On the flight that Frank Shorter took from his home in Boulder, Colo. to New York for last October's New York Marathon, his seatmate, a running friend named Jim Lillstrom of AMF/Head in Boulder, asked where he could get comfortable, functional shorts. "I can't find them, either," Shorter said, "and I need them for my new running gear shop. The best come from Europe, but only in limited quantities, and they take months to get here." As legend will soon have it, the pair simultaneously shouted, "Hell, let's make our own!"
The two were joined by another businessman-cum-marathon runner, John Kubiak of Seattle, who designs and manufactures ski wear, and the three settled down to produce running clothes designed by runners for runners.
Whether they be joggers or world-class competitors, runners have long been dissatisfied with existing outfits. "My first time on an international team I just took my Yale running jersey, a typical fishnet nylon top, and turned it inside out," Shorter says. "I had someone sew the letters USA on it, and that's what I wore, plus a pair of my old shorts." Given a choice, runners prefer clothes made of "breathing" fabrics—those that let the body regulate its own heat and allow moisture to evaporate through a layer of ventilated fabric such as mesh or fishnet. "Wicking," as this process is called, helps keep a runner from getting wet and clammy. Weight is another concern. Shorter recalls one marathoner at the Munich Olympics who stayed up all night before the race, shaving milligrams from his shoes to make them lighter. Many runners are compulsive about carrying even an extra ounce. Think of it this way: a runner takes about 1,600 steps in a mile, so in a six-mile race he will take some 9,600 steps. Being burdened by an extra ounce will, in effect, mean lifting 600 excess pounds.
After returning to their homes, Shorter and his associates set about implementing their midair inspiration, and by December were ready to order labels designed by Lillstrom from a poster depicting Shorter in full stride. Kubiak made patterns and samples in Seattle and sent them to Shorter for testing, and in February, Frank Shorter Running Gear made its debut at the Chicago Sporting Goods Show. The partners received $10,000 in orders within three days.
"Most of them came from other runners who own their own shops," says Shorter's wife Louise. "They came and looked, and sat right down to write their orders. They knew what they were looking for. On the other hand, the large department stores passed us by. They are not close to the sport and don't yet understand the special problems of runners."
Problems of weight and ventilation are solved in Shorter's AW50, an all-weather suit (50 stands for 50-50, i.e., unisex) made of tough but lightweight down-proof nylon, such as is used in ski clothing. The jacket weighs eight ounces, the drawstring pants, which do not creep up or bind around the leg, weigh 5.92. Fine, tightly-woven fabric of this quality stays soft and will not stiffen even in freezing temperatures.
Shorter, who runs 120 miles a week, sometimes trains at 10� below zero and recommends that in such weather one wear several layers under the AW50: long underwear, a turtleneck and a warmup suit. And he suggests wearing a wool cap under the detachable hood of the jacket, which also has a built-in face flap to cover the mouth. As the runner moves he may generate enough heat to soak the two inner layers of clothing, but moisture will wick out through the ventilated fishnet fabric on the back of the jacket. The suit, which costs $47.50, is made in eight colors; for road running it is best to wear one of high visibility.
The sleeveless competition shirt called the Singlet GS26 (26 for the number of miles in the marathon) was designed for the sort of hot, humid weather Shorter encountered when he trained in Gainesville, Fla. Soft, lightweight nylon tricot across the upper chest and around the armholes prevents chafing, though for added protection Shorter still tapes his nipples. Fishnet around the torso helps totally ventilate the shirt. The Singlet, which costs $9.50, weighs 3.04 ounces.
The shorts are probably the lightest made in the U.S. According to one runner, "It feels like I'm not wearing anything," but because, in this case, something is a lot better than nothing, there are attached underpants. These eliminate the need for separate underwear and minimize discomfort and chafing. The Shorter Short SS455M is indeed three-quarters of an inch shorter than standard styles (here the 455M indicates the average mile one has to run to achieve world-class time in the marathon). The shorts have a minuscule pocket with a Velcro closing, just large enough to carry a key or a dime for a phone call if one is not obsessive about the extra weight. Men's shorts weigh 3.2 ounces, and for summer running the combined weight of the shorts, Singlet and a pair of 10-ounce shoes adds up to slightly more than a pound—without a key or dime in the pocket, that is. The women's shorts, which are slightly modified for better fit, weigh 2.24 ounces. Each costs $9.75. There is also an assortment of colored Shorter Running Gear T shirts made of 100% cotton, which go for $4.50 each. And Shorter doesn't stop here. "We're even into socks now," he says, "from wool to pure cotton and cotton with Orion. We agreed not to cut corners, not even on socks. Ours are bulky and absorbent. They're going to cost a little more, but they'll be worth it."
Because so many people have heard about the gear and have been trying to order by phone, the company has decided to put out a catalog, but customers have to be on the spot to take advantage of the shop's library specializing in books on jogging and training (for instance, The Athlete's Foot).