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26 more miles for Boston Billy

A runner forever, Rodgers returns to the event where he became a legend

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By John Powers
Globe Staff / April 15, 2009
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Bill Rodgers is standing inside his Quincy Market running store, where the walls are covered with reminders of his glory days. Sports Illustrated covers, framed photos of him breaking the tape, newspaper clippings.

"I'm part of the back of the pack now," says the 61-year-old Rodgers, who won the Boston Marathon four times in six years. "I'm not where I was. I'm a different guy."

Yet the man who helped popularize road racing in America still has the urge to go the distance. Thirty years after he established an American record here and 10 since he last set out to run 26 miles, Rodgers will take the line in Hopkinton Monday morning wearing bib number 79 in his 60th attempt at a marathon and his 17th here.

Boston Billy is back.

"I'm not racing it, I'm running it," says Rodgers, who dropped out at Heartbreak Hill in 1999 in his last appearance at the world's most fabled race and hopes to break four hours this time. "I haven't been a marathoner for 10 years. I've been a half-marathoner."

Rodgers wanted to make his reentry last year to mark his 60th birthday, but had to opt out after having surgery in mid-January to remove his cancerous prostate gland. As soon as he could, he returned to the blacktop, and he plans on lacing up for as long as he can.

"I want to run," says Rodgers, who reckons that he has logged around 1,000 races in a career that spans three dozen years. "I've been a runner since I was a kid. I would never give up running if I had anything to do about it."

His place in history long ago was in scribed on the pavement. Rodgers was enshrined in the national halls of fame for both track and field and distance running more than a decade ago. He was named the world's top marathoner three times by Track & Field News, the sport's bible. He competed in the Olympics. Besides his four victories here, he also prevailed four straight times in New York.

In his 59 marathons, Rodgers won a remarkable 22 times, winning at least one a year between 1973 and 1983, five of them in 1977. He ran faster than 2 hours 15 minutes 28 times.

Rodgers was in the forefront of the American renaissance in marathoning during the '70s, a slender, amiable, and slightly drifty figure who personified the running boom. He was an obscure 27-year-old Boston College graduate student when he won here for the first time in 1975, sporting a headband, painter's gloves, and a T-shirt with "Boston GBTC" scrawled on the front.

Yet Rodgers ran away from the field by two minutes and set an American record (2 hours, 9 minutes, 55 seconds) despite stopping five times to rehydrate and relace.

"This is absurd," he declared after learning his time. "I can't run that fast. This is ridiculous."

Had he won the race now, Rodgers would have collected $175,000 in prize and bonus money and would have been a top contender to win the World Marathon Majors title, which awards $500,000 to the year's top global racer. What he earned for his record run that day were a medal, a laurel wreath, a bowl of canned beef stew, and invitations to more races.

"It's a totally different world," says Rodgers, whose only payout in Boston ($12,500) came when he finished fourth in 1986, the first year that prize money was offered. "I was on the edge of amateur and professional. It's a tough era now. The Kenyans, Ethiopians, Moroccans . . . whew!"

No US male has won in Boston since Greg Meyer in 1983. When Rodgers was in his prime, the Americans were at the top of their game, with the likes of Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorter, Don Kardong, Tom Fleming, and Alberto Salazar.

"We had scads of 2:08-2:12 guys," recalls Rodgers. "That was the peak of the sport of marathoning here as far as depth."

For three magical years, Rodgers was a step ahead of all of them. In 1978, he won 27 of his 30 races. In 1979, he pulled off the Boston-New York double for the second time. Had the United States not boycotted the 1980 Olympics, he might well have won in Moscow.

"I just wanted a shot to be in there," he says.

Rodgers remained a world-class marathoner for a half-dozen more years, until just before the Africans arrived en masse and turned Boston into an intramural invitational.

"It's truly night and day, the difference," he says. "For athletes like Ryan Hall and Kara Goucher to compete against the top Kenyans and Ethiopians, the challenge is almost overwhelming."

Marathon purists would have loved to see a duel between the Rodgers of 1979 and Kenya's Robert Cheruiyot, the soft-spoken but hard-running defending champion who will be chasing his fifth title here.

"Consistency over years is the ultimate mark of a champion marathoner," says Rodgers. "If Robert can win a fifth, I'm going to take my hat off to him, for sure. But I already do."

When Cheruiyot takes the line alongside the 26-year-old Hall, this generation's top US marathoner, Rodgers will be starting in the middle of the pack with a few friends and modest expectations.

"I just want to finish it," he says. "I suspect I'll be doing some walking along the way, which is OK. I want to get to the line and not have to be picked up. If I run carefully, I'll do it."

Rodgers didn't run carefully enough during his 1999 outing, which he calls the "Big DNF" (i.e. Did Not Finish), when he was chasing a trio of age-group records and hoping to beat John Campbell, his New Zealand masters rival.

"A lot of times our emotions rule us," he says. "It was 70 degrees at the start and I ignored that. I wasn't taking my drinks, and I was starting to feel it by Wellesley. I was thinking: This is bad."

By the time he reached the Newton hills, Rodgers was cooked, dehydrated and dizzy, and decided to call it a day.

"It's at least a bit of honor that you were able to get to Heartbreak," he said.

If he'd known that Campbell also dropped out, Rodgers says, he would have kept going.

Even now, the competitive fire burns. Three weeks after his surgery last year, Rodgers ran in a race in Tampa and paid the price.

"The incision hadn't healed internally yet," he says.

By the end of the month, though, he was back running a 7-mile relay leg in the Hyannis Marathon. A racer has to race.

"If you have cancer, you have to do something about it," says Rodgers, who likely will wear an "Athletes for a Cure" singlet next week. "You have to attack it. Otherwise you feel kind of powerless, like a sitting duck."

Rodgers may not be nearly as fleet afoot as he once was, but he's still taking the line two dozen times a year at various distances. Even the immortal Johnny Kelley, who ran Boston 61 times, never wore out as much shoe leather.

"I've run so many miles," says America's king of the road. "But I love it. I love going to the races."

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

'I suspect I'll be doing some walking along the way, which is OK,' says four-time Boston champion Bill Rodgers, 61.

MARATHON MAN