William Henry Rodgers is the only marathon runner in history to hold the three most important titles at the same time.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut two days before Christmas in 1947, his family moved to nearby Newington when young Bill was a boy. He and his brother, Charlie, were active and rambunctious, often riding their bikes around town and finding trouble. Rogers attended Newington High School, where he was a mediocre hockey and baseball player. Newton High fielded it’s first-ever cross country team in the fall of 1963 and Rogers—then a sophomore—decided to join, quickly discovering that he was the fastest miler in the school. Running became a source of pride for Rodgers, who suffered with A.D.D., and he worked diligently under the direction coach Frank O’Rourke to improve his fitness level and running form. The work paid off, as Rodgers lowered his time in the mile to 4:28:8, won the state cross country title and finished sixth in the New England Championships. Rodgers enrolled at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut in the autumn of 1966 and ran cross country for the Cardinal. He roomed with Amby Burfoot– a dedicated athlete who trained rigorously–and the two became training partners. Burfoot won the 1968 Boston Marathon and went on to become editor-in-chief of Runner’s World magazine. Rodgers credits Burfoot with helping him to “learn to love long distance running.” Rodgers graduated from Wesleyan with a sociology degree in 1970 and enrolled at Boston College to study special education. In 1973, legendary track coach Bill Squires formed the Greater Boston Track Club at Boston College for the purpose of training a small group of elite athletes, and Bill Rodgers was one of them. He competed in his first-ever marathon in April of 1973 at Boston, but quit at “Heartbreak Hill”, the toughest stretch of the course that comes at the 20 mile mark. Rodgers quit running for three months after Boston, saying he “hated the sport”, only to return in October to win the Bay State Marathon in 2:28.
Rodgers returned to Boston in April of 1974 and finished 14th. On October 29, he finished fifth in the New York City Marathon and, one month later, won the Philadelphia Marathon in just his fifth race at that distance. In 1975, Rodgers won the Boston Marathon in 2:09:55, a new American record. He won twice more that year and finished second to Frank Shorter at the Olympic Trials. A foot injury hampered his training entering the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal and Rodgers finished in 40th place in the Olympic Marathon, which he considered the biggest disappointment of his career. He returned to win three marathons in 1976, including New York City and won five more in 1977, where he defended his NYC title and, in December, won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon in Japan. The “King of the Roads” opened the 1978 season with a win at Boston and another at New York to become the first marathoner in history to hold the three most important titles—Fukuoka, Boston, New York—at the same time. Rodgers won 27 of the 30 races he entered that year, including the Pepsi 10K nationals in world record time. He continued his torrid pace by setting a new American record at Boston in 1979, “three-peating” in NYC and winning the Boston Marathon a fourth time in 1980. “Boston Billy” qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, but did not compete due to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games and won six more marathons between 1980 and 1983.
Bill Rodgers is the only person to win the Boston and New York City Marathons four times each. He won 22 marathon races in his career–winning at least one a year from 1973 to 1983—and ran 28 of his 59 career races in under 2:15. He, along with Frank Shorter, Jim Fixx and Alberto Salazar [Daily Dose, July 2] inspired the “running boom” in America. The Boston Marathon featured 2,000 runners when Bill Rodgers won for the first time there in 1975. Today that race features 30,000 competitors. In 1975, Rodgers received a medal, laurel wreath and bowl of canned beef stew for finishing first. In 2014, the Boston Marathon winner received a $ 175,000 check and was included as a top contender for the World Marathon Majors title and its $ 500,000 prize that goes with it. Bill Rodgers was inducted into the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in 1998, USA Track & Field Hall of Fame in 2000, and Wesleyan University Hall of Fame in 2008. The last American to win the Boston Marathon was Greg Meyer in 1983.
Bill Rodgers estimates that he has run over 170,000 miles in his lifetime. On this date in 1979, he won his fourth straight New York City Marathon in 2:11:42.