The running boom was on, and no one was more responsible for it than the guy in the Snoopy hat and gardening gloves. At the sport's highest point, Bill Rodgers was its biggest star.
"I think he was one of the people that helped create a huge fascination with distance running," says Don Kardong. "If you ask people on the street if they could name a marathoner or two, Bill would be one of them. Even now, because he's been doing it so long and he's such a great ambassador of the sport."
Kardong and Rodgers have raced each other a number of times over the years, including the Montreal Olympics in 1976. In that race, Kardong finished fourth, Frank Shorter got the silver and Rodgers, who was hampered by a foot injury, finished a disappointing 40th place. "I remember passing him," says Kardong. "It was around 17 or 18 miles and he just had a bad day. He didn't have too many bad marathons, but that was one of them."
Just two months later, Rodgers got his revenge with a course-record win in the New York City Marathon. All told, Rodgers has run 35 marathons under 2:15. That's more than any runner in history.
So, will the competitive juices be flowing on Sunday? "I would love to be able to beat him, but I can't get back to that level," says Kardong. "That's why I admire him so much. He's one year older than me, and he's stayed in spectacular shape."
Rodgers retired from competitive marathoning in 1992, but at age 54, he still runs between 70 and 80 miles a week and competes at the masters level. He set an American record for his age in the half-marathon with a 1:11:10 at age 51. And a couple weeks ago, he ran a 33-minute 10k. "I still love to compete," says Rodgers.
He stays relentlessly busy, running about 25 races a year, and makes about 25 speaking engagements per year. He's a contributing editor of Running Times magazine and is spokesman for Bill Rodgers Sportswear as well as the Bill Rodgers Running Center. He's also developed running programs with the school systems in the Boston area, where he says "kids were standing around twiddling their thumbs in P.E. class."
Rodgers talks with great respect for his old buddy, Don Kardong. "Don is a real smart runner," he says. "One of the last times I raced Don, I remember passing him at around three miles in a marathon. It was a real hot day, and he was running with these two big things called Hanteens. They're like water bottles that you carry in you hands." Rodgers starts to laugh now. "It was very amusing to me that Don was running with these things, ya know? I thought, 'Well I'm gonna try and win this thing,' thinking Don was way back there with his water bottles. Sure enough, with about two miles to go, Don passes me up and beats me."
As for his second Bloomsday in 25 years, he says it's not about competition. "For me, it's a celebration. It'll be the biggest road race I've ever been in my life, and I'm psyched to return. Don's my Olympic teammate and we're friends, so that's cool."