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‘Marathon Man’: A look at running before it became cool

Today, with your choice of running clubs, running shoes, running fashions, running drinks, bars and gels, the sport has become not only ubiquitous but even cool and chic. Not so when Bill Rodgers started running around Jamaica Pond in Boston in 1972. Rodgers’s new book, Marathon Man, chronicles his life from runner to barfly and back to runner, and on to his first Boston Marathon victory in 1975. “I needed to move,” he writes. “I was meant to move. Even at my lowest point as an athlete, the magnetic pull was still there. The pull was weakened in the presence of life’s overwhelming burdens, but it hadn’t disappeared altogether.”

The book vividly depicts its author as an aimless conscientious objector to the Vietnam War with a “goofy stride” who once ran a half-marathon in a blizzard wearing only sweatpants and his grandfather’s wool sweater. Even more interesting is the portrayal of a very different era for runners, when they were likely to get heckled. “You’d hear stuff like, ‘Who are you running from?’ or ‘Where’s the fire?’ . . . Football was a real sport; running was for freaks and fairies.”

Rodgers was not on a quest to change the running world, even though that’s what he helped to do. He ran because he had to. “Running wasn’t an escape from life,” he writes; “rather, it was an embrace of it.” He ran without the comforts afforded today’s runners: water stations, mile markers and spectators on race courses, dry-weave shirts and appropriate shoes. For his 1975 Boston Marathon, however, he ran blister-free in a pair of Nikes sent to him by Olympic runner Steve Prefontaine. It was unheard of at that time to finish a marathon without blisters.

Rodgers meticulously weaves an account of his young adult life into chapters devoted to his record-breaking win of that ’75 Boston Marathon – a victory that helped to change the course of his life and to increase the popularity of running as a sport. “I’ve always believed running can be one of the most powerful ways to promote good will and tolerance throughout the world,” he writes. “Maybe it’s because no man can stand above another when they run. We are all equals on the roads. We are all people. We are all just kids chasing butterflies.”

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