Saturday, September 15, 2012

My Six Degrees of Boston Billy

"I want to run until I can't run" - Bill Rodgers

Man, you talk about my Six degrees of Separation importance level taking a giant leap. Last night, I had the big thrill, for me, of having dinner with Bill Rodgers, the 2-time former American marathon record holder and 4-time winner of both the Boston and New York Marathons in the late 70's. As a matter of interesting fact, he is still the LAST American born winner of the New York Marathon in 1979! Bill (I can now call him Bill because after one dinner, he is my personal friend) has always been a special icon of mine in that we were both born in 1947, and he was rising into running prominence just when I was beginning to become a serious (in terms of consistency) runner back in '78. I followed his running exploits and actually got to meet him back in the late '70's when he came to Birmingham to run the still popular Vulcan 10k four times, winning each year. I remember how kind he appeared to be to take the time to answer all the questions of the runners that were surrounding him. It's still is clear to me how he congratulated a runner who said he was going to run the next day's Vulcan Marathon in about 4:30 - Bill saying "My hat's off to anybody who can run THAT long".

Bill continued to run, and I followed him through the pathetic coverage of the newspapers, magazines and (thank goodness) the early Internet. He won 22 of the 59 marathons he entered (most of them against the stiffest competition the world had at that time) and most of those were at or under 2:15. As the marathon wins began to lessen, he continued to enter and win shorter races. I remember he suffered a fractured leg that took him a while to get over and I don't think he ever got that Boston Billy stride back, but his most serious health setback came in late 2007 when he was diagnosed with Prostate cancer. His prostate gland was removed in early 2008 and a month later he was back running for the sheer enjoyment he felt when running. And that's what brought us together last night.

Two things...first, we have a great local running store here in Birmingham called The Trak Shak. Been operating since 1995 and now has 3 locations. Valerie McLean is the owner and Val was in my first TNT group that I trained to go to the Marine Corps Marathon way back when - I remember being at her house shortly before we left for DC that year and her asking me about her idea to open a Running Shoe Store. I still kid her that I probably told her that was the stupidest idea I ever heard. Anyway, me & Val have been great friends since and despite my early misgivings, the Birmingham running community owes everything it is to the Trak Shak. They sponsor many local races and a couple of years ago, she started started the Talladega 21000 Meter Race benefiting Prostate Cancer. It's a Half Marathon (and 5k) with part of it being run on the Talladega NASCAR Track. Pretty cool! So, this year, Val pulls off the coup of inviting Bill Rodgers down, seeing his connection to Prostate Cancer. He accepts and tomorrow he will line up with thousands to do the HM (a self-admitted challenge).

In addition to all the usual things that surround a runner like Bill attending your race (media appearances, meet & greets, book/poster/shirt/etc signings), Val thought it would be a good idea if she just arranged a few of the "old" gang to have dinner with him. I was thrilled to know I filled the "old" criteria, and so, me, Val, and four other long-time Birmingham runners joined Bill at an Italian restaurant in Mountain Brook and had the most pleasant evening. I managed to plant myself right next to Bill, and although I shouldn't be surprised, Bill just fit in like one of the old guys instead of the runner of honor. We told as many stories as he did, and he was as interested in our (much exaggerated) stories as we were of his. Of course, our stories were of running in B'ham, Atlanta, and the occasional distant race, while his were of Stockholm, Tokyo, and Melbourne. All of us had done Boston numerous times and tale after tale knitted us together on the streets Hopkinton to Boston. Bill actually ran Boston in 2009 (after a 13 year hiatus) and ran with the masses, finishing in a "proud 4:06".

After dinner, we broke up, but I had the knock-out kick of getting to drive him back to his hotel. I mean, it was just me and my early-running idol for the drive and a very special time sitting in front of his hotel, literally shooting some running related breeze. He asked me more questions about MY running than I would ever ask him. And he seemed genuinely interested! He told me he has a long-range goal of running Boston again in 2018 when he's 70 years old. I didn't ask him if he has to qualify! I guess it amazes everyone how most of these "untouchables" are just like the rest of us. They do incredible things, but they enjoy just yukking it up with friends, new or old. That's who they are.

And so, my brush with Boston Billy comes to an end - won't be doing the race tomorrow - and it's one evening I'll remember for a long time. He asked me to stop by his store next time I'm in Boston (I go every 2 months). I may just do that...after all, that's what you do when you travel...visit old friends!! In the meantime, here in Birmingham, I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"


Karla said...

Great story! Thanks for sharing! I had a similar experience with Jeff Galloway. I found myself sitting next to him at a running dinner in Atlanta. He was so charming and kind. Nice to know Boston Billy is too!

Jake Rome said...

Fun stuff!