Bill Rodgers on River Bank Run: ‘You’re part of something special’

Running great reflects on first year of Grand Rapids race

Bill Rodgers
Left: Bill Rodgers breaks the finishing tape during the Boston Maraton on April 17, 1979. (AP Photo) Right: Rodgers attends a Boston news conference on April 17, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Ask anyone who ran in the first Fifth Third River Bank Run in 1978 why they signed up that year, and chances are Bill Rodgers’ name will come up. Tell that to the racing great, and he’ll turn the attention back to those runners.

“I love these athletes… it’s not just a sport, it’s a way to live,” said Rodgers, a former American record holder for the marathon who also won the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon four times each.

Bill Rodgers
Bill Rodgers, of Melrose, Mass., crosses the finish line to win the Boston Marathon in Boston on April 17, 1978. (AP Photo)

That love and respect extends to the 11 athletes who have run every Fifth Third River Bank Run since the race began 40 years ago.

“But these guys are the streakers. They have the eye of the tiger, that nothing’s going to stop them,” Rodgers said of those running their 40th consecutive River Bank Run.

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Michigan’s Greg Meyer invited Rodgers to run in the inaugural race 40 years ago, after they both ran together on the World Cross Country team representing the United States.

“We got to know each other there, so he invited me to Grand Rapids to run the race and we ran together. It was just like a fun training run,” said Rodgers of that initial year.

Rodgers won the race, beating Meyer by about 45 seconds, but in his famously nonchalant way, he dismisses the victory now.

“Greg was not quite at his prime yet as a competitive distance runner. He was strong through 10K, 15K, something like that, but I had the edge as I was a marathoner,” said Rodgers.

Bill Rodgers
Bill Rodgers of Melrose, Mass., breaks the tape as he crosses the finish line in Boston, April 17, 1979, to win the 83rd running of the Boston Marathon in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 27 seconds. (AP Photo)

“We were just kind of cruising along, it didn’t matter too much you know,” he added.

During the post-race interview that year, Meyer said he hoped to get “closer to the man” someday, maybe even beat him.

And that’s what happened in the first road race in America in 1981. It was the Cascade Run Off in Portland, Oregon, and although Rodgers was one of the contenders, it was Meyer who took home the $10,000 first place prize.

“Greg outkicked us all,” said Rodgers. “He suddenly became a professional runner and life changed. I was so mad he beat me. And he gave me some flowers he had been given, and he passed them along to me and said, ‘Here, Bill!'” Rodgers shared with a laugh.

Rodgers calls himself and Meyer “old timers,” although he says he is considerably more of an old timer than Meyer. They see each other often at races around the country, including the 2017 Boston Marathon where Meyer helped with runner training.

Greg Meyer Bill Rodgers
Veteran marathoners, from left, Uta Pippig, Greg Meyer, Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson attend a news conference in Boston, Friday, April 17, 2015. The 119th Boston Marathon will be run on Monday. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Rodgers still runs in races here and there, although not as far as he used to.

“I retired a long time ago, but I’ll run anywhere up to 10 miles to a half marathon. I’m just trying to keep a part of this, you try to keep your health as you get older”, said Rodgers.

He also has this message for anyone involved in the 40th annual Fifth Third River Bank Run: “I want to salute and cheer (you). It’s one of our country’s great races, you’re part of something special,” he said.

“As the old saying goes, seize the day, run your race, celebrate what you did with your family and friends, then you’ve got it made. You’ve got it made.”