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In The Long Run, It's Shorter
Frank Deford
May 24, 1976
Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in 1972 and hopes to repeat in July. While he says, "Guys who make a cult of running ruin the whole thing," there are times when even he seems obsessed
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May 24, 1976

In The Long Run, It's Shorter

Frank Shorter won the Olympic marathon in 1972 and hopes to repeat in July. While he says, "Guys who make a cult of running ruin the whole thing," there are times when even he seems obsessed

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Most of the contestants are altogether unused to this adulation. They shyly examine those who have come to look at them, and there is a sense of communion in the air. The long-distance runners smile appreciatively as they are applauded. Almost all of these anonymous men and women will never again be cheered so long as they live.

Frank Shorter is the best at this wretched excess. Legend has it that the first marathoner, the Greek messenger Phidippides, dropped dead in Athens after running from Marathon to report the victory over the invading Persians. Nothing is known of Phidippides' build and age, but those who have followed in his footsteps tend to be short, wizened men who mature late at their hard art. When Shorter won the gold medal at the Munich Olympics at 24 he was relatively a baby.

Nobody longs to grow up and become a marathoner. The runner ascends to that estate, usually, because he cannot win shorter races. In college, where there is no marathon, coaches call these fellows "LSDs"—long, slow, distance runners—and despair of what to do with them. In the autumn, they run cross-country and obtain small headlines in the college papers as "harriers."

Such was Shorter at Yale, a runner of modest distinction. His coach, the renowned Bob Giegengack, the 1964 Olympic track and field coach, figured Shorter had a chance of becoming a 10,000-meter man, because he appeared to have perfect equilibrium for the long haul. He is 5'10", 133, and runs straight up—"a vertical hyphen," according to Marty Liquori.

Giegengack didn't picture Shorter as a marathoner because nobody much associates Americans with that event. A couple of little locals, Clarence DeMar and Johnny Kelley, gained some fame in the Boston Marathon, but until Shorter's surprise victory at Munich, more than 60 years had passed since an American had won in the Olympics. In 1904 Thomas Hicks trundled home in just under three and a half hours (the redoubtable Johnny Kelley ran Boston this year in 3:28 at age 68), and in 1908 Johnny Hayes was awarded an unpopular disputed victory. He crossed the line 32 seconds after an Italian pastry baker, Dorando Pietri, but while Pietri was assisted rather conspicuously near the finish by officials (among other things, his pulse had stopped), Hayes had been ministered to in greater privacy along the route. So he got the gold.

The third-place finisher, a South African who made it strictly on his own, did not protest, considering that to be bad form. This attitude still prevails among a number of marathoners, who are more concerned about completing their appointed rounds than in winning the bloody thing. The serious possibility of victory does not seem to enter their minds unless they are well along and comfortably ahead, and even then it appears to dawn on them largely through a process of elimination. Shorter has stood at the finish of marathons he has won in order to shake the hand of all who stayed the course. "Only a great feeling of thankfulness sweeps over you," he says. "There is no sense of conquest, none of this business about vanquishing anybody. My only thought is, 'Here we are, dammit! We made it!' "

Shorter's prime challenger at the U.S. marathon Trials in Eugene, Ore. this Saturday, where the top three will qualify for Montreal, is a skinny little towhead named Bill Rodgers. A teacher of emotionally disturbed children, Rodgers won the Boston Marathon last year in 2:09:55, aided by a 20 to 25 mph tail wind, to break Shorter's American record of 2:10:30. (It must be noted that records in the marathon are relatively meaningless because the courses vary greatly.) Rodgers was in Boston this year as a journalist and a press colleague, momentarily forgetting that the marathon is different from all other competitions, asked him a typical sportswriter strategy question, to wit: What sort of a race would he run against Shorter at Eugene? Rodgers drew back, assessing for a moment the daft soul who had uttered such a banality before answering as politely as he could, "But you never run against anybody in the marathon. You just run the best you can."

Shorter says, "It is a fine line, but to me the object is not to beat someone, but merely to live up to your potential. If you do, then you will end up winning a lot, but you won't be beating anybody. I hate to lose as much as anybody I know, but beat people? I guess that's why I never could have been a good team player—because it's never been that important for me to beat people."

Giegengack, now retired, was for some time confounded by Shorter's offhand ways. Despite his vintage Bronx accent ("But you listen; perfect syntax," he says), Giegengack lived among the sons of Eli Yale for three decades and he has a healthy respect for The Yale Man. Indeed, in passing, and in perfect syntax, Giegengack provides the alltime classic throwaway definition of Yale: "It's a great singing place and it's a great verbal place, too." Nonetheless, while Giegengack was plenty used to guys marching to their different drummers, Shorter took the prize. The coach says, "Even after he won the gold medal, if he was at a track meet and heard a gun go off, he'd start running—5,000 meters or something, which he couldn't possibly win. So once I told him, 'Hey, Frank, if you really want to get beat, why don't you go in the shotput?' You see, I was worried for him. Most guys get very upset when they're beat. But then it occurred to me that Frank isn't ever bothered by losing, so why shouldn't he compete?

"To start with, distance runners have a more ascetic mentality, the kind that the saints of the ancient church exhibited. But that doesn't mean we should ever make the mistake of feeling sorry for them. Why should we? After all, to feel good again all they have to do is stop. Now Frank's of this type, like all these sackcloth and ashes guys, but he can still have a lot of fun, too. Life is more important to Frank Shorter."

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