During the 1970s and ’80s, the mention of the name “Bruce Bickford” in running circles resulted in raised-in-awe eyebrows and respectful shaking of heads. No one, even the toughest of the hard-core runners of the day, could imagine being “that” good.
Born on March 12, 1957, Bickford grew up on a farm in East Benton, Maine, the oldest of three boys. All eventually became runners. Bruce’s father, Stanley, asked his boys that they limit their extracurricular time at school to two sports. There were plenty of chores that needed doing on the farm and there was not time for more “play” than that.
In his freshman and sophomore years, Bruce Bickford played basketball at Lawrence High in Fairfield. It was during his sophomore year that a good friend, Danny Bickford, went out for cross country. As there was somewhat of a rivalry between the two, Danny challenged Bruce to a race. So one day, well after the start of the cross country season, Bruce came up to the coach and asked if he could run. Since the season was already underway, the coach was hesitant, but finally agreed. There was a race that very day.
The only uniform the coach could find for him was one much too large, but it would have to do. In that tri-meet with Belfast and Cony, the two toughest teams in the league, Bickford finished 1st for Lawrence and 8th overall. That year he finished 2nd in the state meet and took 8th in the New England’s. Bickford had found his niche. From now on, there would be no more basketball, except in the driveway.
In track, Coach Dave Martin had him run the 2-mile, but sometimes also the 880 and even the relays. And to keep the long track meets from getting too boring, Bickford even tried the high jump, leaping 5-feet-11. This was a time when 6 feet was considered exceptional.
Years later, Bickford would look back at those early days and realize that because he was not pushed into running only distance events or did not have too much pressure put on him, he was probably aided in his overall running career.
Bickford won the state 2-mile championship twice outdoors and once indoors, and took 1st place in the mile twice indoors and once outdoors. He set school records in the 2-mile with a time of 9:16 outdoors and 9:09 indoors. He helped his team win state titles both indoors and outdoors three straight years, the beginning of a long string of championships that Lawrence had under Coach Martin and his assistant, Ray Winship. Bickford’s 9:09 indoor mile, a phenomenal time for a high school runner, was run at Dartmouth in his senior year.
Bickford took 8th in the New England’s in cross country in his sophomore year, just two months after he started running. He placed 3rd as a junior, then won the New England championship meet in his senior year. That 1974 race, Bickford maintains, is still one of the most rewarding wins of his stellar career.
It seemed in high school that it never went to his head that he was a really good runner,” said Ray Winship, who handled the distance runners in track. “He was confident without being obnoxious and arrogant about it. The only problem was that, at the time, neither one of us coaches knew a whole lot about coaching a distance runner. Bruce was the only one we had in the school until Patrick, the Hill brothers, and that crew came along. He was the only quality distance runner we had.” Winship continued: “Even though Bruce realized that there wasn’t anybody in the school who was knowledgeable about running, he never really said anything. A lot of kids would have said that the coach didn’t know anything, but Bruce would just go out and do what he was told to do and if he felt that it wasn’t enough of a workout, he’d do more on his own.”
Winship said that he and Martin did all the reading they could, and went to some clinics in Massachusetts. Martin even used himself as a guinea pig, going out and doing certain workouts himself to see what effect they had.
Steve Russell, who finished three places behind Bickford in the 1972 New England cross country race, remembers the KVAC championship that year very well. Russell, a senior from Mt. Blue, found himself running among a pack of runners who were fighting for second place. First place was already wrapped up, as Bickford ran way out front, with his only competition being the clock.
It isn’t surprising that about 200 colleges offered scholarships to the Lawrence High star, who graduated in 1975. His choice was Northeastern University in Boston because it was not too far from home and it offered what he wanted in academics and running.
At Northeastern he twice earned All America honors in track and cross country. In his senior year he won the Greater Boston Collegiate Cross Country Championship, the indoor IC4A 2-mile title, and the New England steeplechase championship. The steeplechase was his best running event in college, and the one he liked the most. The event kept monotony to a minimum because of the added challenges it offered.
In 1976, when Bickford was 19, his times were good enough for him to qualify for the Olympic trials, but he decided that he wasn’t quite ready for that level of competition. However, he felt he was ready when t he Olympic year of 1980 arrived.
He qualified for the Olympic trials in three events: the 3,000 meter steeplechase (8:27), 5,000 meters (13:30), and 10,000 meters. But, with a personal best in the mile of 4:01, he could have also qualified in the 1,500. As far as Bickford knows, qualifying in four running events would have made him the only American ever to do so. Competing in the Olympics in more than one event would be tough he knew, so he picked the 10,000. His advantage in this event, he believed, was that he trained more miles than most lOK runners (105 to 115) a week, he had a great kick, and he had the speed of a miler.
He was, however, now hampered by injuries. It became an academic matter because even if he had made the team, the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games anyway. Still, Bruce Bickford was now a name in international track.
After graduating from Northeastern, he made his home in the Boston area, doing promotional work for New Balance. Living around Boston, where a number of world class runners trained, Bickford made a habit of getting together for runs with some of the best. One was Bob Hodge, who had placed 3rd in the BAA Marathon in 1979. On Wednesdays they would do their usual 15-miler together. It wasn’t unusual for them to run the last 10 miles at a 5:20 pace, but this was well within a comfort zone for Bickford. His mileage varied from 95 to 120 a week.
One workout that Bickford thought had great benefits was hill repeats. He would typically do 8 to 15 repeats of a hill, each lasting about a minute in duration. As far as Bickford knows, he and Greg Meyer were the only ones doing this kind of workout as a regular part of their training. Bickford’s longest run was about 18 miles, and the longest training run he ever took was 23 miles.
Bickford will likely be remembered most for his impressive 27:37.7 clocking in a track meet at Stockholm, Sweden on July 2, 1985. It turned out to be the fastest 10K run that year in the world, and it gave him a No. 1 ranking by Track and Field News. In that race he beat the 1984 gold medalist Alberto Cova, as well as the world lOK recordholder Fernando Mamede. American great Mark Nenow was also in the race.
During his running career Bickford raced internationally in Italy, Germany the Soviet Union, England, Spain, Puerto Rico, and Bermuda. He once held the American record for 3 miles until it was beaten by Alberto Salazar, and over his running career he qualified for seven U.S. national teams. When he was 27, he ran the 10,000 at the Penn Relays in 27:51, the best time in the country that year and the third best in the world. In 1981 alone, he ran five sub-29:00 1OKs.
There’s little doubt that he was blessed with good speed and that he had a good kick. Once, while doing quarter-mile intervals, he ran the 8th one in 52 seconds. One of his best career races was a 3-mile run at Madison Square Garden in 1980 where he recorded 13:06.7.
His career bests include: mile, 4:01.8; 2 miles, 8:30.6; 3 miles, 13:06.7(American record); 5K, 13:30 (3rd fastest ever by an American); 3,000 meter steeplechase, 8:25.3; IOK, 27:37; 15K, 44:43; 10 miles, 49:29; 13.1 miles, 1:06.32; and marathon, 2:18:57 (Boston, ’87).
In 1982, Bickord was ranked 2nd in the nation behind world record holder Henry Marsh in the 3,000 meter steeplechase. In December, 1983, he ran 5,000 meters in 13:30, the third fastest time ever by an American, the 12th fastest in the world, and the fastest time ever run in New England.
In March, 1984, he went to England to compete as a member of the U.S. National Team, taking third in the mile in 4:04, three seconds off his best time. At the time he was still in shock over a family tragedy. His brother, Pat, an up and coming runner himself, was killed in a car accident in February. Only a few years earlier, Bruce’s high school coach, Dave Martin, was also killed in an auto accident.
Although much of his best running was done outside of Maine, Bickford did run a number of races in his home state when he was in his prime. In the Benjamin’s lOK in Bangor, in the fall of 1982, he and Greg Meyer both broke the New England lOK road record, Bickford running 28:31, just a few seconds behind Meyer, the 1983 BAA Boston Marathon winner. Bickford had done no speedwork at all to prepare for this race, and the week before he’d run 120 miles.
Bickford showed that he had the stuff for the 10,000. He won the 1984 Olympic trials, running in horrid humid conditions. But all would not go well at the Olympics in Los Angeles. Running with Achilles tendon problems, he finished last in the 10,000 meter final.
Shortly after the 1984 Olympics he began coaching the distance runners at Northeastern where he had been inducted into the Sports Hall of Fame. And, in December of 1991, he was appointed head administrator of Nike Boston, overseeing the men’s and women’s elite squads that finished second and fifth, respectively, at the TAC/USA Cross Country Championships. He would later coach track at Villanova and Brandeis.
Bickford was inducted into the Maine Running Hall of Fame at the first induction ceremony held in 1989, and he was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in 1993.