Book Review: Marathon Man


One of my goals during my summer break is to read at least one new book every other week. This is my first review.

Bay Staters love locals who accomplish great things; they also love their sports heroes. The best example of this is Doug Flutie. If you ever want to start a fight in Massachusetts, walk into a bar and tell someone that Doug Flutie was overrated or was too short to make it in the NFL. The subject of Marathon Man, Bill Rodgers, is another figure who is among those folk heroes in Bay State history. To clarify for my runner friends who think I’m a running poser, I picked this book up, not as a runner but as a Bay Stater who grew up watching the marathon and being told tales of a time when local kids were competing to win and crazy Boston Billy who stopped to tie his shoes en route to a marathon win.

This autobiography, told in the first person, plays into the mythology of the local boy who wins the Boston Marathon. Rodgers’ life pre-1975 is told, interspersed with his account of the 1975 marathon. The story telling device is particularly effective in establishing Rodgers’ personality, laid back but confident and knowledgeable about himself. It also plays into his love for Boston and the marathon, clearly demonstrating how the first twenty seven years of his life played a role in getting him to the finish line.

Rodgers’ talks you through how he went from decent college runner to typical twenty-something to New England sports legend. Having just quit my job, this section of his story resonated with me. Rodgers’ wasn’t driven by money; he simply knew that he loved to run and that he was very good at it. He knew what he was willing to sacrifice to achieve his dream of winning the marathon. The passion that Rodgers has for the marathon is obvious; given my history with the marathon, my gut tensed up and I grew anxious as he related the 1975 race. He recounts several other races, including his first win at NYC, but it is only when he talks about the marathon that this passion really shows.

Rodgers pays homage to his New England running lineage. From his college roommate Amby Burfoot, to Burfoot’s mentor Johnny Kelley, to the working class winners from the early days of the marathon, Rodgers never paints himself as the greatest runner in New England, nor the greatest of his age. He understands that eventually a new generation of runners will come along and it is his responsibility to foster that talent and help them grow. He talks about how he’d always say yes if anyone invited him to run, claiming “that’s how [he] ended up going out on more runs with local running clubs than probably anybody in history.”

He runs because he loves to run and he races because he loves to win. He draws a distinction between the two and demonstrates what happens when one races only with his heart and not with his head. When he got drawn into someone else’s race, the results were catastrophic. Rodgers’ advice, applicable to nearly everything in life,

Let them call you crazy. They will anyway. Run your own race. I’ll repeat that: Run your own race. Trust me, you will find much more success in life if you do. And you’ll have a lot more fun along the way.”
I wasn’t sure that it was possible but this book makes Rodgers even more likable. It is the story of someone who, in a roundabout fashion, discovered what was most important to him in life and wholeheartedly pursued that goal while still helping those around him. For someone who grew up on Bay State sports legends, this book will deepen your understanding of the history of running in the area and deepen your appreciation for the role that sport plays in the Bay State. I’m sure runners will appreciate reading Rodgers’ struggles with training/work balance, injuries, and disappointing finishes. If you have ever run the marathon and can relate to the stories of the Newton Hills or you have ever run that perfect race (or a complete disaster of a race), you will find something here to capture your imagination and inspire you.

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