The Teachings of Amby Burfoot
APRIL 21, 1975
For weeks, I had prayed for mild conditions on race day, but prepared mentally for any type of weather. There was nothing more fickle than Mother Nature around April in New England. Would I have to run the Boston Marathon in a snow squall like those poor racers in 1961? Would I have to brave a torrential downpour like the one that greeted competitors in 1970? Or would I have to endure the sweltering heat that brutalized runners in 1909—a race that earned the nickname “the Inferno” after the mercury soared to 97 degrees?
“Bill,” said my big brother, Charlie, standing beside me on the town green.
“Uh-huh,” I said, not really hearing him. Feel that brisk wind, I thought to myself. The heat will not bring me to my knees today, not like it has before. My prayers had been answered—a cool, overcast spring morning. The perfect day to run a marathon.
It was here of all places, in the sleepy New England village of Hopkinton, Massachusetts, that I gathered with some two thousand topflight (I can’t stand the term “elite”) runners for the start of the Boston Marathon. On the town green, I loosened up and prepared for the race, amid spectators milling about and other competitors warming up.
The marathon has turned the center of this quaint small town into a bustling scene of excitement. You could feel the electricity in the air. Swarms of people passed by me on the green. Locals carried lawn chairs to set up along the course. Runners paced in nervous anticipation. A man in a clown suit sold colorful balloons. I heard the Hopkinton High School marching band playing nearby. For a big kid like me, it was heaven. For a racer with undiagnosed attention deficit disorder, also me, it was dangerously distracting. But not today. Not today.
“Bill!” My brother’s loud Boston accent snapped me out of my gaze. “Well? Do you want some gloves?” he inquired.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea,” I said. “Did I bring any?”
“Of course not,” Charlie said in a teasing sarcasm.
I blinked at him a couple of times.
“Don’t worry. I’ll run down to that little hardware store,” he said, pointing to the row of stores farther down the center of town.
“Okay,” I said.
Charlie cut off down the street, straight at the statue of the World War I doughboy soldier, rifle on shoulder in midmarch. He stopped dead in his tracks as if the doughboy, suddenly springing to life, had aimed a rifle at his forehead. Charlie swung around to me and shouted, “Stay there!”
I admit it. I’ve been known to get lost easily. And forget stuff. And lose track of time. But come on, Charlie. My mind was focused like a laser beam on one thing today. For countless months, I had trained like a man possessed, running over a 150 miles a week, spending solitary hours circling the dirt path around Jamaica Pond. I’d punished my body on the very hills I would soon face, pushing everything else in my life to the periphery. For so long, I’d thought about nothing but winning this race. And standing there, moments before the gun sounded, I felt ready for a battle.
Speaking of battles, the race has been held every Patriots’ Day in April since 1897, in part to commemorate the anniversary of the most famous run of all, Paul Revere’s midnight ride on April 18, 1775, to warn the patriots in Lexington and Concord that the British were coming. Fifteen runners participated in that first race in 1897; ten finished. John J. McDermott of New York emerged victorious, crossing the finish line in a new world record time of 2:55:10.
Boston oozes prestige and tradition. It’s the oldest continuously run marathon in the world, held on almost the exact same course for over a century—a course that was patterned after the ancient route from Marathon to Athens. It’s also famous for being the only marathon in the world in which all runners have to qualify. Many families over many generations have returned annually to run the race, or to watch the drama unfold from their go-to spot along the road, creating a festive row of lawn chairs and barbecue grills. Stroll around Boston on Marathon Monday and you’ll know why they call it the world’s biggest block party, or what’s known around these parts as “a seriously wicked ragefest.”
Truth be told, I didn’t always grasp the romantic, almost mythical, attraction that runners have felt toward the race, going back to the early 1900s. In those days, hundreds of immigrant workers came from far and wide to the city for a shot to prove themselves worthy of the greatest honor a runner could achieve—the laurel wreath crown of the Boston Marathon. Some of these dusty-faced dreamers would hop freight trains to Boston with nothing but a pair of sneakers in their knapsack and a few cents in their pocket. What made the marathon different from many of life’s other competitions is that sometimes this was all a man needed to come out on top.
Take Frank Zuna, a wiry, 150-pound plumber from Newark, New Jersey. In 1921, the twenty-seven-year-old man of Czech Bohemian descent jumped the train to Boston, wearing his racing gear under his dirty work clothes. Zuna conquered the field in a record-shattering time of 2:18:57, then almost skipped the public celebration in his honor. He told the BAA officials he had to grab the next train home or else he would be late for his plumbing job the next morning.
To this day, runners from all over the world, from remote parts of the Ukraine to the mud-hutted villages of Kenya, grow up dreaming of running just one race—the Boston Marathon. Given all the lore, the tradition, the epic stories of athletic triumph and tragedy, the one-of-a-kind personality of the course, the city where it takes place, and the people who make up the huge crowds along the way, it’s no wonder many consider this the Holy Grail of marathon running in America and the world over.
There I was, a pale, drifty grad student, warming up on the town green, same as Frank Zuna and all the other dirt-poor, skinny-legged dreamers who had come before me. I hopped up and down a little in my lucky, faded gray Camp Wonderland warm-up sweatshirt, blowing on my cold hands. Just then I felt a hard slap on my shoulder. It was my friend Tom Fleming. He was wearing a smart-aleck grin, along with a white mesh T-shirt that exposed his nipples, and could easily have come from the closet of wrestler Randy “Macho Man” Savage.
This was Tom—a Jersey dude, amped to ten on the dial, ready to go toe-to-toe with anybody, anytime. If I glided swiftly over the road like a gazelle, Tom charged down it like a bull. Hanging on his bedroom wall was this sign: SOMEWHERE IN THE WORLD THERE IS SOMEONE TRAINING WHEN YOU ARE NOT. WHEN YOU RACE HIM, HE WILL WIN. Tom wasn’t about to let that happen; he put in more hard miles than anybody I knew. But under all that hot-blooded, chest-puffing drive, Tom was a nice guy with a big heart.
“Hey, Bill,” said Tom. “How do you plan to see where you’re going with all that hair in your face?” Before I could respond, Tom threw a white sweatband over my head, causing my hair to cover my face and blind me.
With my long hair, skinny frame, ratty sweatshirt, and discount tube socks, I certainly didn’t look the part of the typical track athlete. Then again, none of the guys in our little crew—the Greater Boston Track Club—fit the picture of dedicated, word-class competitors. Alberto Salazar, an eighteen-year-old kid from Wayland, Massachusetts, used to tag along with us on our workouts (hence his nickname, “the Rookie”). He described us as “oddball hippie outcasts” and me in particular as a “sweet, friendly ragamuffin guy; a hippie with a dirty-blond ponytail.”
We might have been a bunch of rogue runners with our long hair and free-spirited lifestyle, but good luck finding a more hardcore group of athletes in 1975. We ran more miles in a week than most people drive in their cars. Day in and day out, we trained to the point of exhaustion, through bone-chilling New England winters and sticky-hot Boston summers.
None of us made any money road racing because there wasn’t any to be made—if you won a race, you were thrilled to come home with a new blender. It was an amateur, Chariots of Fire–style situation: We ran for the love of the sport and the thrill of pushing the boundaries of what could be done in that day and age. Roger Bannister, the Oxford medical student who became the first man to break the four-minute mile in 1954, a feat previously thought to be humanly impossible, called it “a challenge of the human spirit.” That’s exactly how we saw it. (Coincidentally, 1975 was the year Bannister would suffer a near-fatal car accident that forced him to give up running.)
I parted my hair out of the way so I could see again. Tom was staring back at me with a cocky grin
“Looking good,” Tom said. He held for a couple more seconds, then took off toward the high school, which had been turned into a makeshift staging area for the top runners. As I watched him disappear into the crowd, Charlie returned with a pair of white gardening gloves.
“Try these on for size,” he said.
I slid on the gloves. Almost instantly, my hands started to warm up. I was lucky to have Charlie there to support me. It was nice to have the company. Kept the nerves calmer.
As for my girlfriend, Ellen, she’d camped out somewhere along the second half of the route. She had the idea to write BOSTON—GBTC in black marker on the front of my singlet the night before in our apartment. She felt, even though the crowds lining the course had no clue who I was, they’d be moved to cheer for me once they saw I was a local kid. I thought it was worth a shot. Besides, I took pride in representing my team and my city in the world’s most famous footrace.
I had found my mesh singlet a month earlier in a Dumpster outside our housing complex in Jamaica Plain. I loved that it was so lightweight—it felt like I was wearing nothing—and it didn’t chafe while I ran. What in the world a perfectly good shirt was doing in the trash, I have no idea, but I’ve always had an eye for finding treasure among the discarded.
I found my shirt in a Dumpster, my water bottle was an old shampoo bottle, and my racing gloves came from the gardening aisle. As for my footwear, I assumed I would be running the marathon in my beat-up Asics with the holes and rips and broken-down arches. But a week or so before the race I received a mysterious package at my apartment with this letter attached:
April 9, 1975
Mr. Bill Rodgers
Jamaica Plain, Mass. 02130
First of all congratulations on a fine race in Rabat. You have really improved this last year and hopefully will continue to until the Olympic games.
The reason I’m writing is because Jeff Galloway told me you were interested in training in our shoes. I’m sending you a pair of Boston ’73s and a training shoe. Any comments would be greatly appreciated. Just feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you think.
Wishing you continued success for ’75.
I was awestruck to get a personal letter from Prefontaine, then America’s biggest track and field sensation. While I had never met the middle-distance rock star runner from Oregon, I felt a kinship with him. Maybe because we were both skinny scrappers, each with one leg longer than the other. Like me, you could count on Prefontaine to run from the front, to push the pace, and to give it everything he had from start to finish. The whole country loved Prefontaine for the same reason I did—he left it all out there every time he raced, heart and soul. As he once said, “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.”
I admired that Prefontaine brought the same gutsy determination to his battles off the track that he did on them. He took on the overbearing rule enforcers of our sport at a time when few dared to do so. He knew it was wrong that the AAU dictated where and when U.S. athletes could compete. He was sick of these corrupt old men who maintained the belief that no matter how much time and passion a runner devoted to his sport, he should be barred from making a decent wage doing what he loved. According to them an American runner should make his own way, perhaps as a part-time bartender, like Prefontaine, but still compete against the best athletes from other nations like the Soviet Union and Finland who were fully funded, could train year-round, and, in some cases, were doped up on steroids. It bothered him that he had to turn down a $200,000 pro contract in 1975, then the largest ever offered to a runner, to maintain his amateur status for the 1976 Olympic Games. Instead, the world famous athlete was forced to live in a trailer with his dog, Lobo, and survive on food stamps while maintaining his tireless training program, which included grueling runs alone in the winter in Eugene, Oregon.
While Prefontaine was busy racking up records and winning titles at the University of Oregon, his legendary track coach Bill Bowerman created a shoe for his star runner by pressing lightweight foam rubber into his wife’s waffle iron. The result was the first modern athletic shoe sole. In 1972, Bowerman added a “swoosh” logo to his sneakers, modeled after the wings of the Greek goddess Nike, and the rest is history. Meanwhile, Prefontaine became the face of Nike, as well as American distance running.
I had never before owned a pair of shoes that felt this light. They weighed zilch. Maybe five ounces. The waffle soles also provided better traction. They were made for running fast on the road. I loved them. The only problem: When I put the shoes on, they were slightly too big.
“Well, they’re better than anything else you’ve got,” Charlie said.
He was right, of course. I was a poor grad student. My running life offered no financial opportunities, and even if it did, I’d have to forgo them in order to maintain my amateur status, just like Prefontaine had. I didn’t have money for state-of-the-art racing shoes. If Prefontaine hadn’t sent me those Boston ’73s a week before the marathon, I’m not sure what I would have done. After all, I wasn’t likely to find a pair of brand-new, light-as-air, waffle-soled running flats, not even if I searched every Dumpster from Jamaica Plain to Dorchester.
Charlie walked with me to the starting line. The scene bordered on total chaos. There were no race officials, no volunteers to help corral the eager spectators. No ropes to hold anybody back. Just a feisty, bald, seventy-one-year-old barking out orders in a thick Scottish accent. This was Jock Semple. Longtime unofficial caretaker of the Boston Marathon. He alone arranged all two thousand racers, like some crazed conductor.
Jock spotted me and wildly signaled for me to come over. A serious long-distance runner himself in the 1930s, he was a tough, irascible Scot who saw it as his personal mission in life to preserve the tradition of the Boston Marathon. Jock had the final say on all matters pertaining to the event. He had no patience for anybody who didn’t have the utmost respect for the race and its runners. To Semple, the Boston Marathon was a serious athletic contest for noble and daring men—and men only—willing to sacrifice body and soul to achieve excellence. Jokesters like Johnny “Cigar” Connors, who in 1935 ran the first couple of miles while toking on two cigars at the same time, and in 1937 crossed the finish line in pink panties, causing Jock to blow his smokestack. I was fortunate that Jock took a shine to me and gave me such a low number—#14, to denote my 1974 finish—ensuring that I was up front with the top runners.
Just before Jock whisked me to the front, I looked back at Charlie. For the first time, I saw a little fear register on his face. Maybe he was worried that the gloves, which I’d never worn before in a race, would irritate me. Or perhaps he was frightened that my feet would slide right out of my running shoes in midstride, revealing Prefontaine’s gift to be a curse. Or maybe it was worse than that. Did he fear that I wouldn’t finish? Was he thinking how I’d run out too fast in my first Boston Marathon and wilted on Heartbreak Hill? Or how I’d burst away too early last year and flamed out again on the brutal incline? I’m sure he wished he could tie a rope around my waist; that way he could hold me back when he felt I was running too fast a pace. He was not alone. Everybody in my life, all of whom were rooting hard for me today—Charlie, Ellen, Coach Squires, my GBTC teammates—wished at times they possessed a device with the power to settle me down. My parents sure could have used a device like that when I was a kid. Then again, knowing me, I would have found a way to break free. My brother knew this better than anyone. I always found a way to break free.
As I established my position at the starting line, I thought about my brother and how he might be competing alongside me if it weren’t for his asthma. When he was a kid, his chest would tighten on long runs. Charlie also liked to point out that he got the short legs and long torso while I got the long legs and short torso. But I don’t know about all that. I did know that I was glad to have a big brother like Charlie. I knew he would do anything for me, but there was nothing he could do for me at this point. He gave me the gloves and now my hands were warm. That might not seem like much help—not when it comes to competing in a marathon against a bunch of world-class runners looking to skin you alive on the roads—but for some reason, Charlie’s small gesture of support meant the world to me. I didn’t know if I could win, but I was not going down without one hell of a fight.
Jock Semple was the only person who thought I could win, or at least, the only person who dared state this opinion to the press. The reporters chalked it up to the wistful longings of an old man. After all, everybody knew it was Jock’s dream to have a local runner win the Boston Marathon, which hadn’t happened since Arthur Roth’s victory way back in 1916. When the press scribes asked my GBTC coach, Bill Squires, about my chances for victory he’d told them: “Don’t pick him. He’s too inexperienced. A year from now, he’ll blossom into the marathoner he should be, but not this soon against this field.”
Jock’s wishful thinking aside, there was no reason for the reporters to focus any attention on me—some kid who’d won a few local road races. Instead, the media trumpeted the course record holder, Ron Hill, the only British man to ever win the race. At age thirty-six, Hill was on the downside of his career, but he felt in his heart he had one last great Boston Marathon in him. Before the race, he told reporters that if he got a tailwind—watch out—he was going after his own record. He was talking about breaking 2:10. Coach Squires has set a goal for me of 2:15. I knew this would be a stretch. Last fall, I tried to break Tom Fleming’s course record of 2:21:54 at the New York City Marathon and ended up finishing in fifth with a time of 2:35:59. A short time later, I did win the Philadelphia Marathon in the low 2:20s. And just a month ago, I had won the bronze medal at the World Cross-Country Championships, an international competition on par with the Olympics. Everybody from the world’s best milers to the best marathoners competed in this single winner-take-all event. Claiming third against the best runners across the globe gave me a ton of confidence. I felt like if I had a great race that 2:16, maybe 2:15, was possible. At this stage in my career, hitting under 2:20 would be a huge accomplishment.
Tom caught my eye a few runners to my left. He wore a look of fierce intensity. Nobody wanted to win at Boston more than Tom or punished himself more training for it. The heavy mileage had paid off as Tom looked fit and strong. In his mind, nobody could beat him. All the top marathon runners felt this way. They were right to have felt this way. You need to have some cockiness to think you can pull off a win of this magnitude. But the truth is, no long-distance runner is invincible, no matter how good they think they are. The marathon will humble even the fittest competitor. It’s what makes this race so exciting. It’s as unpredictable as the weather in New England. And that’s a good thing—at least if you’re a spectator.
Pent-up energy wafted through the air as the runners waited to explode out of the gate like hostile wolves. At every marathon the runners were quiet and tense at the start line, but the feeling here was amplified. The reason was right before our eyes: a narrow stretch of country road, no more than fifty feet across, enough room for twenty runners at best, that dropped off the earth. Well, it only looked like it dropped off the earth. In truth it was just a steep, harrowing decline, roughly thirteen stories down.
I stood in the ready position, boxed in on all sides by runners, crouched and tense-faced in their racing bibs and short shorts. The pack drew in a collective breath. You could hear a pin drop as we all waited for the sound of the gun to pierce the silence. The excitement rushing through me threatened to spoil into nausea. This was it. We were like a huge time bomb about to explode. Bang!
The moment the gun fired I felt the soles of my Boston ’73s hit the pavement. In twenty-six miles and 385 yards from now my life would be changed forever. Here I go.
EIGHT YEARS EARLIER
WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY, MIDDLETOWN, CONNECTICUT
When I entered Wesleyan University in the fall of 1966, the farthest I’d ever run was twelve miles and that was on a lark. I usually never did more than two or three miles in high school. One day, in late spring of my senior year of high school, I was out on a training run with the other members of the cross-country team, which included my big brother, Charlie, and best friend, Jason. I spotted a sign for the next town, six miles away. Without giving it any thought, I took off for it. Once I arrived there, I turned right around and ran back home. I didn’t think anything of my long-distance dash. I wasn’t looking for attention. I did it just to see if I could do it, and because I loved the feeling of floating along when I ran. Lo and behold, one of the reporters at the local newspaper caught wind of my accomplishment and all of a sudden it was in the paper: “Local Boy Runs 12 Miles!” That’s how bizarre it was back in the early sixties to run long distances. Run twelve miles and people start checking behind the barbershop for your Klingon spaceship. Back then, doctors warned that you could drop dead from running that far. They theorized that we all have a certain number of miles in us—if you used them up too soon, you would die. Too much activity was bad for your heart; meanwhile, cigarettes were good for you. Seriously, this is what doctors were telling people in those days.
In my freshman year, I was a member of the varsity track and cross-country team. Wesleyan was a small New England liberal arts college—far from some track and field powerhouse like the University of Oregon. In fact, our freshman cross-country team had to default a couple of dual meets after failing to field five men. At Wesleyan, the focus was squarely on academics.
Although I won most of my dual-meet races my first year, there were half a dozen guys on the team who were faster than me. Still, nobody came close to touching our two standouts—Amby Burfoot, a junior from Groton, Connecticut, and Jeff Galloway, a senior from Atlanta, Georgia. I first met Amby Burfoot when I was a high school senior in Newington, Connecticut. It was a chance encounter. His younger brother was my main competitor in the Connecticut high school cross-country championships, and Amby came down from college to cheer him on.
I remember it was a beautiful fall day to race. From the start, I ran with a carefree abandon but I was also going for the win. Around the halfway mark, I broke away from the rest of the pack. Amby stood at the edge of the route, which ran along the fairways of a local golf course, and waited for the runners to come racing by. He suddenly saw me approaching, a good fifty yards ahead of the rest of the field. As I powered ahead down the rain-soaked path, I was too focused to hear Amby yelling from the side of the course: “Come on, Gary! You can catch him! Rodgers is fading!”
Amby’s impression of me before the race was that I was this spacey blond-haired runt with a goofy running stride. Therefore, he was left stupefied as he watched me pull away from his brother, Gary, and the other top high school runners in the state, to finish first. I didn’t know it at the time, but my convincing win is not what peaked Amby’s curiosity, it was the way I floated along the course, almost with a vacant look in my eyes. To Amby, I wasn’t so much running as gliding over the grass. Amby came up to me after the race and tried to sell me on coming to Wesleyan to run for the track team. And that’s what I did.
While the rest of us on the team was gearing up for our next dual meet against some similarly small, academically minded liberal arts college like Trinity and Williams, Amby was pursuing a far greater and more daunting mission—to win the Boston Marathon—which no college student had ever done. Amby devoted his entire life to this one solitary goal. He was committed with a capital C and refused to let anything interfere with his strict training regimen, which stood in stark contrast to the relaxed and informal running program the others of us on the team followed. Amby would practice with us every afternoon, but he’d also take extra runs on his own, usually twice a day, one early in the morning, one after practice. He averaged up to fifteen miles a day; twenty on weekend days when he didn’t have classes. He also would go out for a twenty-five-mile training run ever Sunday, a ridiculous distance as far as I was concerned. For the week, he ran anywhere between 120 to 150 miles. In 1968, you were more likely to come across Bigfoot than somebody putting in over a hundred miles of road work each week, let alone a college student. I’d never known anybody to work that hard for anything, least of all me.
I was amazed by Amby’s drive and maturity. I was in awe that he knew what he wanted out of life, and that he was determined to go to any lengths, physically and mentally, to get it. Amby was always trying to get other runners on the team to join him on his daily training runs along the outskirts of campus. He wanted the company. Few people ever agreed to go with him. I loved the feeling of running outdoors, I had since I was a kid, and Amby’s single-minded quest to conquer the marathon intrigued me so that I agreed to start going with him on his training runs.
If the Boston Marathon was Amby’s Mecca, the place he could find running nirvana, then his local church was the trails that crisscrossed the periphery of the Wesleyan campus. Generally, we would go between seven to ten miles once a day.
Within minutes of leaving campus, we were moving side by side through the stunning countryside. Amby kept a nice, steady pace that was a delight to follow, whether we were climbing hills or cruising along flat, wooded trails. Amby would lead me over every type of terrain imaginable. We’d run loops around lakes. We’d go along cliffs. We’d climb up over rocks. Our runs felt like unchartered adventures.
Amby would take me out in every kind of weather. I discovered the exhilaration of running over snow. I got to know the beauty of running through spring showers. He was also responsible for completely changing the way I viewed running. My coach in high school was Frank O’Rourke, a tough, no-nonsense Irish Catholic whose infamous junkyard bark easily carried from one end of Newington to the other. Beneath his old-school bluster, however, he was a kind and paternal man who cared deeply for his players.
Coach O’Rourke, a former high school half-mile state champion, made it his mission in the fall of 1964 to turn our scraggly team of misfits and perennial losers into a powerhouse on the track. He had his work cut out for him. For one, none of us had any formal training. We had no clue about pacing. We ran full-out. And then the moment we crossed the finish line, we’d all collapse on the ground in a heap. Guys would get sick and throw up.
I recall him saying something to my parents when I joined the track team. He said to them, “Don’t expect too much.” I think Coach meant that I didn’t really have a lot of genetic fast-twitch muscle fibers, i.e. I was scrawny. Or he might have just thought I was just too spacey, disorganized, and cheerful a kid to excel at sports.
Every afternoon in high school, Coach O’Rourke put us through vigorous calisthenics—push-ups, sit-ups, jumping rope—followed by interval training, a mix of high-intensity speed work and light jogging. We were expected to run as fast as the sprinters. He didn’t make us chase chickens like Rocky’s pugnacious coach Mickey Goldmill, but he did have a similar loud, gravelly voice that cut through our boyhood chatter faster than a blade. Also like Mickey, he never ran with us. Instead, he’d yell out splits in his gruff but encouraging way.
Coach worked us hard, at least harder than any track coach thought of training his team of runners in 1963. But he also infected us with his passion for running. He managed to get more out of me than anybody else had my entire life. I was the type of kid who was always making excuses not to run—too cold, too rainy, not feeling well, stomach issues. But I liked Coach O’Rourke and was willing to work hard for him. He showed interest in me. When you’re young, you’re looking for somebody who believes in you.
Our views did occasionally clash, however. I remember Charlie, Jason, and I started wearing our hair longer in high school. This drove Coach crazy. As Charlie would say, “It was a little too long for a good Spartan organization like the Newington track team.” One day, O’Rourke decided to set us straight. He gathered us in his office and ordered us to cut our mangy mops. Jason pointed out to him that Tom O’Hara, an American kid, had broken the world indoor record in the mile in 1964 in Chicago. And he had long hair. “Long red hair!” I interjected. After that, Coach O’Rourke never bothered us again about our locks.
When I arrived on the Wesleyan campus, I carried with me Coach O’Rourke’s views on running. Workouts should be tightly scripted. They should leave you exhausted and drenched in sweat. Beating people on the track over a distance of one or two miles is what mattered. But then something happened. Amby took me under his wing.
As I copied his easy and relaxed strides on our long runs, I began to discover what he already knew. Training need not be an all-or-nothing battle, involving punishing track practice, grueling calisthenics, and wrenching interval sessions every afternoon. It could be a fun and easy cruise through the gorgeous New England countryside. It could be an act of freedom by which I could step outside myself and my racing mind. A long run in nature could even be a way to connect my physical body with the unseen spirit of the universe. As much as I enjoyed my German literature class, that’s not something that ever happened during a lecture.
Amby and Jeff never crushed us during our team’s daily training runs, which they could easily have done. Instead, we always moved together through campus as a cohesive unit. Many of the top runners on the teams we faced had an aggressive, macho, cutthroat attitude. Which isn’t to say that Amby and Jeff were not tough competitors, because they would go out there and annihilate you in a race. But generally speaking, Amby and Jeff had a far different perspective on running than most people in those days. They saw it as a fun thing to do. It was relaxing. It was social. It was a lifestyle.
From months of following Amby on his training run, I had slowly built up my mileage. He worked me up to the stage where I was running seventy-five miles a week. I was dedicated to a point, but nothing like him. I did the required workouts with the team, but I would sleep in on the weekends and miss runs, unless Amby woke me up and pulled me out of bed. I was a freshman in college in 1967—I was interested in exploring the social aspects of college life. I’d go out on the weekends and party. I started drinking alcohol for the first time as a freshman. I wasn’t a big drinker in college. I only remember getting drunk once—as a freshman. I threw up.
I was enjoying all these new experiences (well, maybe not that last one). On the weekends, I would go with my friends to dances, maybe drink a few gin and tonics, smoke a few cigarettes. Nothing crazy. Normal college stuff. I liked my new social life and had no intention of curtailing the fun in an effort to excel as a runner. Why would I?
The rest of the week I focused on my academics, which I found to be much more demanding than they were in high school. I was never in danger of flunking, but I was at the bottom of my class. Jeff was the kind of generous person who would help me with my homework when I got behind, which was often. As I grappled with the demands of working part-time in the cafeteria and my tough coursework, my attitude toward running changed. While I was still motivated to do well in my dual meets, the main reason I ran was because it was a fun thing to do, and it relieved the stress that came from balancing a strenuous academic workload with a part-time job.
Running mile after mile along the tree-lined roads near campus with Amby was great. I knew I couldn’t beat him—I never thought I could—but I’d try and stay with him. By just looking at Amby, you might not think he was a strong person, but I knew from running, side by side with him, just how incredibly fit he’d become. Sure, he looked like he was running on stilts, but he had developed terrific strength in his upper body and core. There was not a single imbalance in Amby’s movements. His posture bordered on robotic. He was a machine.
The thing about Amby, he didn’t have a lot of genetic inborn speed, meaning that at a hundred meters he was nothing special, but he had built up great cardiovascular strength from all the training he did. Amby didn’t get tired. At least, I don’t remember ever seeing him get tired. Most importantly, he had built up a psychological strength. The marathon is in the mind. Just because you can run eight or ten or even twenty miles at high speed doesn’t mean you can do it over a full marathon. What the mind can conceive, the body can achieve. Maybe not in all cases—you need some natural talent to run a four-minute mile. But the marathon has a lot to do with willpower. You might not have thought it, looking at his Tin Man frame and nerdy glasses, but inside, Amby was tough as hell.
He reminded me of a modern-day Abebe Bikila, who’d begun running as a sheepherder’s son in the remote mountainous village of Jato, Ethiopia. Years later, he stunned the world when he won the 1960 Rome Olympic marathon running barefoot, becoming the first black African to win a gold medal. He then broke the world record at the Mexican games before a car accident left him in a wheelchair. Both of us completely idolized this foreign athlete who we didn’t even know. We always called him by his nickname, Abebe the Lionhearted.
Amby had the same tall, rail-thin frame at Bikila. But it was his solitary running life on campus that echoed the qualities of the Ethiopian champion—the stoic detachment, the fierce pride. Bikila’s running coach once said, “Abebe was made by Abebe, not by me or anyone else.” Over many New England seasons, I had watched as Amby had made Amby. Herein lies the true power of running: With every mile you run, with every stride you take, you do more than reshape your body—you reshape your destiny. It would be a long time before I came to understand that myself.
Amby thought I showed real promise as a runner, which is why he was a little disappointed with my lackadaisical, half-assed approach to the sport. In Amby’s world, I was a party boy. He would never chastise me, or pressure me to put forth more effort than I was willing, but he would always say things like, “You’d be a good runner if you ever became serious about it,” or “Hey, Rodgers, you still drinking a bottle of gin tonight?” I didn’t think there was anything wrong with my carefree lifestyle, or my lax attitude toward running. I was in college!
Amby was always trying to get me to go out with him on ten-to-fifteen-mile runs on the weekend. Once, during my freshman year, Amby managed to convince me to go with him on a fifteen-miler. It was my first long run (unless you count that fluky twelve-miler that made the local news). Here’s what I recall: We ran at a nice, easy pace. Amby always set a moderate pace for himself, between six and a half and seven-minute miles, and I stayed with him for over an hour, but then my legs locked up on the fifteenth and I had to walk the final mile. So this is what it felt like to go beyond myself. Interesting.
As I mentioned, Amby would wake up every Sunday morning and run twenty-five miles as part of his preparation for the Boston Marathon. Amby knew there was zero chance of dragging me out of bed early on a Sunday morning, especially not after I’d been out partying late the night before. I needed some time to recover from my hangover before even beginning to consider lacing up my running shoes. So we struck a compromise. Amby would wake up before me and run the first ten miles on his own and then I would join him for the final ten miles. Call it the Burfoot–Rodgers Running Accord.
Amby would say to me, “Bill, I’m going to be on campus at ten, so why don’t you meet me out in the middle of the football field or on the track around the football field.” I would be waiting there and, sure enough, at ten o’clock to the minute, I’d see a tall, angular figure striding stiffly toward me. Amby was like clockwork. Blew my mind.
Amby had mapped out our course just as precisely as he had mapped out everything else in his life, from the moment he woke up at 6:30 a.m. to the time his head hit the pillow at exactly 9:30 p.m. Amby’s actions were never without purpose. Even inviting me to join him on his training runs was about more than giving me a gentle nudge to grow up. Running with a partner helps you run faster and maintain focus. It also kicks boredom. In that way, I was a big help to Amby. Also, since I hadn’t already run ten miles, I was fresh and could push Amby a little bit on the last half. If he had been out there by himself, he might have started sagging.
After leaving campus, we ran three or four miles uphill along Route 66, a country road without much car traffic. We ran at a good clip, tackling some serious hills, hilly enough that there was a small ski slope nearby. On the way back we would sneak off the road and run along wooded trails for a couple of miles. I loved following Amby through the winding and rugged dirt path, the sound of our footsteps trampling leaves and small branches. I loved the challenge. I would think: Can I do this? Can I stay with him? I wasn’t afraid of pushing myself too far. It was fun.
Of course, our heads couldn’t have been in more different places. The lanky figure running next to me was focused on being the first American in a decade to win the Boston Marathon. He was aiming to compete against the world’s best marathon runners. I was aiming for my next college dual meet. His competition would be the mighty Finns, the fanatical Japanese, the world-class Mexicans; mine would be a kid named John Vitale from the University of Connecticut.
We would talk the whole way on our runs.
“How was your trip home?” I asked.
“Great. I went on some long runs through the countryside with Johnny. We ran hours through these amazing Indian trails near Mystic. After that, we went back to his place. We sat in the living room and chatted over tea and cookies. Well, actually, he talked; I listened. He’s a wild guy to listen to … one of these great old Irish storytellers. He talks about Thoreau and Vonnegut and quotes Dylan lyrics. He talks about the dangers of the military-industrial complex. He talks about finding one’s own place in the universe, even if it puts you at odds with the rest of society. He’s just the best guy ever.”
As fate would have it, Amby attended the Fitch High School in Groton, Connecticut, where his track coach was Young Johnny J. Kelley, who in 1957 became the first American to win the Boston Marathon since John A. “the Elder” Kelley, no relation, in 1945. The younger Kelley was a Running God in the fifties and not just in Boston, which was his home for a while, but around the world. He ran on two American Olympic teams and won eight consecutive national marathon titles at Yonkers, New York. Many consider him the first modern American road runner.
As the years passed, however, Kelley’s great accomplishments faded in people’s memory. Meanwhile, the one-mile race had become a national obsession, thanks to running sensation Jim Ryun, who in 1964 became the first high school runner to break the four-minute mile. As for the great American marathoners of yesteryear—seven-time Boston Marathon champion Clarence DeMar, John “the Elder” Kelley, Young Johnny Kelley—by 1968 they were all but forgotten. When no American came along to duplicate their success, the marathon went from having little visibility around the country to practically none. For the next decade, the Europeans and the Japanese would dominate the Boston Marathon. It looked like an American might never win there again.
Amby’s father had died in a car accident early in his life, and in high school, Johnny Kelley became something of a second father to him. And just as John “the Elder” Kelley had taken a sixteen-year-old Johnny Kelley to his first local road race, Johnny Kelley introduced young Amby into the secret and sacred world of New England long-distance running. In Amby, he found an eager pupil to lead on long runs through the countryside. Together, the tiny, gregarious Irish teacher and his tall, shy, Germanic student would traverse hilly pastures, splash through streams, and bound over rough old Indian trails, the locations of which were known by Kelley alone. Through his mentor, Amby became part of a tradition of rebellious New England road warriors who went back to that original long-distance racer, Paul Revere. And now he was taking the wisdom he had learned from the older runners who lived around the area—Johnny Kelley; Norm Higgins was another—and passing it down to me.
“How was your weekend?” Amby asked, the conversation moving as leisurely as our strides.
“Jason and some other friends came up to visit. We played some poker.”
“Drank some beers,” Amby added.
“Yeah, we might have had a couple,” I said with a shrug.
“Sure. Just a couple,” Amby replied with a dead-pan grin. “So, you thought about this summer?”
“What do you mean?”
“You should run five miles a day. If you do that, you’ll come back in the fall, guns blazing in cross-country.”
“That’s a good idea,” I said.
I meant it, too. It was a good idea. To my way of thinking: You do cross-country in the fall, then indoor track in the winter, and outdoor track in the spring. The summer was for goofing off with your friends. It was for relaxing, and going to the beach, to the movies, and to dances. If I was feeling particularly motivated, I might run five miles every third or fourth day. Amby subscribed to a slightly different philosophy. He’d be living and breathing running that summer.
As we ran shoulder to shoulder down the road, we could see the dorms in the distance on Foss Hill.
“I heard the girls there are having a mixer up there tonight,” I said, sarcasm dripping.
“Should we go up there now and make dates?” said Amby. “I’m sure there’s a couple of beautiful brunettes waiting for us.”
“I think I see them right now. They’re waving at us from the quad.”
This was a common joke between us—the total absence of females at our all-male school. In fact, we spent many hours on the road discussing the opposite sex. What else is there really to talk about? Unfortunately, we had a lot more experience talking about girls than actually dating them. I remember having a crush on a gal in middle school. I think she knew I had a crush on her, too. I wanted to ask her out, but never followed through. Honestly, I was a terrible social misfit. I would go to a dance and sit in the stands and watch the more aggressive jocks talk to the girls. I remember wearing a clip-on tie to my first dance and one of my pals came over, yanked it off, and threw it away.
Between Charlie and me, he had far more success with girls in high school. Charlie was into cars, which was a cool teenage activity. (I was into collecting butterflies and running—not cool at all.) He was more outgoing. He was handsome and the girls liked him. In high school, he had a girlfriend. As for me, I was trying to meet somebody but without too much success—my silly glasses and scrawny build notwithstanding. No, I wouldn’t be called a hunk by anybody’s description. I was definitely a bit of a nerd in high school and during that era, it was not good to be a nerd, in any way, shape, or form. Running retarded me even more socially. Charlie and the rest of the cross-country team used to go to his girlfriend’s to hang out when they were supposed to be out on workouts. They would do this right under Coach O’Rourke’s nose. While they were drinking soda pop and making out in closets, I was out doing the entire workout by myself. I just enjoyed the sensation that running outdoors gave me.
Here, running alongside Amby through the trails and streams beyond campus, I was once again granted that same soaring rush of freedom. The part about those runs that Amby remembers most is how differently I ran along the road than he. Amby ran with this narrow focus, like some automaton, looking straight down the road. He ran inside of himself. He focused hard on his running effort and didn’t see things in the environment around him. I was able to run with a more relaxed stride—“flowing” is the word Amby always thought of when he watched me run. I gazed all around me as I ran, whether it was at clouds drifting in the sky or birds nestling in the trees. I was always finding stuff that Amby never noticed: money on the road and things like that. I’d stop to pick up items on the side of the road, which I think drove Amby crazy. Running never felt like a chore to me; it was the opposite. Pure fun. I would run along the country road, singing the words of my favorite song to myself. “Here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and I say, it’s all right.”
Amby studied me closely, like I was some rare species of bird. For all his dedication and hard work, he was cursed to never know what it felt like to run effortlessly. He had to maintain his concentration as he ran and focus hard on every step he took. As he moved alongside me, he wondered, how was it that I could float along the road the way I did? I had no idea. I was just doing what I’d always done. I didn’t know any other way to be. Ever since I was a kid, running felt as natural to me as breathing.
When we were boys, my brother, Charlie, and I would spend entire days running wild, or as wild as possible in our quiet, leafy suburban town of Newington, Connecticut. Our best friend, Jason Kehoe, who lived down the block from us on Thornton Drive, and who we’d known since we were two years old, always joined us on our boundless adventures. We were the three amigos, the Three Musketeers, inseparable.
We hiked trails, fished ponds, and played out our childhood fantasies in the thick woods behind our house. These woods were made for pint-size cowboys, junior pirates, and intrepid explorers. I’d bound over logs, rocks, and bushes. Sometimes we’d run around with bows and arrows, hunting for turtles, frogs, and snakes. We were like the tribe of rag-taggle Lost Boys in Peter Pan. God knows how many miles we covered! I’ve heard that Kenyan children are very active. It’s normal for them to run to and from school and the market. No one walks, everyone runs. That’s the way we were. We were always moving.
I think I enjoyed running even more than my brother and the other neighborhood kids. It suited my personality. I had all this energy and wasn’t so good at directing it. I was always bouncing off the walls and hanging from the rafters. I found it difficult to sit in a classroom for eight hours each day. I preferred to be outdoors where I could burn off energy. I definitely had some form of ADHD. Today, I would have been given Ritalin. But back then, I was just a kid who couldn’t sit still. My family and friends would just sigh and say with a little grin, That’s Bill for ya. Always getting into something.
Charlie was the oldest among us, and the leader of our group. He was often cautioning Jason and me not to carry through with whatever dubious, high-flying action we were about to undertake. He might, for example, say to us, “Well, the farmer is rapidly approaching us on his tractor and he doesn’t look too happy about you eating his corn, and maybe you shouldn’t be taunting him as he bears down on us.” Charlie would sprint away while Jason and I would continue to make faces at the farmer for another thirty seconds, before getting away by the skin of our teeth.
I was a notorious teaser, Tom Sawyer style. Sometimes I pushed too far, like the time I stood on my front lawn, taunting our neighbor Gerald with goofy faces. He stood glowering back at me across the street on his lawn. At once, Gerald marched over. There was a look of murder in his eyes. He clearly intended to punch me in the face. Gerald sprang on top of me, sending us rolling on the ground. Out of nowhere, Charlie rushed over and said, “You gotta get off, man! You’re not gonna be hitting my brother!” But Gerald paid no heed, and was acting fairly crazed, so Charlie let him have it in the side of the head. Gerald got up and staggered away. That was the end of it. Although I had probably asked to be punched, it meant a lot that Charlie had come to my defense. I knew I could always count on him to make sure that no harm came to me, and it made us closer than any two brothers could be.
It seemed like I was always running afoul of some authority figure in our town. One time, the cops drove me up to my house after busting me for setting off fireworks. Another time, store detectives chased me out of a Sears Roebuck. Charlie, Jason, me, and Gerald used to sneak into a private pond to fish and someone would always end up chasing us away. We’d also go hunting with our BB guns in Stanley Park in nearby New Britain. Obviously, we weren’t supposed to be doing that.
One time, we were having a grand time chasing after squirrels and ducks in Stanley Park. All of a sudden, we heard sirens. A police car pulled up. The four of us instantly bolted in different directions. So much for inseparable. I had a good hormonal system for moving when I needed to, and this definitely qualified. I must have set a personal record for running through whippy brush and prickers. They weren’t going to catch me. I dove into a nearby pond and hid waist-deep in the safety of the thick reeds. Poor Gerald wasn’t so lucky. He got nabbed.
As a boy, my favorite activity was chasing butterflies in the huge field near our house. It was here, dashing through the tall grass, wielding the homemade net I’d made with a pillowcase and broomstick, that I discovered my love for running. I’d spot a butterfly to add to my prized collection—perhaps a giant swallowtail or a red admiral or a luna moth—and chase after it like a bird of prey. Charlie and the other kids watched in awe at the speed with which I ran down the elusive, winged creatures. They couldn’t fathom how, long after they had collapsed in a sweaty heap, I could still be charging back and forth through the field, armed with a butterfly net, a happy grin across my face. For some reason, I alone had been given the gift of being able to chase the fluttering butterflies for hours straight without tiring. I didn’t understand it, and neither did my parents, Charlie, or anybody else close to me, but running outdoors for miles and miles felt like the most natural thing in the world to me.
I remember running through the field one day with my friends, the warm summer sun baking our scrawny limbs as sweat poured off us in sheets. I caught sight of Charlie zeroing in on a beautiful tiger swallowtail. I was about eighty yards away and broke into a tremendous sprint. At the last second, I swooped in with my net and snatched the fluttering creature just under Charlie’s nose. For the first time in my life, I felt that fiery, competitive spirit overwhelm me. I knew then that nothing could ever match the thrill of running as fast and as far as my feet could take me.
As Amby and I continued to move in perfect stride along the quiet country roads on the outskirts of campus, chatting about silly stuff like girls and music, I took in the beautiful colors of the New England foliage and smiled. I couldn’t believe that training could be like this; that I could feel like I did as a kid chasing butterflies with Charlie and Jason. Happy. Free. Flowing. “Here comes the sun,” I sang to myself, soaring along the road. “Here comes the sun. And I say, it’s all right.”
Little did I know of the storm clouds gathering in the distance.
Copyright © 2013 by Bill Rodgers and Matthew Shepatin