Among the most highly gifted athletes are a unique few that are forever remembered not only for their own accomplishments, but for what they caused others to accomplish as well. Distance running icon Frank Shorter is one of that select pantheon.
His gold-medal-winning performance in the marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics almost single-handedly thrust distance running into the public consciousness. It set off a running and fitness revolution that continues to this day.
Given the significance of Shorter’s victory, it is ironic that the best-remembered portion of the 26-mile-plus run is the final 440 yards. Leading by a comfortable margin — a fact he knew from coaches’ reports during the race — Shorter ran into the Olympic stadium only to be greeted by an eerie silence. Unbeknownst to Shorter, an imposter had jumped onto the course only seconds before and was taking a supposed victory lap.
“I had heard the crowd roar as I was entering the tunnel from the street, and I get on the track and there is not a sound,” Shorter said from his home in Boulder, Colo. “And as I ran the final lap around the track, the crowd was silent and I’m thinking, ‘Well, I’m an American, but give me a break.’
“And then people starting whistling, which (in Europe) is the equivalent of booing. It was only after I crossed the finish line, and people started to ask me what I thought about the guy, that I knew right away what had happened.”
Coming only days after the massacre of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team by terrorists, Shorter’s courageous run perhaps provided a much-needed reminder of the strength and sublimity of the human spirit.
“I also learned an interesting fact about myself from that experience. I realized that I never ran for the cheers, because it has never bothered me. It bothered a lot of other people who saw it because they thought perhaps I didn’t know I was winning, but the thought never entered my mind,” Shorter said with the sentiment of a true long-distance runner, who spends hours of training time running with only his or her own thoughts as company.
Given that mind-set, it is not surprising that Shorter’s path to Olympic gold began not as a quest for glory, but rather as a form of relaxation from a hectic academic schedule.
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“I actually ran in college for stress relief,” he said. “I was on the track and cross country teams at Yale and I did well, but I was a pre-med student on my way to med school when at the end of my
senior year I found out that I was pretty darn good at what I did for stress relief when I won the 1969 NCAA 10,000-meter championship. Up until that time, I had been quite satisfied to be the best at my level, but as I stayed with it, I just kept on getting better.”
Shorter won his first U.S. National titles in 1970 in the 5,000 and 10,000 and won the U.S. national cross country championship four times (1970-73) while earning a law degree from the University of Florida.
In 1976, Shorter again competed in the Olympic marathon, finishing second to an East German runner who would be later implicated in an government-operated doping program.
Inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984 and the USA National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1989, Shorter has continued to promote running through both private (a running apparel company) and public (chairman of the United States Anti-Doping Agency) endeavors. He also actively promotes and sponsors a number of running events around the country. Most notable, perhaps, is the Bolder Boulder, which he helped to create in 1979. The 10K has grown into the nation’s largest road race, with more than 54,000 runners participating in 2010.
“Professionally, I still work with a group of races around the country called the Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon, and that has become my vocation. And keeping busy with that and attending various races and working on the Bolder Boulder keeps me busy,” Shorter said.
In addition to being an active spokesman for the benefits of running, Shorter also promotes youth participation, coupling the discipline of running with that of educational attainment. Not surprisingly, a trip to Rapid City this weekend and a benefit run for a student organization at the School of Mines fit perfectly into that agenda.
“I just kind of like being out there meeting people.” Shorter sid. “... When a longtime friend who now works at School of Mines told me about this event being put on by the people in the chemical engineering department to raise money so that the students can attend conferences that further their careers, that gave me several good reasons for going to Rapid City.”