Vidakovich: Memories of Bill Rodgers, Steve Prefontaine still clear today
Not many people had heard of Bill Rodgers when he lined up at the start of the Boston Marathon on April 21, 1975. That wasn’t the case 2 hours, 9 minutes, and 55 seconds later, as the relatively unknown Rodgers crossed the finish line first in a new American record for the 26.2-mile distance.
Rodgers was attired that day in a white head band to hold back his long, floppy blonde hair, and an old T-shirt with the initials of his neighborhood track club hand stenciled across the chest in black magic marker.
Working a low-paying job as an orderly at a Boston mental hospital at the time of his big victory, Rodgers was living the existence of a pauper while carving out the necessary time in the early morning hours and evenings to train for one of the most demanding events distance running has to offer.
There was a brief time after his graduation from college that Rodgers became discouraged with his lack of improvement on the roads. He quit running altogether in favor of fast motorcycles, cigarettes, and the Boston night-club scene.
It wasn’t until the Olympic Games of 1972, when watching fellow American Frank Shorter win the gold medal in the marathon in Munich, Germany, that Rodgers awoke from his lethargy and self-imposed exile from running to commit himself to train solely for, and win, his hometown marathon in Boston.
The man who would become known as “Boston Billy” went on to win the Boston Marathon a total of four times. The same number of victories he would achieve at America’s other major marathon of the time in New York City.
Rodgers in now 68 years old and continues to run daily, but his shining moment in Boston of 40 years ago, though unexpected, was a landmark event for the running boom of the 70’s in the United States.
Also 40 years ago this May, the greatest American distance runner of all time, Steve Prefontaine, was killed in a car wreck in Eugene, Oregon.
Prefontaine once held American records in seven different track events from the 2,000-meter run to the 10,000 meters. He never lost a collegiate race while competing for the University of Oregon.
Prefontaine was a notorious front runner who often dared competitors to keep up his torrid pace from start to finish. He was once quoted as saying prior to a race that, “A lot of people run a race to see who is the fastest. I run to see who has the most guts.”
While at Oregon, “Pre” was coached by the legendary Bill Bowerman, the founder of Blue Ribbon Sports which later became known as Nike. Bowerman would always challenge Pre to achieve greater heights by telling him he didn’t think he was capable of certain times in races, or achievements on the track. The defiant Prefontaine would respond every time by setting new school, meet, and American records.
At the tender age of 24 years, the iconic Prefontaine was killed shortly after midnight on May 30, 1975 when the small sports car he was driving swerved and collided with a rock wall. The car rolled, and Pre was trapped underneath.
Dedicated in 1997, there is now a memorial at the site of the crash on Skyline Boulevard in Eugene known as Pre’s Rock. To this day, visitors to the memorial will place running medals, track jerseys, and other memorabilia at the site in honor of the man, who along with Bill Rodgers, Frank Shorter, and Kansas miler Jim Ryun, is credited with igniting the running boom in America.
Mike vidakovich is a freelance writer from Glenwood Springs. His column appears monthly in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent.
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