190,000 miles and counting: Frank Shorter’s extraordinary running career

At age 70, the 1972 Olympic gold winner is content with running a little slower these days

1972 Olympic gold medallist Frank Shorter mostly sticks to the 10km these days. Photograph: Aidan Tarbett

1972 Olympic gold medallist Frank Shorter mostly sticks to the 10km these days. Photograph: Aidan Tarbett

 

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 being 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 Middleton, 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 became also 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 orthopedic problems that a lot of people get at my age.

American runner Frank Shorter on his way to clinching the gold medal in the marathon event at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany. Photograph: Tony Duffy/Allspor
American runner Frank Shorter on his way to clinching the gold medal in the marathon event at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany. Photograph: Tony Duffy/Allspor

“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, if you’re worried about arthritis. 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 the 18-hour stand-off.

Suspended

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, complete 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.

“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?”

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