Among the hundreds of runners and joggers around the Mall last Sunday afternoon, the least likely to be among them was Bill Rodgers. Only a few hours before, he had won the Cherry Blossom 10 mile race in record time. Now he was out for another 10 times, loping along the running paths of Washington in the leisure of a 7 minutes-a-mile pace. He rests by running.
Rodgers had invited me to run with him. Remembering Aquinas, who believed that unexpected pleasures can be the deepest, I set what may have been an AAU record in jumping at the chance. I had already spent an enjoyable two hours of conversation with him, discussing his training for the Boston marathon next week, his philosophy of athletics and his current concerns about earning a living while finding time to run 140 miles a week. During lunch, I found Rodgers to be an engaging man, able to put his thoughts into a shape that is filled with distinctions and subtleties. Indeed, something of Rodgers' generous and easygoing nature was revealed in the ease by which he invited me, a runner not ranked as the best marathoner in the world. Can anyone image Chris Evert, Jack Nicklaus or Reggie Jackson willing to share with one of the ruck?
Running with Rodgers is to sense the effortlessness of his stride. His footfall is light, almost fluffy in its airy grace. His legs are centrifugal, moving out from the center of the force in his hips. It is the mechanical ideal for distance running. With none of the parts of the body working against each other, it is frictionless motion. At 20 miles, the body functions as it did at one mile. THe animation in Rodgers' style is in the movement of his hands and elbows. His right arm loosely loops into his chest in flouncy rhythms, while his left swings in time with his gait in soft thrusts and pumps. It is as though his arms, if they insist on coming along for the ride, might as well have a lively time of it.
Rodgers is a conversational runner. He talks, listens, mulls a bit and comes back again with another thought. As with nearly all runners, he talks of his injuries, th times that suddenly he "lost it," and how precarious it is to stay in top form.
Earlier in the day, I asked Rodgers about his training methods. "I've always been very careful about it," he said. "I almost have a preoccupation. I try to keep my mileage at a certain level. I never take too much of a break in my running, I never take too much of a rest . . . Certain sports are more intense than others.They have a more year-round swing to them, and I think running is one of these. If you really love the sport and you want to be good at it, you have to be that way."
Among world-class runners, Rodgers is known as a strategist. Unlike the Japanese marathoners who run on the kamikaze theory - run wildly and madly until the body crashes and then hope the gods will carry your corpse in to the finish - Rodgers is a judger of the field. "The smartest way to run a marathon is not to take the lead, but hang back a little bit and watch, keep your eyes open and watch the other runners. There's no doubt about it. At times, it's smart to make a crazy move.I did it at Fukuoka (Japan) this year. It was an emotional thing. Every race I often do that. I suddenly get carried away and I suddenly feel good for an instant and I go aaah! And I go zooming ahead. Some races you can keep going, sometimes you have to be careful."
Rodgers had done a bit of zooming that morning in the Cherry Blossom. But it wasn't as loose-screw a dash as he makes out. In fact, it was an intelligent assessment of the situation he found himself in. At six miles, he had one competitor still with him. The crowd was calling out his name, but he was unknown to Rodgers."I was going to ask somebody who he was, but I didn't want to give any indication that I'm worried about him." Coming around the turn at Hains Point, Rodgers knew the wind would now be coming at the field. He spurted with "a really sharp quick move and got about three, four or five yards on him." That was the race. Rodgers' competitor now had two forces to fight: the zooming-ahead front-runner and the wind. he was to be beaten by both.
If Rodgers has a weakness, it is in his lack of confidence about hotweather running. He likes to train and race in cool weather, and let the sun bake the top of the clouds, not him. "Psychologically, I don't like the heat and physiologically it's also much - it allows a long shot to come in."
Rodgers knows something about long shots. He was one himself when he won at Boston in 1975, in the fastest time ever run by an American. Rodgers accomplisments have come comparatively late in his athletic life. He is peaking at age 30. But for those around him, whether the million people who line the routes at marathons like New York and Boston or the tortoises he invites along for Sunday afternoon excursions, 30 is a fine time to be coming of age. It means, for one thing, a maturity of personality and, for another, that one has been around enough to know that being a champion and a gentleman are compatible.