Is Bill Rodgers getting lazy? In 1977, he put in 131 miles a week, but in 1978 he was down to 125 miles a week.
No one who runs against Rodgers in races, or with him in training runs, dares to think that the king of the road is either dogging it or is committed to anything but a royal effort to stay in peak condition. "I have been cutting back," Rodgers acknowledged the other day, "but just a little. I'm concerntrating on speed work, which gives you a sharper edge for races."
As rodgers prepares for this Sunday's 10-mile Perrier Cherry Blossom race, which he uses as a warmup for his defense of the Boston Marathon 15 days later, it is hard to imagine how any more sharpness can possibly be honed. In 1978, he won 27 out of 30 road races. He took Boston with a 2:10:13, winning by two seconds against what was the strongest field - judged by the finishing times - ever to run a marathon anywhere.
He won last year's Cherry Blossom in a record 48:55, a victory that came the day after another record-setting win (at 15,000 meters) in Jacksonville. Six months and 16 firsts later, he took the New York marathon for the third time.
By December, unsurprisingly, he was bushed. Trying for the triple crown, he ran sixth in the Fukuoda marathon in Japan. Rodgers had won five straight marathons before Toshihio Seko and two of his countrymen swept the first three spots at Fukuoka. After his defeat, Rodgers said glumly that he was exhausted and would restore a bit of sense to his life by easing up on his racing schedule.
At this happy point in his career, Rodgers find himself peaking exactly when the running movement itself is at astounding heights. Next month's Boston marathon has so many entrants - 7,000 officially and possibly 3,000 more will crash - that it may be 20 minutes before the pack at the Hopkinton town square passes over the starting line.
Rodgers has helped create the boom and the boom is helping him. He and wife Ellen, along with his brother, Charley, operate two running centers in Boston. A clothing line is being marketed, also. He earns a few shamateur dollars from appearences at races around the country, and Perrier foots his expenses when he runs in three or four of their 14 races. He is far from being the subsidized running bum.
Because of the AAU amateur code, and because of the top amateur runners have yet to organize into a lobbying bloc, willing to take on the AAU by demanding prize money in races, Rodgers is perhaps the country's lowest-paid highest-quality athlete.
It bothers him a bit and he grumbles about the AAU. But mostly he keeps his head clear of outside turmoil for the purpose of being the nation's authentic frontrunner.
Rodgers, an ex-smoker who weighs 128 pounds, is an approachable and candid citizen who was a conscientious objector in 1970. "Vietnam was a war that I felt was instigated by the United States, and no way was I going to contribute or help the U.S." he stated. "The best way to stop a war is don't show up."
He was a late bloomer in distance running.He ran his first Boston marathon at 25 but quit because of a cramp. In college at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., he had the distinction of rooming with Amby Burfoot, who won boston in his senior year. The two are still close friends.
In the running community, Rodgers appears to get along well with everyone. He is doing for running what Arnold Palmer did for golf: giving the public a focus and luring it into the joys of participation.
Rodgers has a low-key rivalry with Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon winner. Rodgers says that Shorter won't win at Boston this year: "He tried for a real quick comeback after his operation last year, but I don't think he's ready yet."
Speaking about Rodgers, Shorter told The Washington Post recently: "I've always found I'm much better off if I concentrate more on what I'm doing than what he's doing . . .
"Obviously I want to win in Moscow just as much as he does. But it's the way you have to structure your own mental equilibrium. I think that's where Bill may be in trouble . . . All of a sudden you get in (the race) and you don't feel as perfect as you thought you were going to. And you say to yourself, dammit, I've got to win. So I have to prepare myself for the bad day as well as the good day. You know the good day will take care of itself. I'm ready for the bad one."
More than most top rummers, Rodgers is competitor-conscious. He is aware that only about a dozen people in the field at Boston or New York are capable of staying with him to the halfway mark, and only two or three can keep up after that. "I know what most of the other runners can do," Rodgers says. "I know when I have to make a move in the middle of the race, and I generally do, because I'm not a big kicker at the end. I like to be able to come in without intense pressure."
because he isn't much of a kicker - mostly he doesn't have to be - Rodgers won Boston last year by only a few yards from the onrushing Jeff Wells who had the fastest second half ever at Boston: 1:04:22. This challenge to Rodgers was astounding for another reason: Rodgers ran the hills between 15 and 20 miles in 29:45, which was 21 seconds swifter than the record set in 1965.
As he matures as an athlete, he is developing a critical sense about the sport and a few of its trends.
He speaks with mild irritation, for example, of Fred Lebow, the frenetic race director of the New York marathon. "Fred doesn't know a lot about running, " said Rodgers. "He seems to be taken up with power. In fact, a lot of the people in the New York Road Runners Club appear to part of a bizarre organization. It's dropped a little in my eyes."
Rodgers' disenchantment with Lebow and the New Yorkers is due partly to his friendship with Bob Hall, the wheelchair marathoner who works in one of Rodgers' stores. Last year, Rodgers went before the New York State Human Rights Commission to argue that wheelchair athletes should be allowed to compete on an equal basis with able runners in the New York marathon. Lebow and his club had taken the opposite view. A final decision is pending.
The other sore point with Rodgers is the money-hungry race sponsor who "is a whole new breed suddenly out there. Runners are being taken advantage of. Twice now, race directors have gone to the press with unfounded stories that I tried to shake them down for big money to run in their event. It wasn't true in either case."
More of these squabbles are inevitable for Rodgers. He is a commercial property now, as hot as a ticket off the road as he is on.
For the moment, Rodgers is thinking about the heat that might hit Boston on Patriot's Day two Mondays from now. In 1976, the thermometer reached almost 100 degrees, the hottest Boston in 67 years. Although Rodgers frets about his inability to run well when it's past 70 degrees, he may have a little more than a mild case of worries.
Last August, Rodgers ran against a world-class field on a scorching day in a 7.1-mile road race in Falmouth, Mass. He blazed the first two miles in 8:49 and the third in 4:31. By five miles, only Alberto Salazar, the 1978 NCAA cross-country champion, was with him. Rodgers turned it on, and finished with a course-record 32:21
The sun burned with such fever that Salazar, 59 seconds behind at the finish, had to be hauled off to the hospital with heatstroke. They gave him IVs and he recovered.
Since then, Rodgers is the only runner in America who says he can't run in the heat. And nobody believes him.