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Boston's Evangelist of Running, Marathoner Bill Rodgers, Trains on Junk Foods and 20 Miles a Day

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It isn’t the loneliness of the long-distance runner that bothers marathon champion Bill Rodgers so much as the moneylessness of that disadvantaged sport. “It’s hard for a runner to survive financially,” he complains, “and still preserve his amateur status for the Olympics. All the money goes to the money sports. I don’t think it’s right. The O.J. Simpson-Joe Namath superhero myth is a joke. There are skaters, gymnasts and swimmers who are better all-round athletes. I’m talking of cardiovascular fitness, not just brute strength.”

In next Monday’s 82nd running of the Boston Marathon, Rodgers, 30, will try to recapture the glory of his record-setting (2:09:55) triumph in 1975. Meanwhile he pursues both financial survival and his beloved sport in the Bill Rodgers Running Center, which he and his wife, Ellen, 26, opened last November in Boston. There he coaches kids and adult joggers, proselytizes for the sport and sells a lot of warm-up suits and running shoes. “Shoes are important. No junk shoes in my store.” He runs in Tiger Ohboris.

Although he hasn’t won the Boston Marathon since ’75, Rodgers won in New York City in 1976 and 1977 and in Fukuoka, Japan in 1977 with the fastest time of the year anywhere: 2:10:55. He was named the world’s best marathoner by both Track and Field News and Runner’s World. He holds pending U.S. records for the 15,000-meter, 20,000-meter and one-hour runs. In the 60-minute effort he covered an astonishing 12 miles and 1,351 yards.

If he were an automobile, Rodgers’ miles-per-gallon ratio would delight Energy Secretary James Schlesinger. But this 5’9″, 128-pound machine runs on a fuel far more exotic than gasoline. A day’s intake totals some 4,000 calories (vs. a normal 2,500 calories) made up of large amounts of milk, soda and fruit juice, plus such junk foods as chocolate-chip cookies, olives, pickles, Fritos, ketchup, horseradish, tartar sauce, potato chips and various dips involving quarts of mayonnaise.

On this diet Rodgers trains 140 miles a week. Twice a day he ducks out of the store and runs 10 miles. “I like feeling fit and the movement, the chugging along,” he explains. “I have a whole lot of energy and it calms me down and helps me focus my energy. After I run, I’m more low-key.”

Following a hard workout he occasionally indulges in a gin and tonic, a sombrero or a piña colada. He avoids tobacco, although he was a pack-a-day smoker until five or six years ago. Ten hours’ sleep refreshes him for the next day’s run.

Rodgers competes in at least 30 races every year in addition to making countless speeches extolling the virtues of running. Besides selling equipment at the Running Center, which has just begun to turn a profit on the $40,000 the Rodgerses invested in it, Bill stages fun runs and clinics with the aid of doctors and other experts. “People start running because they don’t want to drop dead of a heart attack,” Rodgers says, “and then the addiction gets them.”

He has been hooked since his high school days in Newington, Conn., where he grew up the son of a mechanical engineering professor and a nurse’s aide. In his first shot at the mile, with no training, he clocked an impressive five minutes and 20 seconds. His triumphs were soon the talk of the school. “It was neat,” he remembers, “to be successful.” (“I’ve never felt pain from running,” he says. “That’s what happens at the dentist.”)

At Wesleyan University, Rodgers studied sociology, ran long distances and became, in his own words, a “semi-radical.” Opposed to the Vietnam war, he was granted conscientious-objector status and wound up doing alternative service at Boston’s Peter Bent Brigham Hospital. There he met Ellen, a secretary who later taught art. They were married in 1975 and live in nearby Melrose.

Rodgers took a master’s degree at Boston College and taught retarded and emotionally disturbed children for two years. But when teaching and running collided, he decided to devote full time to his first love. Strangely, for an athlete who has done so much to make jogging a national obsession, Rodgers dislikes the word. “Jogging,” he scoffs, “reminds me of bouncing in place. Running is a much more beautiful word.”