TAMPA — Longtime marathon legend Bill Rodgers has competed in more than 1,000 road races during his illustrious career, logging nearly 160,000 total miles he estimates on his heavily traveled legs.
It's understandable then that Rodgers, a four-time champion of the Boston Marathon (1975, '78, '79, '80) and New York City Marathon (1975-79), has trouble recalling how many Gasparilla Distance Classics he has competed in or recounting details from each year.
A couple of images persist.
Like the time Rodgers found himself neck-and-neck near the finish with a woman from Kenya, who kept stopping to bend over and, shall we say, lighten her load.
"It was 10 or 15 years back, and I was still trying to duke it out. I think I was trying to win my age group," said Rodgers, now 63. "She was ahead of me, and I was trying to catch up and pass, but she got sick at the end."
In January 2008, Rodgers had surgery to remove a cancerous prostate gland. By early February he was all set to compete in his first official post-surgery race in Tampa before a disastrous training run changed his mind.
"It didn't go well," he recalled. "I couldn't run 9 miles yet. The surgery hadn't healed internally. … I actually peed blood the night before."
Rodgers will never forget the inaugural Gasparilla Distance Classic in 1978 when he won the 15K in 44 minutes, 29 seconds in the afternoon. Later that evening, he ran 10 more miles in a postrace cool-down session.
"The numbers of runners were so much smaller," Rodgers said. "Prize money was not allowed. Our sport was very backwards. It was still a 19th-century sport. Races like Gasparilla helped change that over the years. Look at the numbers you've got at the race today."
Rodgers, along with about 22,000 runners, will battle shoulder-to-shoulder down Bayshore Boulevard this weekend to compete in one of four events (15K, 5K, half-marathon, 8K) at the 34th annual classic.
"I love running along the bay, just a pretty course and checking out the pretty homes on the other side of the road," Rodgers said. "It's a great celebration for the whole city of Tampa."
Rodgers will run the 15K on Saturday. He says he has retired from marathons — he last went the 26.2-mile distance as a 61-year-old at the Boston Marathon in 2009 — but stops short of saying he'll never run another.
"Runners will never say that. That'll be like saying I can't do it," he said.
In his prime, from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s, Rodgers was arguably the world's top marathoner. He qualified for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, placing 40th. He was considered a favorite at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow until a U.S. boycott over Russia's invasion of Afghanistan denied him the opportunity to compete.
In those days, Rodgers was routinely running marathons in less than 2 hours, 15 minutes. At his first win in Boston, Rodgers, then a relative unknown, broke the American marathon record in 2:09:55. In 1979, he set an American mark, running 2:09:27 for his third Boston Marathon victory.
Now the Hartford, Conn., native aims for more modest goals.
"Seven-minute mile pace, that's what I'm going for Saturday," he said. "And I want to beat my 74-year-old buddy, Bill Riley. We have a little rivalry."
Staying ahead of the pack is secondary on Rodgers' mind. An unexpected surgical procedure to rid the body of cancer followed by seven weeks of chemotherapy will do that to a runner. But he has always lived his life to run. And to compete.
And as long as his body allows, he'll continue to do both.
"I do a lot of half-marathons, 15Ks, 5Ks now," he said. "I do too few 5Ks. I need to run more 5Ks. I'm not 28 years old anymore."