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Frank Shorter and the Invention of Running

Recently, the history of running came up in conversation and several of us older folks were surprised to discover that some of our younger friends weren’t familiar with the history of the first running boom. The heroes of our youth really didn’t ring a bell for them, not even the runner who often gets credit for launching America’s obsession with the sport of running: Frank Shorter. Since Shorter is going to be visiting Albany for the Stockade-athon, speaking at a dinner held in his honor on November 5, and making appearances at Fleet Feet’s Malta and Albany stores on November 6 and 7, I thought it might be a good idea to bring everyone up to speed on Shorter’s career and its significance.

Frank Shorter has been one of the United States’ most celebrated distance runners for over forty years. He grew up in Middletown, New York, graduated from Yale University in 1969, and earned his J.D. at the University of Florida College of Law in 1974. He won his first national titles in 1970 in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. Shorter also won the U.S. national cross-country championships from 1970-1973. He won the 10,000 meters and the marathon at the U.S. Olympic Trials in both 1972 and 1976. He was also a four-time winner (1971-1974) of the prestigous Fukuoka Marathon. In 1972, he won the Olympic marathon in Munich, Germany. He almost repeated the same feat four years later at Montreal; there, he came in second to East German Waldemar Cierpinski, who has since been implicated in the East German doping program. Shorter has served as the chairman of the United States Anti-Doping Agency and has been an effective advocate for cleaning up our sport. Shorter was inducted into the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1984 and the the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1989. He currently lives in Bolder, Colorado, where he co-founded the popular Bolder-Boulder road race in 1979. 

His storied career is inspiring, but his enduring impact on our sport makes him a singular figure in the history of U.S. running. In Michael Sandrock’s seminal work, Running With the Legends: Training and Racing Insights from 21 Great Runners, he titles his profile of Shorter, “The Man Who Invented Running.” As an historian, I am generally skeptical of the “great man theory” of history. Biographies of determined, charismatic individuals make for good reading, but they are rarely solely responsible for transformative paradigm shifts. Shorter, however, might be the exception. His victory in the 1972 Olympic Marathon qualifies as a game-changer. It captured the American public’s imagination, tapped into a greater social dissatisfaction about the place of the individual in mass society, and moved running from a fringe activity to the mainstream.

Shorter’s Olympic victory resonated with Americans weary of the Vietnam War and suspicious of politics after the Watergate break-in. The recently launched environmental movement drew attention to the real costs of consumerism and Americans as a whole were searching for a deeper meaning to their lives. The world has always been a complicated place, but to post-World War II Baby Boomers in the early 1970s it seemed like it was getting too complicated and solutions were unclear. As Eric Olsen, senior writer for The Runner Magazine, pointed out in his ten-year retrospective of the running boom published in the August 1982 issue, “Before we remade the world…we’d have to remake ourselves.” Shorter’s marathon victory pointed to a new way of interacting with the world for a group of Baby Boomers –– both men and women –– who were starting to wonder: “Is this all there is?” 

Shorter also led the way to a reconsideration of athletics in American society. Shorter was a regular guy, an elite athlete whose slight body was at odds with the muscled ideal masculine physique of the late 1960s and early 1970s. For Americans who mainly celebrated team efforts and star performers in football, basketball, and baseball, Shorter’s performances were an exciting individual demonstration of physical endurance, self-discipline, and mental toughness. Although Shorter had done a brief stint as a starting halfback during his sophomore year in high school, he demonstrated to a broader public that athleticism was less about the ability to dominate others and more about the ability to master oneself.

Importantly for the development of the running boom, toughness and the ability to push oneself to new levels of athletic achievement were not qualities exclusive to men. Women such as Kathrine Switzer, Miki Gorman, and Jacqueline Hansen also pushed the limits of endurance and explicitly called into question the assumptions that the International Olympic Committee made regarding women’s physical capacities. It would take another twelve years until the IOC escaped their turn-of-the-century ideas about women and allow them to run the marathon distance at the Olympics. The fact that regular women were running marathons, spurred on by the development of running as a mass-participation sport in the wake of Shorter’s victory, helped to convince the IOC to establish longer women’s races at the Olympics.

Shorter didn’t merely launch the running boom, however; he also shaped it. As Olympic marathoner and running journalist Kenny Moore commented, “He took the mystique out of running, and made it a public thing.” Although often described as a reluctant spokesman, Shorter was thoughtful and articulate when constantly approached by the media and became a well-recognized face of the first running boom. He was generous with his time to build enthusiasm for the sport and as a result, many more people got interested in giving running a try.

Shorter also shaped the running boom through his practical advice. Well before the Internet, before an occasional newsletter titled Distance Running News became a monthly publication and changed its name to Runner’s World, new runners were starved for information. Frank Shorter became the featured draw at many new races and camps around the country. He talked and new runners listened. He gave clear training tips that almost anyone could follow. He recommended that new runners go out for a minimum of thirty minutes, three times a week, and run at a pace where they could maintain a conversation. If runners wanted to race, he suggested an interval program. It was simple, solid advice that cut through running’s mysteries and made the sport approachable. Shorter helped turn the public’s interest in long-distance running from a momentary burst of patriotic pride after his marathon victory into an actual participatory cultural movement.

As important as it was to get Americans running, Shorter made an even bigger (and often overlooked) contribution when he helped change the professional runner’s relationship to the sport. In 1979, Shorter set up the first commercial endorsement scheme recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Under the agreement, he maintained his amateur status and Olympic eligibility while working as a professional runner. The “trust fund” system of having sponsors and races indirectly paying athletes through the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and then The Athletics Congress (TAC) helped professionals make their careers in running while removing the constant stress of always being concerned about losing their amateur status. Eventually, the increasingly ridiculous differentiation between amateur and professional was dropped. Shorter’s early and ultimately successful battle to make running a legitimate and respected profession was another outcome of the running boom.

Finally, Frank Shorter –– along with runners such as Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson –– provided an example of how one could continue to run, compete, and enjoy the sport even after they had passed their prime competitive years. When he turned forty in 1987, Shorter raced Rodgers on a regular basis and helped to bring attention to the joys of masters running. His continued running and involvement in the sport has proven that running is something that can be enjoyed throughout one’s entire life. It is more a way of life than a mere sport.

When Shorter visits the Capital Region, he plans to run the Stockade-athon, so get your entries in so that you can say that you ran a race with the man who launched the running boom. Here’s the link to the Stockade-athon website:

If you want to hear Frank Shorter talk, he will be the guest speaker at the Fortieth Anniversary Stockade-athon Dinner on Thursday, November 5, at Key Hall Proctors in downtown Schenectady at 6:30 PM at a cost of $35. Those interested in attending should RSVP to Vince Juliano at by no later than Wednesday October 28.

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