Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: Marathon Man (2013)

By Bill Rodgers and Matthew Shepatin

Here's an interesting coincidence when it comes to legendary marathoner Bill Rodgers.

I had the chance to write a story a few years ago on Rodgers, which involved the chance to interview him at some length by phone and then talk to him in person for a while. Someone asked me later what it was like to talk to Rodgers.

"It was sort of like trying to watch a butterfly," I answered. "The conversation seemed to dart all over the place, but it was pleasant following it."

Imagine my surprise, then, when I read Rodgers' new autobiography, "Marathon Man." He describes how he used to chase butterflies while growing up, and developed a love of running that way. In fact, he still had a collection of butterflies years later. By the way, the runner reveals here that he suffers from ADHD.

This is the second of two Rodgers' autobiographies, in a sense. The first came in 1980, right at the end of a run that saw him dominate the sport for several years. It was an odd book, combining a rather superficial review of Rodgers' life to date mixed with some tips for runners. That made it a case of one foot in one place and one foot in another, and neither completely satisfying.

Rodgers certainly has led an interesting enough life to warrant a full-fledged autobiography. Well, this is it, finally, and it's well done.

Rodgers was a decent enough high school and college runner, and friendly with 1968 Boston Marathon winner Amby Burfoot. But after college, Rodgers famously gave up the sport, spending his free time smoking in bars and chasing - although apparently not catching - women. He became a conscientious objector when his draft board came calling during the Vietnam War, and worked at a Boston hospital doing the absolute worst tasks in the field.

Somewhere along the way, the running bug returned, and Rodgers headed for the roads again. He was part of a Boston running scene that was starting to boom, and he discovered that he had some talent at the discipline as long as he put in the hours of training.

Rodgers' main breakthrough came in the 1975 Boston Marathon. It wouldn't be completely fair to say he came out of nowhere to win that race, the first of four titles, but he wasn't on anyone's radar as a potential winner either.

Co-author Shepatin made the decision for the first two-thirds of the book to ping-pong from a description of that 1975 race to the chronological story of Rodgers' life. The Boston Marathon was much more innocent back then. Left unstated in that comparison is thoughts about the bombing of the 2013 edition, which obviously happened after the book was written.

Once those two tracks merge at the finish line in 1975, "Boston Billy's" career took off. He went on to win marathons all over the world, and became personally popular as well. I hadn't heard the stories about what happened at the Olympics or why he went into the running gear business, but they broaden the story nicely.

If anything, Rodgers doesn't spend enough time with what he's been doing lately. The runner has become "Bill Rodgers" for living, making personal appearances and talking with runners today. I have friends that still talk about the time they joined Rodgers for a beer or two after a local race.

Rodgers today remains an interesting, intelligent person, so it's no surprise that "Marathon Man" follows that description. The book does a good job of catching the butterfly.

Four stars

Learn more about the book.

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