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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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FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT: "To be able to work at and for what one most wants to do well should be gospel in our democracy."

Frank Shorter (testifying before the President's Commission on Olympic Sports): "Well, I graduated from Yale in 1969, and I decided that rather than go into medical school I would become a runner, much to the chagrin of all the Puritan-ethic people in New England, and I started training about 80 miles a week, and it has gone up to 150 and 200 miles in a week, and I think in the last seven years I have maybe not run 15 days, and that is twice every day in the last seven years, and just day in and day out, all of the year round...."

Ultimately, it seems, long-distance runners may be merely selfish. Lonely? Hell, they love it. Their loneliness has been romanticized as a form of heroic sacrifice, while it is probably only so much smoke, used to conceal more prosaic truths. After all, it is hardly uncommon for competitors to be lonely: who is more alone than a goalie, or a pitcher on the mound, or a golfer standing over a 10-foot birdie putt? Who is company for them?

But long-distance runners have scored well, PR-wise, in the lonely area, and so we accept them as solitary heroes: undaunted and sensitive, introspective and independent. Jogs there a jogger who does not think of himself as the last intrepid maverick, spiritual heir to Gary Cooper? In truth, long-distance runners may be, essentially, only rather strange, with a natural bent for tedium.

The fascinating thing about those who run long distances is not their psyche but how they affect those who do not run long distances. People must perceive something primeval about a long-distance runner padding along the road—and no matter whether it be Frank Shorter churning out a dozen well-tuned five-minute miles or a tired old jogger weaving a few desultory furlongs. The bald sight of a runner unsettles many people in the United States and leaves them raw and mean.

Hostility is the word the runners turn to. Objects are tossed at them, obscenities hurled, gauntlets flung. Tires squeal and exhausts belch in their faces. The comics lean out the window and bark "hut, hut, hut," like sergeants, or make crude sexual comments. In Gainesville, where Shorter attended the University of Florida Law School, his wife Louise had to give up running alone because of the constant vicious provocation. In New Mexico, where Shorter's parents live, his father once had to shadow him in a car, packing a handgun, to ward off those psychotics whose regular amusement was to try to run Shorter down.

Long-distance runners, who are lean leg people in a pudgy world of wheels, already feel apart; the vehicular menace only makes them more so. "By now, all runners have been harassed so much that we have become aggressive when we get out on the road," says Louise Shorter. "I was watching when Frank and his group ran by our house in Boulder the other day. Just at that time, a friend came up behind them in his car and honked hello. Instinctively, everyone running in the group turned around and gave the poor guy the finger."

Undoubtedly, runners are a challenge to the automobile itself, skinny primitives threatening the assumption that internal combustion is brawny and the only way to go. Furthermore, as the classic linear endeavor, running defies a prosperous society that clusters naturally around the TV set, the wet bar, the barbecue.

And yet, for all those Americans who fear or despise a runner for his unforgivable cultural apostasy, there are as many who are moved to salute him as the surviving sovereign spirit. Nowhere in American sport do the dear and noble come together more beautifully than at the Boston Marathon, at a place beyond the finish line, up an escalator, down a long corridor, where spectators gather behind wooden horses to inspect the haggard contestants.

The race is o'er, the battle done. The finishers are merely on their way to the lockers, for Band-Aids and a bowl of stew. But the people take up choice spots well in advance and stand two and three deep for the chance to acclaim those who have just run 26 miles and 385 yards. They cheer them all, every one. It continues for an hour and a half or more. The cheers increase for older men and women runners, but the heartiest applause is tendered to those runners who jog down the corridor. These fellows have run 26 miles, 385 yards, but, by God, they are not done running.

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