This year’s Boston Marathon marked the fortieth anniversary of Bill Rodgers’ first victory in 1975. Distance running was much different then and the sport was still finding its feet. The American public may have taken notice of distance running every four years when the Olympics rolled around, but the International Olympic Committee’s insistence on amateurism for all athletes made it difficult for U.S. runners to make a living at the sport, even as they made it their profession. What did it mean to be a true amateur? Rodgers won Boston wearing a t-shirt he had rescued from the trash. He had to use magic marker to write the initials of the Greater Boston Track Club on it.
With his Boston Marathon win in 1975, Rodgers took a step towards becoming a central figure in the sport who would go on to fundamentally change running’s position and perception in American culture. His authenticity and regular-guy persona added fuel to the fire of the “running boom” that Frank Shorter’s 1972 Olympic marathon victory helped launch. Rodgers’ subsequent Boston victories in 1978, 1979, and 1980, his dominance of the New York City Marathon between 1976 and 1979, and his ubiquity on the U.S. road racing circuit introduced several generations to the sport. His ability to earn a livelihood through his running stores, appearance fees, and sponsorships provided the template for how to be a professional runner. His popularity and insistence on making a living through sport also helped change the amateur rules that previously had strangled the commercial development of running. It’s not too much to say that runners now live in a world made by Bill Rodgers.
I suspect that he might not care for all that this insight implies. He can surely be proud of his part in popularizing the sport. Distance running has now progressed through two “booms” and is currently wildly popular. Running USA reported that more people –– 541,000 –– finished marathons in 2013 (the last reported year) than in any previous year and that over the last decade there has been a 40% increase in marathon finishers. (http://www.runningusa.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=news.details&ArticleId=332&returnTo=annual-reports) Let us recognize, moreover, that many previously sedentary people now share in the joys of running and fitness. Competition among running shoe companies to win consumers over through new technologies and space-age materials have helped more people enter and progress in the sport. Growth is good.
Growth, innovation, and popularization, however, bring complications. It is now increasingly difficult to even score an entry into some of the more popular marathons. The commercialization and growth of the sport makes some look back in fondness to the days when races were measured haphazardly and water and orange slices were the only post race refreshments (if you were lucky).
Runners’ concerns over getting the proper shoes, the right clothes, pursuing the ideal training programs, and eating the right foods has introduced new anxieties and have led to the mistaken idea that there’s only one way to have an ideal running experience, gain fitness, and remain in the sport.
Luckily, there are extensive communities and resources out there to help runners of all experience and skill levels. It important to remember, however, that one of the appeals of running is its simplicity. Almost anyone can do it and it doesn’t take a lot of equipment to start. It is also a uniquely personal experience. You set your own goals, whether it is running successfully around the block, training for your first 5K, running a marathon under three hours, or running everyday (or ok, most days) for a year. Runners usually establish some goals they want to accomplish and then look to sources of expertise and the support of a running community to help them reach those goals.
This brings us back to Bill Rodgers and the Boston Marathon in several ways. He used his hard-won success to build a career, but it was a career that supported and expanded his sport. This included establishing three running stores in the Boston area that served as running community hubs by supplying runners with shoes, advice, and camaraderie. Rodgers’ recognized that new and experienced runners alike could use some company as we achieved our own individual goals. He also reminded us (and continues to remind us) about the essential realities of running.
I was struck when reading over Bill Rodgers’ training log for April 1975, how matter-of-factly he recorded his first Boston Marathon win: “Won 79th BAA Marathon in 2:09:55 new PR for that distance. Total miles run today 26.” (http://www.bunnhill.com/bobhodge/rodgers/traininglogs/br75traininglog.htm) There was no mention that it was a new American record, and one could have easily overlooked the entry as just another training run.
This got me thinking that runners like Bill Rodgers are, at their core, in love with running itself –– the actual physical process of propelling themselves over road, track, or trail. Rodgers had this to say about why he got seriously involved with running: “The primary reason was that I enjoyed it, physically and psychologically. The feeling of moving along the way I did when I ran was something I enjoyed.” (Rodgers, Marathoning, page 21) I suspect that this might be a common refrain among veteran runners, both professional and amateur.
It probably also explains why some runners just keep going: Joan Benoit-Samuelson, for instance, ran a 2:54 at this year’s Boston Marathon at the age of 57 and Bill Rodgers continues to travel and run in road races around the country. Seeing the joy that the 2014 Boston winner Meb Keflezighi takes in his running, I would predict that he will be another professional that just keeps on running.
The race victories and the accolades are fleeting, but the joy in movement is forever. Maybe this is what Boston is really about at its very core. Despite some changes in running’s culture as the sport has become more commercialized, professionalized, and more popular over the years –– not bad things in and of themselves –– the essential joy of running is demonstrated and reconfirmed at a global level on an annual basis as runners gather in Boston to celebrate moving forward under their own power.
Perhaps Boston’s main lesson, then, is to run with joy. Don’t overcomplicate things. Don’t, for example, get consumed by hitting a specific pace in every run and don’t obsess about your mileage. Rest if you are injured. If you feel really good during a shorter run, don’t be afraid to do more. As Rodgers explained in his first autobiography, Marathoning, published in 1980, “Running is a very natural activity. If you get too caught up, you find yourself constantly seeking to make running something that it isn’t. You should let it be what it is. A very simple activity.” (Rodgers, page 46)I have one very simple way to apply Rodgers’ insight about running’s simplicity and the larger lesson to run with joy: just run. What do I mean by this? When you are feeling like running is becoming a chore or when you start to feel anxious about doing workouts, just go for an untimed, unmeasured, uncomplicated run. Take off your watch, don’t consult any GPS device, and run completely by feel. Let your body decide how fast to go and don’t think too much about where you are going. Don’t assess, don’t measure, just allow yourself to reconnect with one of those basic reasons that we run: for the joy of it.