| NY Times
November 2, 2012
Hitting the Road
By CAMERON STRACHER
THE announcement this week that Bill Rodgers would shutter his last running store, in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, was a sad farewell to a bygone era of great American runners. Rodgers was the four-time Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon winner and, along with Frank Shorter and Alberto Salazar, ruled the roads in the 1970s and early ’80s. (In large part because of their achievements, it is estimated that the New York City Marathon brings $340 million to the city, making its cancellation an economic — as well as an athletic — bust.) Yet the men, like the store, are creaky with age, and no fountain of youth renews them.
When Shorter won the Olympic Marathon in 1972, he ushered in the “running boom” — a golden decade during which American men were the best in the world. (It would be another 12 years before Joan Benoit won the inaugural women’s Olympic Marathon.) In 1975, when Rodgers beat Shorter at the World Cross-Country championships, a rivalry was born that became a three-way competition in 1977 when Salazar battled both men at the Falmouth Road Race (losing to Rodgers, but beating Shorter). In a 10-year period the three men broke the United States marathon record five times, while Salazar broke the world record in New York City in 1981.
In the early 1970s, however, running equipment was rudimentary. A Nike co-founder, Bill Bowerman, churned out running shoes by hand, using his wife’s waffle iron to create the “waffle sole.” Runners contended with shorts that chafed, T-shirts that hung wet and heavy, and long underwear that kept them warm during winter runs but looked like, well, underwear.
Responding to the need for better equipment, a handful of companies like Dolfin and Tiger began producing specialized clothing for “joggers,” and before long Frank Shorter started his own line of running gear. Immediately, however, he ran afoul of the International Association of Athletics Federations (the world governing body for track and field), which threatened to strip him of his amateur status if he earned any money from running-related activities.
At that time, runners were not only prohibited from being paid for winning races, but they also could not give clinics, endorse products or equipment, or profit from their fame in any way. Instead, they survived by cashing in their plane tickets and traveling to races by car and pocketing their meal money and going out to dinner with race promoters. Some even found cash stuffed in their shoes or tucked into a paper bag that appeared at the bottom of their locker. It was a system Rodgers called “shamateurism,” and it treated runners like professionals in every way except in how they made a living.
Eventually, Shorter struck a deal that permitted him to open his business as long as he owned at least 51 percent and did not license his name. Rodgers followed with his own clothing line and running stores. By the time Salazar graduated from college, running was a big enough business that Nike hired him as a marketing consultant and paid him $50,000 a year. A princely sum in those years, but peanuts compared with the salaries of other top athletes.
Although the restrictions meant Shorter and Rodgers would never grow rich from their businesses, it also meant they were not absentee owners. Rodgers, in particular, was a constant presence at his stores in Boston and, with his brother, Charlie, hired friends and other runners as employees. As a result, the Bill Rodgers Running Center became the place for runners to hang out, talk running and learn running, and an inspiration for other independent stores that bloomed across the United States. They didn’t just sell shoes; they cultivated a community that was fiercely competitive yet ate, drank, trained and raced together (and sometimes even lived or slept together, or both).
But the company that started with a waffle iron grew into an apparel empire worth more than $40 billion. The influx of money from advertising and sponsorships drew athletes from all continents, burying Americans in a wave of Europeans and then Africans. Shorter, Rodgers and Salazar grew old and retired, and no new stars arose to replace them. It was only a matter of time until the big box stores displaced the dedicated running shops. Customers didn’t want stories; they wanted low prices and the latest fashions. Before long, as Charlie Rodgers described it: “We were like a couple guys at an old hardware store, whittling sticks, waiting for someone to come around to buy horseshoes.”
Yet those were the glory days when a casual visitor could encounter a world-record holder, and a rookie just starting could get tips from a pro. Under the same roof they shared a sense of discovery, a common adventure. The road was long, but their spirit was strong. Now the store is gone and memories have faded, but somewhere in the distance a kid is lacing up his shoes, prepared to put his foot down and call himself a champion. Imagine it now.
Cameron Stracher is the author of the forthcoming book “Kings of the Road,” about the running boom and the 1970s.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: November 3, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated what Nike’s worth had grown to at one point. It was $40 billion, not $40 million.