Everybody's favorite marathon man was busy autographing books, photos and crumpled entry numbers, more than an hour after crossing the finish line. Judging from the crowd, ringed three deep around him, one would never know Bill Rodgers had just lost his bid to win a fifth straight Cherry Blossom 10-mile run.

"It's funny. It seems I can win a race four times, but never five," he said. "I've won four Boston Marathons, four in New York City. Just can't get a fifth."

Rodgers, whose 49:36 as runner-up was seven seconds slower than winner Terry Baker's time, cited the persistent, chilly wind.

"This was the toughest wind I've ever raced in," Rodgers said. "When I heard the weather report on the radio last night, predicting wind, I figured maybe 15 miles an hour. I certainly didn't expect 40-mile-an-hour gusts.

"The worst part was, you had to come in and out of it three times. I felt like a Ping-Pong ball."

He said he usually treats the Cherry Blossom as his annual last tuneup for the Boston Marathon. "When you run in Boston, you really need a fast time going in," he said. "If you took the wind away here today, this might be the equivalent of a fast time. I really wanted a fast time."

He really craved that fifth title, too. In an almost apologetic tone, Rodgers repeated, "I'm discouraged. I wanted this one today so badly! But what a weird race. You just can't tell with conditions like this."

Rodgers is just coming back after recovering from tendinitis in his right Achilles' heel. "I had it for most of December, January and February," he said. "Originally I thought I might not run in Boston because of it."

Now, of course, he is pointing for the April 19 race. To prepare, Rodgers has increased his weekly training. "I'm trying to build back up to between 120, 130 miles (a week). There are a lot of people going into it (the race) with an awful lot of miles," he said.

For yesterday's race, Rodgers' only special preparation was to "cut back a bit (to seven miles) on Saturday, and try to get some rest." He had been in Korea the previous week, where he "trained in, but didn't race in" a marathon.

"This race is always competitive," he said of the Cherry Blossom, "but today, with all the people jockeying, using each other to break the wind, you couldn't move forward. It was packed all the way."

Throughout the race, Rodgers was among the three or four front-runners. Heading into the final three miles, he tucked back a bit, allowing Baker to serve as a buffer.

"If you stay behind other people running into the wind, you can save about 7 percent energy," he said. "But, at that point, I kept trying to break away, and just couldn't move forward.

"I used to think I was so good against the wind," said Rodgers, sighing. "But maybe that's just an excuse, huh? I'll have to analyze this race later. Maybe I didn't rest enough."

Obviously frustrated, Rodgers nonetheless patiently signed his name and answered questions while the rest of the runners straggled in ("I saw you eating pizza before a race," accused one woman. "Actually, I like macaroni and cheese a lot," Rodgers replied.)

The attention doesn't disturb him in the least.

"It especially doesn't bother me when I win," he said, grinning. But even after this loss, Rodgers shrugged and turned philosophical.

"Road racing's just like the rest of life," he said. "You've got to be prepared for whatever conditions are out there."