If you took part in some sort of road race in the past several years, it might not have taken place had it not been for Frank Shorter.
That’s something of an oversimplification, but Shorter certainly had much to do with the growth of running as a fitness activity for millions. His win in the marathon at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the most recent by an American runner, brought great attention to the sport. Shorter is quick to credit others, like Bill Rodgers, Steve Prefontaine and Joan Benoit Samuelson, for the explosion of interest - but Shorter got there first.
His autobiography, “My Marathon - Reflections on a Gold Medal Life” (Rodale, $26.99), tells the story about how he became an unexpected athletic hero and helped put running on the map.
The most dramatic part of the book comes right at the start, concerning his childhood. He lived in Middletown in the Hudson Valley, in a big house with a bunch of siblings in an apparent idyllic existence. His father was a classic beloved small-town doctor, who tended to many people in town and looked the other way when patients couldn’t afford to pay for care.
The catch was that Dr. Shorter was, by most definitions, a monster. He abused his own children in virtually every way possible, and no one was willing to stand up to him. Complaints to the outside world were impossible, because they wouldn’t be believed. Here’s one of the mildest stories Shorter tells in the book: Many parents would have been proud when a son was accepted at Yale University in spite of the high costs involved. Dr. Shorter’s reaction to Frank was “You’re taking bread out of your sisters’ and brothers’ mouths.”
All of the Shorter children buried a ton of emotions during their childhoods. Frank blurted out a piece of the story a couple of times in public as an adult, but finally let the full truth come out in a shocking “Runner’s World” article only a few years ago.
Running became a refuge for the teen-aged Frank, as he was out of the house and away from any confrontations with his father. He writes that after dealing with the emotional pain of his home life, tough training sessions didn’t seem too difficult to him. Shorter became an NCAA champion at Yale. After graduation, he briefly went to medical school but continued to train. The workouts led to several national championships, and the gold medal in Munich.
Shorter later turned up at another Olympics - the 1976 Games in Montreal. There he ran the marathon, and found himself unexpectedly competing with an unknown in Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany. Shorter was two minutes faster in the marathon in Montreal than he was in Munich, but finished second when Cierpinski put on a burst near the end of the race that almost seemed supernatural.
That always bothered Shorter, and after the end of the Cold War he checked with German sources about the drug-doping program that was rumored to be taking place there. Sure enough, Shorter found evidence that Cierpinski took performance-enhancing drugs - and the East German probably was still doing so when he won another gold in 1980. Shorter eventually worked with the federal government to start a drug-testing program that tried to clean up the sport.
After 1976, Shorter had one more attempt at Olympic glory left in him. He took part in the U.S. Olympic marathon trials, which were held in Buffalo in 1980. The effort came up short as he finished back in the pack. Shorter’s body had started to break down by then (he describes it as “orthopedic tax payments that had come due on all those thousands of hard miles”), and moved on to the rest of his life. Shorter did get a law degree along the way, and he has owned businesses, done television commentary and worked with charities.
This is all told rather smoothly, no doubt due to the help of coauthor John Brant. The pages go by at a rapid pace. If anything, the book could have been a little longer.
For example, Shorter was on the scene when world terrorism began in Munich’s Olympics in 1972, and then by coincidence was near the finish line when bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon in 2013. There was interesting material to be mined there about the latter incident. One other bit of criticism - other readers have noticed a few errors in facts and dates along the way.
Shorter’s role in the history of American running is secure. He may have thought he was simply running away from his problems, but it turned out he was leading millions to their own personal finish lines.
• Run Jimmy Run Charity 5K, Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo, 10 a.m., Sunday, 803-2301.
• Mud Run, 6.5K, Erie County Reforestation Refuge in Boston, 6:30 p.m., Monday, 941-1004.
• Jackhammer Trail Series #1, 3.2 miles, Chestnut Ridge Park in Orchad Park, 6:30 p.m., Tuesday.
• GBTC 1 Mile Track Race, Crosby Field in Kenmkore, 6:30 p.m., Wednesday.
• Dunkirk Lakefront 5K Race, 22 Central Ave in Dunkirk, 9 a.m., Saturday, 863-5062.
• Christine Padasak Memorial, 393 North St. in Springville, 9:30 a.m., Saturday, 949-4072.
• Town of Lancaster 5K, Central and Pleasant Aves. in Lancaster, 9:30 a.m., Saturday, 684-3320.
• Jason Raby Memorial 5K, Lewiston Porter Senior High School in Youngstown, 11 a.m., Saturday, 523-0394.
• St. Christopher Summerfest 5K, 2660 Niagara Falls Blvd. in Tonawanda, 6:30 p.m., Saturday. 6 216-4103.
• Stephen’s Cross-Country Run, 6K, Long Point State Park in Bemus Point, 9 a.m., Aug. 7.
• Tofurky Trot, 5K, Riverside Park in Buffalo, 10 a.m., Aug. 7, 348-8346.