In April of 1975, Bill Rodgers received this letter from Steve Prefontaine (click here to see the letter). Pre sent congratulations to Bill for his bronze medal at the World Cross Country Championships in Rabat, Morocco, in March of '75. He also sent Bill a pair of training shoes, and a pair of "Boston '73" racing shoes. He said he had heard, from Jeff Galloway, Bill's college teammate at Wesleyan, that Bill was interested in trying "our" shoes. Long before Nike became a corporate giant, it seems that Bill Bowerman, the legendary University of Oregon coach, and possibly even Pre himself, were making shoes at Bowerman's house. They were interested in the reaction of the top athletes, to their shoes. Bill was one of these athletes. The letter is dated April 9, 1975. History tells us the next months would be marked by tremendous highs and lows.
Prefontaine was killed in a tragic car accident on May 30, 1975. He had been back in top form after the bitter disappointment in the 5000 meters at Munich, where he had finished 4th. He had run a valient race, but was beaten by three men who were just a little better. Lasse Viren of Finland, Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia, and Ian Stewart of England were the medalists in this brilliant race. Pre had been agonizingly close to an Olympic medal. He was crushed. But even while still in Munich, the fire flickered to the surface, when Pre lashed out to a reporter to tell Dave Bedford, the great English runner, that he was going to kick his butt in Montreal. Pre went through the process of disappointment and healing, and by "75", he was back training hard and racing well.
He was also committed to making life easier for runners financially. He was outraged that runners, like Viren from Finland, were basically subsidized by their government and had an ideal situation in which to train. Whereas in America, once you got out of college you were on your own, with no financial support and a set of rules that prevented you from making money from running.
Prefontaine, like Bill Rodgers, was on food stamps at the time, while putting together a massive training program with little financial support. While progress on the political front was slow and frustrating for Pre, his progress on the track was going full speed ahead. In his one attempt at the 10K, he ran 27:43.8, an American Record, on April 27, 1974. Dave Bedford held the world record of 27:30 at the time. It looked as though the 10K would be Pre's event in Montreal. Unfortunately, the fatal car crash took Pre at 24, and left us all to wonder what might have been.
As the tragedy of Pre unravelled and left us numb, the meteoric ascent of Bill Rodgers to distance running's highest level, gave us a new force to be excited about. On April 21, 1975, Bill Rodgers, fresh from his bronze medal preformance in Rabat, won the Boston Marathon in a new American Record of 2:09:55. We had a new distance running phenom, who could run with the best in the world.
Bill was like Pre in some ways. Blond, and boyish, with honest, everyday, personalities marked by a sense of confidence, and an aggressive, enthusiastic, embracement of running. They trained like two guys who had just jumped off of a cliff into a new realm. Pre on the track doing amazing workouts, Bill on the roads putting in huge mileage (up to 200 miles in a week), to strengthen him up for his great marathon career. They both raced from the front, pushing the issue, making it happen, and winning. Pre and Bill won a lot. Pre's dominance on the track was hard to replace, but Bill took the same intense commitment to the roads that Pre had left us with on the track. Bill Rodgers dominated the roads from 1978 to 1980. He was undefeated for a year.
He was ranked #1 in the world in the marathon in '75, '77, and '79, and became one of the premiere marathoners of all times.
Bill, like Pre, felt that athletes deserved more financial support. Bill had a lot to do with the changes in the sport that allowed athletes to be paid for their efforts. He also helped open up doors for the endorsement of products by runners. I think it is safe to say that anyone who has made a living from running, owes that opportunity, in part, to Bill Rodgers. I think that Pre would be pleased to see American distance runners benefiting from the groundwork laid by he and Bill.
As I mentioned earlier, along with his letter to Bill, Pre also sent a pair of "Boston '73"s to try. Well, try them he did, as these were the shoes he wore in '75 to win the Boston Marathon for the first of four times.
As history and this great photo of "75" show us, although he ran 2:09:55 for an American Record, he did have to stop and tie his shoes several times along the way. It was almost like the shoes were demanding a piece of the story, coming untied, needing to be paid attention to.
If we can gather anything from this pair of shoes handed off from one great runner to another, it is that there is a continuity in running from one generation to the next. Even though Pre and Bill were almost the same age, Pre's death almost seemed to put them in different generations. Bill took Pre's energy and drive to the roads and continued the dominance that these two great American runners had, at their best. These connections and continuity in running are important, It is important for young runners to be aware of the history of their sport and who the great runners were before them, and what it took for them to be great runners. It is also important for the older runners to keep in touch with the kids. The last few years in Massachusetts schoolboy track and field, with the likes of Jonathon Riley, Abdirisak Mohammed, Andy Powell, and Franklyn Sanchez running historic races, have treated fans to very compelling high school running.
The last few years also show us the kind of talent we have with people like Bob Kennedy and Adam Goucher competing at the top levels. These kids coming out of Mass. may be well on their way to being the next stars on the horizon. There is reason for optimism for the future of American distance running.
So, in the tradition of Steve Prefontaine and Bill Rodgers, these new kids will have some of the benefits that Pre and Bill worked for, and be in a position to take that exhilarating commitment that Pre and Bill gave to their running, and shoot for the stars.