Except for a fluke once, when a doctor built him a faulty shoe, causing him to break a small bone in his foot, Shorter has never really been injured. He is not even troubled by blisters, the bane of distance runners. He runs easily, lightly, erect, his legs churning out a perfect lazy circle, around and around, unlike, say, sprinters' legs, which describe more of a hasty parallelogram. The symmetry of Shorter is marred only by the fact that he is pigeon-toed, but this is hardly a drawback. Bob Hayes, once the world's fastest human, is so pigeon-toed that he removed the inside spikes from his shoes lest he spike himself.
At 133 pounds, Shorter is too skinny for real life. He figures he would put on 25 more if he stopped training. Just as many legally blind people have some vision, Shorter is, in effect, legally dead. At times his pulse is as low as 38. Like many long-distance runners, he suffers from hypoglycemia—low blood sugar. It is no surprise at all that Phidippides signed off when he did. The running body of a world-class marathoner burns about 100 calories a mile. The body can store no more than 1,200 calories of blood sugar and can supply 800 more from its own fats: 2,000 total. So there is only enough for the first 20 miles. Most runners would faint at this point if they did not take sustenance along the way.
Shorter says, "After 20 miles everybody slows down, and it is just a matter of trying to hold on. It's no longer a question of racing. In distance running, the definition of faster doesn't mean speed anyway, but just a matter of maintaining a pace longer. After 20 miles, the places are set unless a guy dies." Marathoners commonly use that verb instead of "collapse," "drop out," or whatever. They all say die.
It takes about a month to recover from a marathon. There is no specific way to prepare for it. The marathon runner just tries to run as many training miles as he can, and for people like Shorter the maximum has been about reached. There are only so many hours in a week. In the marathon, the most grueling of physical tests, psychological considerations have become increasingly significant.
"As any race goes up, the mental aspect becomes more important," Shorter says. "To start with, you can't go out and get psyched up for the thing. The best way to prepare emotionally is to be very calm, almost back into it." At Munich, the favorite was Ron Hill, the Englishman, but when the massacre of the Israelis forced the race back a day, Hill was pitched so high he could not cope emotionally with the change in schedule and came in sixth. Jack Fultz, who won this year's Boston Marathon in a heat wave, said afterward that many of the contenders seemed to have done themselves in before the race began, fretting about the heat.
The best runners are those that attend strictly to business once they are on the course. The less successful long-distance men tend to be those who "disassociate," who admire the scenery or who let their minds wander. By contrast, Shorter cannot even recall running through two beautiful parks in Munich. All the time he is running, he is busy concentrating on strategy—how the race is shaping up, his form and rhythm; indeed, he uses the word "feedback" as if his own body were a foreign object he was studying. But then, we all know time just flies when you're having fun. Instead of two hours and a quarter—to be precise, 2:12:19.8 in Munich, the second-fastest Olympic marathon—it hardly seems like 45 minutes to Shorter.
"It's like reading a good book," he says. "After a while you're not really conscious of reading. It's just images racing through your head. It is the same with running the marathon. People always ask me why I do it. Well, I'm good at it, and we do the things we excel at. But, also, I just like being out there. I like it better than anything else I've ever done. I like being able to think about it as I go along. I get so seriously involved with the race, with what my body is doing, I don't have time to notice things around me."
You have more than two hours.
"I don't have the time."
Despite the overriding issue of stamina, a marathon is not devoid of strategy. The matter of the lead is crucial, for the man in front carries an emotional burden. The runners-up dogging his footsteps may be moving exactly as fast, expending exactly as much energy, but somehow the man out front assumes a great burden. The others wear down, but the man in the lead is torn apart.