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Veteran runner Rodgers talks to Duluth youth about fitness

Bill Rodgers of Hartford, Conn., was at the top of his game in the 1970s when Americans were at the top of the marathon world. Rodgers and countryman Frank Shorter each held the No. 1 world ranking three times during that decade. While the U.S. m...

Bill Rodgers of Hartford, Conn., was at the top of his game in the 1970s when Americans were at the top of the marathon world.

Rodgers and countryman Frank Shorter each held the No. 1 world ranking three times during that decade. While the U.S. men haven't been at such heights for more than 20 years, they are forging a comeback, Rodgers said.

"We were hurting for a long time because no one cared about our elite [marathon] athletes," he said Wednesday morning at Woodland Middle School. "Now they're getting more support -- support from team-based programs and from USA Track and Field. This isn't a pie-in-the-sky hope anymore; we can make the next step up."

More than 1,000 sixth-,

seventh- and eighth-graders got a chance to interact with Rodgers as he spoke to two assemblies. He was brought in from Boston by Grandma's Marathon, St. Mary's Duluth Clinic Health System and Duluth Public Schools to promote youth fitness.

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The 62-year-old former Olympian talked about positive coaches and positive friends who helped point him toward athletics and a healthful lifelong sport. When he took to running he gave up a three-year smoking habit and found solace and success on the roads, mostly at the 26.2-mile distance.

As a member of the Greater Boston Track Club, coached by Bill Squires, Rodgers also found strength in training partners Bob Hodge, Randy Thomas and Greg Meyer.

"Everyone has an athlete inside him or her," said Rodgers. "I realized I was a runner. I would never give up running if I had anything to say about it."

He won the Boston Marathon four times. He won the New York City Marathon four times. He won 22 of his 59 career marathons. He had a marathon best of 2 hours, 9 minutes, 27 seconds. He and Shorter were the face of America's first running boom.

Rodgers, who has undergone prostate cancer surgery and is the father of two daughters, no longer runs marathons, but still enters 20-30 races a year and logs 30-40 training miles per week. He's a co-owner of the Bill Rodgers Running Center shoe store in Boston.

His fitness message resonated with many of the Woodland students.

"If you set your mind to it and try and try again, you can do great," said eighth-grader Sophie Schuder, 13, who takes part in track, Nordic skiing, soccer and rowing, and plans to try cross country this fall. "If you fail, you can keep working and get stronger and get better."

That's what Rodgers has seen in America's marathoners. After many years of being outpaced by east Africans, the U.S. is making small gains again. Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi, Kara Goucher and Deena Kastor are now the faces of the sport.

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"We know more about training now, we have better coaches and we are getting a new legion of great runners," said Rodgers. "Look at the Boston Marathon two weeks ago, Americans finished fourth and fifth [with Hall and Keflezighi]. Hall's time [of 2:08:41] was the best ever run by an American in Boston."

The Duluth Children's Fit-n-Fun program concludes with a Fit-n-Fun Run on May 19 at the Duluth Central High School track.

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