-written the day before the marathon, updated at the end-
In 1975 Bill Rodgers won the Boston Marathon in 2:09:55 marking both a course and American record and starting the running craze that swept the country including the Okemos, Michigan where I grew up. Around that time I started running with my Dad, at first little loops around the neighborhood and then a few 10k races.
Like all elementary school students I was assigned a biography and of course I chose Bill Rodgers. He was a hero to the entire running craze of the 1970s. I made a marionette (pictured, left) of Boston Billy and as part of the presentation I walked him in a small circle around the front of the classroom to a recording of the Beach Boys hit single “I Get Around.” I have a vague memory of thinking that the song was much longer than it needed to be.
Running was important for several years and then I got to high school and distance running had much less distance and the coach was a jerk. I stopped running and didn’t think about it for many years.
About five years ago I picked up running again, at first to beat back a bad cholesterol result and then because I enjoyed it. It was exciting to get in shape and see occasional race times get better. I got a subscription to Runner’s World (Thanks Pam!) and started to feel like I was that: a runner.
One day Runner’s World arrived and inside there was a big article about Bill Rodgers. Suzie showed me the picture and asked me if I knew him and I replied, “That’s Bill Rogers, he ran the 1975 Boston Marathon in 2:09:55.” She looked at me puzzled. How did I know that? I can’t even remember where I put my keys.
This was the Runner’s World tribute to the mystical Boston Marathon and I read every word. How to train for it, how to qualify, how to run it’s rolling hills and of course the big article on Boston Billy. He is a delightfully goofy ambassador for running. As the Beach Boys might say, “he’s a real cool head, he’s making real good bread.”
For example: in his 1975 Boston win Bill stopped five times, four times for water and once to tie his shoes. Also this: after a big race he would dip a fork into a jar of peanut butter and then swoop it in some bacon bits for a post-race recharge. “The only man who has ever run 150 miles a week and still had high cholesterol,” said one of his friends.
The magazine went in the recycling bin and I didn’t think about it much after that. Then a year later I met a Greg Albrecht, a running and triathlete coach. We were having coffee and discussing possibly working together. Rather suddenly he asked me, “what is your goal?” Which was a great question because though I was a runner, at that point I’d never really had a goal. But to my surprise, I blurted out, “I want to run the Boston Marathon.”
Which at the time sounded as absurd as saying, “I want to be a United States Senator.” I had never run more than 13 miles. Making a puppet of Bill Rogers when you are a little kid is sweet and all but the Boston Qualifying process is not an essay contest. To get to Boston you have to qualify by running another marathon under a set time. And due to the growing interest by people just like me and a fixed number of entrants, the standards were getting tougher and tougher.
“OK,” my soon-to-be-coach said, “You are on. We’ll get you to Boston.”
And so we did: On Monday I’m going to run the Boston Marathon. I’m going to join 25,000 other runners for the start in Hopkinton; I’m going to speed past the screaming co-eds at Wellsley; I hope to climb heartbreak hill at mile 20; and if things go well I’ll cross the finish line just like Boston Billy did in 1975. I won’t be crossing in 2:09:55 but I aim to finish the distance and get the medal and soak in the giant happening that is Boston.
You can follow along with text messages at some of the key milestones by texting the word “RUNNER” to 345678. It will ask you for my race number which is 9601. If you are on the course I’ll be the guy in the Twins hat with the giant grin on my face.
UPDATE: as everyone knows by now the marathon was marred by a horrible bombing that killed three spectators and injured nearly 200 others. It was a horrifying conclusion to a nearly perfect weekend. As it relates to this essay, I got to meet Bill Rodgers who was amazingly gracious (as was the rest of Boston). Suzie and I had a wonderful time until we heard the explosions from our hotel room, just half an hour after I finished. I wrote a piece for the Star Tribune that reflects on the kindness the city of Boston and our experience at the marathon. For the record I include a picture of me and Boston Billy (note I’m holding my phone with a picture of the puppet–he was delighted to learn about it); and Suzie and I smiling at the finish line the day before the race. We keep the victims in our thoughts and prayers and are both grateful for being safe and proud to participate in what was an amazing event.