Bill Rodgers has run hundreds upon hundreds of road races in his life.
He’s not sure of the exact number. He estimates that he has logged at least 180,000 miles in a distance running career that spans 50 years. There are many races he has run 20 times or more.
There is only one that he has run as many as 37 times. And he plans to add to that total this weekend.
Rodgers will participate in the Quad-City Times Bix 7 for the 38th consecutive year on Saturday. He said that’s far and away the most he ever has run in any race.
“I’m glad to make the race and I still try to do my best there,’’ Rodgers said. “I don’t go up and down the hills so well anymore, but I like the challenge.’’
Rodgers, who will turn 70 in December, remains a legendary figure nearly four decades after a mind-boggling five-year stretch in which he won the Boston Marathon and the New York City Marathon four times each.
He was at the back end of that stretch when he first came to the Bix 7 in 1980. He had earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the Moscow games and was primed to finally take a shot at Olympic glory.
Then politics entered the picture and the United States opted to boycott the Olympics. Rodgers refers to it as having a rug pulled out from under him.
“It threw everyone for a loop,’’ he said.
With nothing else to do and nowhere else to run, he accepted an invitation to run a fledgling little race in Davenport, Iowa.
Not surprisingly, Rodgers won the 1980 Bix 7 with ease, defeating his nearest competitor by a minute, 14 seconds. It remains the most lopsided victory ever in the men’s phase of the race.
Rodgers enjoyed the people of the Quad-Cities and the challenge of the course and the views of the Mississippi River, but he said he didn’t really begin to feel immersed in the spirit of the Bix 7 until he came back the following year to compete against an old rival.
“When I came back the next year and Frank Shorter came in and I won again, then I started to feel like I was part of the Bix,’’ he said. “And then I couldn’t win it again. I came in second like three times or something.’’
Rodgers did, in fact, place second in 1982, 1983 and 1985. As the years passed, Bix officials brought in more great runners to compete against him. He said that’s one of the things he loves about the Bix 7. It always seems to include more than its share of exceptional runners.
“Of all the races I’ve done, maybe only the Falmouth Road Race can match the competition that the Bix has had over the decades,’’ he said.
Even though he seldom wins anything in the Bix 7 anymore, even in his age group, he continues to enjoy the event. He almost always brings his older brother, Charlie, who normally runs the Quick Bix. One year, he brought his father, a musician, who played the piano at the Bix Beiderbecke Jazz Festival. His mother came here the year Rodgers and Joan Samuelson were immortalized with the first statue in Bix Plaza.
“I have a lot of memories,’’ Rodgers said. “I still talk to my mom about that. She’s 94 years old and I told her ‘Charlie and I are going out to the Bix,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, I know. I remember the Bix.’’’
When they’re here, he and Charlie sometimes make a trip down to Monmouth, Illinois, where they learned they have genealogical roots and a few distant cousins.
Of course, it’s not the only race Rodgers has returned to many times over. Forty years ago, he won some of the biggest races in the country when they were just getting started, including the Gasparilla Classic 15k in Tampa, Florida; the Bellin Run 10k in Green Bay, Wisconsin; and the Cherry Blossom 10-miler in Washington, D.C. Many of those races have invited him back in recent years.
“But there a couple that didn’t invite me back,’’ he said. “I sort of felt like I helped put that race online, to get it going, to really crank it up. I don’t really feel that way about Bix. Bix was already established when I came there.’’
That’s not entirely true. The race was in only its sixth year in 1980 and had attracted only 800 entries the year before. With Rodgers in the field, it nearly doubled to 1,500 and it continued to shoot up year after year. His presence gave the Bix 7 instant credibility and runners flocked to the race just to be part of the same event as a runner who was as charismatic as he was successful.
Rodgers doesn’t run as many races as he once did. He has done only 10 so far this year and now only runs about 40 miles a week, about 100 fewer than he did in his prime.
But he still looks forward to measuring himself on the heat and hills of Bix, just as he has for the past 37 years.
His college roommate at Wesleyan University, former Runner’s World executive editor Amby Burfoot, claims to have run the Manchester (Connecticut) Road Race more than 50 times.
“But that’s 4.76 miles in the cool of November,’’ Rodgers said. “This is 7 miles in the heat of summer and July and the challenge of the Bix. And that challenge is for real. That’s why I love it.’’