"Psychologically, we are using the leader not unlike the way automobile drivers use the physical principle of drafting," Shorter says. "If the man in front cannot break away, he will eventually get caught. I cannot tell you exactly why, but I can promise you that it will happen. Therefore, if I am in a position to take the lead, I know that I must be capable of more than that. Once I've committed myself on the lead, I have to quickly pull away, break that mental contact—if just by five or 10 yards—so that the others can't use me to get drawn along."
Shorter gained a psychological edge at Munich because the course was laid out around a lot of corners. Thus, even though he may have been no more than 100 yards or so in front—he took the lead after nine miles—his pursuers couldn't see him and despaired that he was beyond reach.
It always comes back to this: Why in the world would anyone want to run long distances? Well, as Shorter says, they just like to. Or, why not? As Mrs. Campbell, Shaw's good friend, once suggested about another sort of activity, you can do anything you please so long as you don't frighten the horses. It is not the long-distance runners' fault that they often inflame hostile passions in our car-dependent citizenry.
We should even, perhaps, forgive the everyday runners who tend to be so boring. "Oh, those guys who make a cult out of running—it ruins the whole thing to take it so seriously," Shorter says. But we should be kind, for these less accomplished runners have no chance at gold medals to justify their masochism. Shorter, having won the gold medal, is justified (his word this time) in the eyes of society. But then, that makes him all the stranger for keeping at it. It also suggests that just as you can't eat medals, neither can you run long distances for them. You can only run to run. The legs go first, they always say of athletes. In long-distance running, reason does.
Shorter says, "I'm not altogether sure it's the running per se that fills a need in me. It's more like there's a drive in me that has to be satisfied and running manages that now. Next year, though, it could be skiing or something else." He shrugs. "But I do know this. You can feel a sense of accomplishment every day that you run. You have the tangible sense of doing something significant. Running long distance has been called compulsive and addictive, and sometimes I think it's even a sensual experience, or a religious one. Everybody wants me to talk about it, but I really don't like to. Besides, I suspect there are different reasons for running for different runners.
"Right now I expect to stop after the Olympics. I expect that now." He pauses and looks away. "But if I can't bring myself to do that, then we'll know for sure what running is to me, won't we? We'll know it's become a compulsion, because the sure sign of obsessive compulsion is an inability to make a decision." He seemed quite sure about the definition and not so sure about himself.
Another time, from out of the blue and from across the room, Louise looked up and said, "You know, Frank, when I'm lying in bed next to you, I can tell when you're thinking about running."
He flushed and began to protest that she should not reveal the intimacies of their marriage bed. But she had already begun. "Oh, I can always tell," Louise said. "It doesn't matter whether you're asleep or awake. I can sense it whenever you're thinking about running. You begin to sweat, and your legs...." Her voice trailed off. He looked at her and nodded and understood that it was not intimacies she was revealing but more about Frank Shorter. It ruins the whole thing to take it so seriously.
He is a Yale man, clever, organized, rational, perceptive and confident, except now there is this one thing within him that he does not appear to be in control of anymore.