Marathon man Shorter makes it 190,000 miles and count­ing

1972 Olympics win­ner still run­ning 46 years af­ter his Mu­nich tri­umph

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Riordan

Even af­ter all these years, the low gait and smooth ca­dence is un­mis­tak­able. At least to any­one prop­erly ed­u­cated in the his­tory of mod­ern marathon run­ning. Or else be­cause there can only ever be one Frank Shorter.

That he’s still run­ning af­ter all these years – at age 70, to be ex­act, 46 years af­ter win­ning the 1972 Olympic marathon in Mu­nich – is a good story in it­self, only Shorter will for­ever be re­mem­bered as the man who, ac­cord­ing to Out­side mag­a­zine, “in­vented run­ning in the United States”, and be­gan what Sports Il­lus­trated de­scribed as the “so­cial move­ment” which came with it.

Still, that gait and ca­dence was likely lost on most of the 4,000-plus run­ners lin­ing up along­side him at Run Gal­way Bay last Satur­day. Shorter runs for sheer plea­sure these days, not be­cause he needs to but be­cause he likes to, and mostly gone is that com­pet­i­tive in­stinct which also won him sil­ver in the 1976 Olympic marathon in Mon­treal, likely de­nied an­other gold by sys­tem­atic dop­ing in East Ger­many.

There are count­less other sto­ries caught up in the Shorter leg­end: those Mu­nich Olympics shat­tered by the Pales­tinian ter­ror­ist at­tack on Is­raeli ath­letes; get­ting half-cut on Ger­man beer the night be­fore win­ning his marathon Olympic gold.

He mostly sticks to the 10km these days, leav­ing the half- and marathon dis­tances in Gal­way to oth­ers. That’s un­der­stand­able too, be­cause when Shorter was run­ning at his prime no one in the world could stay with him.

In­cred­i­bly durable

“I’ve learned to be okay with run­ning slow,” Shorter hap­pily tells me, a teeth-wide smile to prove it. “I work out just as much as ever, but with more weight train­ing, swim­ming. I still run, it’s just not the pri­mary source of my fit­ness. I still run for the whole feel­ing of mov­ing across the ground in a cer­tain way. And I think with all good run­ners that’s kind of the key. They just en­joy the flow.”

At full flow Shorter was at once silken and light-footed and in­cred­i­bly durable. He won the gold in Mu­nich by two min­utes and 12 sec­onds, and ran a marathon best of 2:10:30 in Fukuoka, Ja­pan, just three months later. This was long be­fore the big city events such as New York and Chicago be­came the mass par­tic­i­pa­tion tests of to­day.

Shorter had no idea where this marathon path was go­ing in 1968 when he first ran the US Olympic marathon trial, and dropped out. It is, he also ad­mits, a lit­tle odd to be back in Ire­land af­ter all these years, first vis­it­ing in 1965, as a 17-year-old fresh out of high school in Mid­dle­town, New York.

“There wasn’t much of a road run­ning scene in Ire­land in the 1970s,” he says. “But when I was 17, I came over to Eng­land with one of my younger sis­ters, who was 15. We bought some bi­cy­cles, then came over to Ire­land, stay­ing in the youth hos­tels, had a great time.”

Home for years now has been Boul­der, Colorado, and when plan­ning a two-week va­ca­tion in Ire­land with some friends it felt nat­u­ral they start with a road race in Gal­way. Off the top of his head Shorter reck­ons he’s run about 190,000 miles by now – which equates to 7½ times around the world, enough to put the fear of crip­ple into most peo­ple.

He was run­ning up to 170 miles a week at his peak, mostly at high al­ti­tude in Colorado, be­fore that also be­came fash­ion­able. So much for the myth­i­cal bone-crush­ing na­ture of run­ning.

“I hon­estly don’t buy that,” he says. “I’ve had a few mi­nor surg­eries, but my the­ory on this is that I think the run­ning has fore­stalled and held off a lot of the or­thopaedic prob­lems that a lot of peo­ple get at my age.

“You can say there is wear and tear on the knees, but I’ve just had my first knee surgery within the last year. And any arthri­tis doc­tor will tell you that be­ing ac­tive is the best thing you can do. Ob­vi­ously every­one is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent ge­net­i­cally, but I hon­estly be­lieve that run­ning holds it off.”

Shorter was 24 when he won the Olympic marathon gold, hav­ing de­cided not long af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Yale in 1969 that 26.2-mile run­ning was his per­fect dis­tance. The Ger­mans dubbed Mu­nich “Glück­liche Spiele” (The Cheer­ful Games), only for things to turn ran­cid on the morn­ing of Wed­nes­day, Septem­ber 5th, when mem­bers of the Black Septem­ber Pales­tinian ter­ror­ist group broke into the Is­raeli quar­ters in the Olympic vil­lage, killing two ath­letes on the spot and an­other nine af­ter an 18-hour stand-off.

The Games were briefly sus­pended and then re­sumed, on the re­al­i­sa­tion any­thing else would be a con­ces­sion. The marathon un­folded the fol­low­ing Sun­day, when Shorter, look­ing unattain­ably thin, with cow­boy mous­tache, broke away af­ter just 10 miles and never looked back. US net­work TV car­ried the en­tire race live, and from that day Amer­i­can marathon run­ning was prop­erly born.

Mon­treal in 1976 was a dif­fer­ent mat­ter, when Shorter found him­self chas­ing down the un­her­alded East Ger­man, Walde­mar Cier­pin­ski, who would win by 50 sec­onds, in 2:09:55. Cier­pin­ski’s name later ap­peared in the Stasi files, un­cov­ered af­ter the Ber­lin Wall came down in 1989, doc­u­ment­ing the state-spon­sored dop­ing sys­tem which in­cluded as many as 10,000 ath­letes, from about 1968 to 1988.

Code num­ber

“I even know Mr Cier­pin­ski’s code num­ber on their list, 62, from when the doc­u­mented ev­i­dence came out,” says Shorter. “I spent 20 years say­ing noth­ing, and only when the op­por­tu­nity came to form the US Anti-Dop­ing Agency [USADA, which Shorter helped es­tab­lish], that’s when I de­cided to speak out.

“And you can ask John Treacy, as he was also part of the era, as ath­letes we knew, you could tell by the way peo­ple com­peted, and by the way they get tired. I don’t so much feel cheated, be­cause it was part of the time, but my feel­ing was to make it bet­ter for who came af­ter, and I think it is bet­ter now.”

Shorter was also part of that era, not just in Amer­ica, when ath­letes weren’t afraid to train ridicu­lously hard, and some­times party hard too. Shorter gen­tly de­nies get­ting half-cut the night be­fore win­ning his Olympic gold, even if that healthy bal­ance is per­haps ab­sent these days.

“No, I only had the beer,” he says. “But it was half a litre. Our credo was that we never par­tied so hard that we could not wake up the next morn­ing and run the work­out we planned on run­ning. I was my own coach, and chose what I needed to do, and you don’t want to squan­der your ef­forts.

“I also think I was just the one who won the Olympic gold medal who emerged from a group, en­claves around the coun­try, like in Boul­der where I was with Jack Bacheler, Jeff Gal­loway, plus the Ore­gon group, the Bos­ton group with Bill Rodgers. And again back to John Treacy, who was also there with the Ir­ish group in Prov­i­dence. So those kinds of en­claves re­ally sup­ported each other, and even­tu­ally be­came the ones who made the sport pro­fes­sional. We had to find a way to sur­vive, and we did that by truly help­ing each other.”

Not that any of this came per­fectly easy.

“Well, I did have back surgery, about three years ago, and the sur­geon came into the of­fice to read the MRI, and said to me, ‘Aren’t you in pain?’ And I said, ‘No.’ Then he said they should study my brain. I don’t know. Who knows?”

Our credo was that we never par­tied so hard that we could not wake up the next morn­ing and run the work­out we planned on run­ning

Frank Shorter of the USA on his way to vic­tory dur­ing the marathon at the 1972 Olympic Games in Mu­nich. Pho­to­graph: Tony Duffy/All­sport/Get­tyI­mages

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