Friday, January 19, 2018
Sports

First Gasparilla men's champ Bill Rodgers still laces up the sneakers

TAMPA — The snow was falling in Boxborough, Mass., northwest of Boston.

"I was about to go out and start shoveling," Bill Rodgers said in a phone interview. "I think we have 2 1/2 feet."

He still planned to go on a short run.

"I'm a runner," he said. "It's what we do."

Rodgers, 69, perhaps the greatest long-distance male runner in American history, a people's champion if ever there was one, is giddy about the race Saturday, a race near and dear to him: the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K. Plus, it's a milestone — the 40th running. That's enough for Rodgers, who won the inaugural Gasparilla 15K in 1978.

"I want to celebrate how Gasparilla is stronger than ever," Rodgers said.

Between 1975 and 1980, Rodgers won the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon four times each. And smack dab in the middle of that unprecedented roll, on Feb. 13, 1978, he won the first Gasparilla.

"I still have all my running logs," Rodgers said. He jumped off the phone. Soon he returned.

"I have it written down: flat course, 44:29. And it says I ran 10 miles after, for 21 miles on the day."

There were 1,476 runners in the first Gasparilla 15K. This weekend, about 32,000 competitors will take part in Gasparilla events. Rodgers was a key figure in the country's running boom, not just because of his greatness but because of his free-spirited everyman quality. He put people on the road more than even Frank Shorter, the marathon winner at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Rodgers, "Boston Billy," was the man.

"He was the Arnold Palmer of our sport," said Greg Meyer, who won Gasparilla in 1980 and the Boston Marathon in 1983. "Billy was out there all the time. Frank picked his spots. Billy was out there racing week in and week out. Billy spent time with people. … Arnie's Army followed Arnie because of how he approached the game and treated people. That's Billy."

Bill Rodgers still makes a good living at being Bill Rodgers. He is getting a fee to be at Gasparilla this weekend. In 1978, his appearance fee was $1,000. Rodgers beat Shorter and another Olympian, Don Kardong, to the finish. For his win, Rodgers received a plaque. There was no prize money.

"I still have that plaque," Rodgers said. "I'm bringing it to the race."

He has been a road racer for 51 years, having logged roughly 180,000 miles. He loves the history of the sport. Rodgers noted that people have been running since the beginning of civilization.

Early Man received no appearance fee.

"But he ran down his dinner," Rodgers said with a laugh.

Rodgers still races 10 to 15 events a year. He ran his last marathon, Boston, in 2009. He has returned to Gasparilla over the years, including 2009, when he struggled in Tampa while preparing for Boston, easy to understand since Rodgers was just three weeks removed from prostate cancer surgery. That was and is Boston Billy. Irrepressible. Irreplaceable.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, 59, will be running in several Gasparilla events this weekend. Samuelson is another towering figure in long-distance history, the first women's Olympic marathon winner and a two-time champion in Boston. And the Maine native still remembers early in her career, when she ran a half-marathon in Portland, Maine, simply because Rodgers was running it. Boston Billy was that big.

"He's lovable, friendly, happy-go-lucky," Samuelson said. "How could you not love Bill?"

Rodgers hopes to crack an eight-minute pace Saturday. That won't even win his age group. He won't mind.

"In this sport, you just keep going," Rodgers said. "You shake the hand of the winner of your age group, then you go celebrate. I'm almost definitely going to get my butt kicked. I don't care. I love the buzz of this sport. I have since my first road race, Manchester, Conn., Thanksgiving 1966.

"This is the biggest family and friend sport in the world. Think about Gasparilla. Forty years. This is history. Races like Gasparilla are going to keep going. The boom is going to keep going. I'm going to run until I can't run. And then I'm going to walk."

The snow continued to fall.

"Just a light jog," Rodgers said.

     
 
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