Olympian Frank Shorter still inspires runners at 64
Perhaps it is symbolic that Frank Shorter was in the middle of the pack of Saturday's Shelter Island 10-kilometer run. As the pied piper of exercise, whose 1972 Olympic marathon victory lured increasing crowds of ordinary citizens away from couch-potatoism, never to return, Shorter, at 64, now is literally surrounded by the hoards of runners he inspired.
The marathon distance -- 26 miles, 385 yards -- began to be "demystified," Shorter said, with his '72 gold medal, the first by an American at that Olympic distance since Johnny Hayes in 1908. "Over the years," he said, "inevitably people come up to me and say, still, 'You're the reason I run. I watched you in that race and I went out and ran. Literally.'
"It's great. Because that wasn't the plan. And to find out that people enjoy doing the same thing I do, we can sit and talk running for hours. Because we've got the disease."
Long ago, Shorter described his running as obsessive-compulsive disorder, and during a pre-race chat on Friday considered the benefits of that. "Oh, yeah, you're OCD; you're just channeling it. I think some people are born with a need to move and a need to exercise. And, it doesn't go away. So, why fight it? You're lucky."
Over any year, Shorter said he may miss a maximum of 15 days running. He guessed that, "conservatively," he has logged 150,000 miles in his life, "probably approaching 175,000." The fact that the aging process recently has slowed his pace doesn't bother him.
"I just go out for an hour every day," he said. "I don't need to know . See, I'm not trying to get better. I'm trying to slow down as slowly as possible. And if that's the goal, why frustrate yourself?
"It's not, 'Oh, you don't have anything to prove now' because -- you know what? -- I never had anything to prove before. I was just trying to achieve certain goals."
He won a second Olympic medal in 1976, a silver, just as Bill Rodgers was edging ahead of him as the world's best marathoner, so "I may have created the interest," Shorter said, "but Bill added to the momentum" of the running boom. And, with the evolution of Olympic eligibility rules, from decades of "shamateursm" toward an honest professionalism, Shorter -- and later, Rodgers -- profited from their branded running equipment and running stores.
Shorter worked as television race commentator, made commercials, helped found and -- for four years -- direct the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. He has invested in the Rock and Roll Marathon series and his hometown race in Boulder, Colo. He travels around the country to make appearances and run clinics. And jump into races. If that sounds like an active retirement, Shorter acknowledged, "It's always been an active retirement.
"I never did it for the profit motive. I wanted to stay in the sport, so I had to figure out a way to earn a living." He majored in accounting at Yale and has a law degree from the University of Florida, though he never practiced law.
It was in a 2011 Runners World article that Shorter revealed that his father, a physician in Middletown, N.Y., had physically abused him as a child and may have sexually molested two of his sisters, and that running originally served Shorter as something of an escape. On Friday, Shorter, the second of 11 children, spoke of how his older brother "did time for molesting his own kids, and I think I knocked out his front tooth when he tried to molest me when I was 6 or 7.
"I didn't start out as a jock. I just found I was very good at what I did for stress relief. And, sure, it's a self-esteem thing in high school, and in college it becomes a social thing, new guys on cross country and track team become your buddies."
He is twice divorced, the father of three and grandfather of one. There is a statue of him, erected by friends in Boulder. And now he is just another slow recreational runner. "That's me," he said. "I'd say I'm pretty darn lucky. Most people 64 can't run."