most dominant marathoner, with three more Boston wins and four straight New York City Marathon victories, as well as wins in Japan, Canada and the Netherlands.
Rodgers believes the magic came together for him in Boston on that day 40 years ago thanks in part to the great teammates he trained with the Greater Boston Track Club like Bob Hodge, Greg Meyer and Alberto Salazar, who was just a teenager at the time.
“As a team, we all improved,” he recalls. “I just climbed the ladder with them.”
But Rodgers also attributes his success that day in 1975 to training on the course. “I lived in Jamaica Plain. The Greater Boston Track Club met there for workouts, so I could go right out onto the course all the time. I felt that I had an edge thanks to being in Boston. It definitely helped me to live right there.”
Thinking back on that day now, Rodgers chuckles. “It was a breakthrough race for me for sure,” he says. “But it was my third marathon. I can tell you that Boston Marathon takes practice. That course is the hardest marathon on my legs that I’ve ever run. You have to know the course to succeed there.”
Forty years since, Rodgers says he’s still a runner. “I try to race, but can’t do it as much. I’m getting older and getting tired more. But I keep going. I think as you age, it [running] shifts for you. You start thinking about your health a lot more. You are content with 6 miles, not a marathon. But I love to be at the marathons and cheer for the runners. I like to see them at the finish, because for me, running is the epitome of the human experience—overcoming that physical and mental struggle. I love to see people do that.”