FRANK SHORTER’S FEET
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE MEET OUR SPORTING HEROES?
It’s not like I really thought I was going to marry Frank Shorter. But when I found out that we would be staying at the same house during the weekend of the 2012 TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K race in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, I thought, well, he’s smart and attractive and accomplished. Maybe I’ll marry Frank Shorter.
Okay, so probably not, but it’s like when you read a book you love and you want to be BFFs with the author. This may make me sound like, what’s it called? — oh, right, a groupie. For the record, I am not a groupie. It would be ridiculous for marathoners to have groupies. But still, I thought maybe I’d marry Frank Shorter.
Even the super-famous, the nationally recognized celebrities in the sport, aren’t all that famous.Here’s the thing about running. Even the super-famous, the nationally recognized celebrities in the sport, aren’t all that famous. This was not like thinking I might maybe marry Michael Jordan or A-Rod. That would be crazy talk. Runners don’t get spotted at airports or stopped and asked for autographs. They aren’t protected from the public the way other professional athletes are, shielded by barricades and arena walls and large men. Even at the biggest races, we all stand on the starting line together. In a marathon, we cover the same ground. Sure, they run faster and may be showered and dressed in street clothes before the rest of us slog across the line, but we cross the same finish line.
It seemed strange that I hadn’t heard people talk about what Frank was like in person, especially since, from what little I knew, we had so much in common. I knew he was perceived as a bit aloof, a tad arrogant. Me too! I knew he had gone to Yale from upstate New York. Me too! I’d read John Brant’s recent marathon-long Runner’s World piece that described Frank’s bad childhood. He had an abusive and angry father. Guess what?! Brant described Frank as charming and interesting, a likeable guy who, when he traveled to races, stayed in the homes of local runners instead of at hotels, and while he mentioned kids, there was no hint of a wife. I knew Frank would be sleeping in the next bedroom. I made the logical leap. Okay. It seemed logical at the time.
I was kind of surprised we’d never met before. I periodically get access to marquee running events and elite runners. I write for publications whose readers know who he is, and, as a professor of creative nonfiction, I’ve even taught a few courses on sports writing — it’s one of my favorite genres. I know Frank’s two teammates from the 1976 Olympics, Bill Rodgers and Don Kardong, kind and sweet men who wear their Olympian status comfortably. People talk a lot about Bill and Don, both of whom have had good careers in the sport long after the sweat from Montreal dried. Don created and directs one of the biggest races in the country, the Bloomsday 12K—inspired by the James Joyce novel—and has legions of devotees who will do whatever he asks to make the first Sunday in May special. Bill has made a career of being Bill Rodgers. He’s good at it. I once sat beside him in the Running Times’ booth at the Boston Marathon expo and watched as he signed autographs for hours. People stood in a line that snaked around the corners (on legs that would have been better served by resting) to shake his hand and tell him how much he meant to them. And Bill would listen to them talk about the race where they first met him, or when they watched him run on TV, and Bill would engage in a conversation with them that made them feel like he was a real friend. Bill connects with people. When he poses for photos, he gives a thumbs-up and his dopey smile. He’s a thumbs-up kind of guy, a walking Facebook “Like.”
Frank Shorter helped to kick-start the American distance-running boom. A few years back I wrote a column for Running Times called “Speed Goggles” about how I can’t resist fast men, how the sight of those skinny-ass, upper-body deficient dudes can make me squirm like a Bieberite or whatever they call those people who remind us where the word “fan” came from. I noted how humility can be a winning trait in a fast guy and commented, perhaps a little snarkily, “Frank Shorter apparently said everyone ran 4:30 in high school. That tells you something about Frank Shorter but not about ‘everyone.’” I added, because I can’t help myself, “Frank Shorter is, however, pretty hot.”
As the first to take home Olympic gold in the marathon for the U.S. since 1908, in the 1972 Olympics, Frank Shorter helped to kick-start the American distance-running boom. My memories of those Games are 10-year-old girl fuzzy — Olga Korbut’s muscle-striated legs, Mark Spitz with his porn-stache, his star-spangled crotch, his carefully layered gold medals. After the massacre of the Israeli athletes, I remember my father saying, yet again, that if a Jew ever forgets he’s a Jew, a gentile will remind him. There’s always somebody who wants to stick you in an oven, or so I learned in my family. Frank Shorter’s achievement was not burnished in my mind, but once I took up running — and, not long after, started doing marathons — and paid attention to the development of the sport, I discovered that there were really only two famous runners. Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers. Well, three, actually. Frank and Bill and Joanie. For me, she is, perhaps, the most important.
Joan Benoit Samuelson won the first Olympic women’s marathon in 1984, 17 days after having knee surgery. She won the Boston Marathon in 1979 at the age of 21, and then again in l983 setting the world record. My brother was a sophomore at Bowdoin College and could not shut up about the fact that during that pioneering Olympic race Joan Benoit’s face was set and grim until she saw a Bowdoin banner along the course in Los Angeles. Then, and only then, according to my non-running, non-sport-historian brother, she broke into a big smile. She became an athletic icon, a woman whose achievement inspired, and for the state of Maine, a place with no major league professional sports team, a star.
Last spring, as the anniversary of Title IX approached, I did an experiment and asked the 22 students in my Introduction to Fiction class how many considered themselves feminists. The question was germane to the book we were discussing, since many of them had offered what could only be thought of as feminist readings. I had no interest in convincing them of anything or injecting politics into our discussion; I knew that many of them leaned conservative and religious, a preponderance are first-generation college, and lots hold more than one job and support families as they put themselves through school. I was, simply, curious. So I asked them to raise their hand if they thought of themselves as feminists.
Two hands. Both men.
I asked the class, now more curious, what they thought feminism was, and they called out answers: “Bra burning.” “Feminazis.” “Man haters.”
When I told them that women weren’t allowed to run in an Olympic marathon until 1984, they didn’t believe me. They had never seen the iconic photograph of Boston Marathon race director Jock Semple trying to drag Kathrine Switzer off the course in 1967. They didn’t know that 1,500 meters — less than a mile — was the longest distance thought safe for women to run in the 1972 Olympics. They think women have always been allowed to pole vault and play hockey and wrestle.
They knew I was a runner, and some of them knew that I had run lots of marathons and 50Ks and 50 milers and even a five-day 100 mile stage race in the Himalayas, but they didn’t see what that had to do with gender. I told them it had a whole lot to do with Title IX and with Joanie.
Joan Benoit Samuelson has continued to run at a shocking level; she’s competed in all but the most recent Olympic marathon trials. In 2008, at age 50, she set an American age group record. She paced Lance Armstrong in 2006 to a sub-three hour finish in New York City (it was, he said, “the hardest physical thing I’ve ever done”). She’s been sponsored by Nike forever, and she goes about her work quietly, getting girls and women inspired about what they can do, about who they can be. She travels and speaks and runs. She is quick to deflect a compliment and generous with her gratitude. She has been a mentor and a beacon, gracious to everyone and easily overlooked. Tiny, with a New England reserve that can seem chilly if you’re, say, a New York Jew, she’s a serious person who takes the world seriously.
When Joan decided, in 1998, to put on a race to benefit local Portland, Maine, area charities, she called on her friends for help, and because of her personality and beloved status, people clamored to come on board. She was able to get perhaps the best race director in the business, Dave McGillivray, a Leprechaunesque guy who is also in charge of a little event that allows those who qualify to run from Hopkinton to Boston on Patriot’s Day. At the Beach to Beacon 10K press conference this year, McGillivray told stories about the ways he’d messed up at various races: runners going the wrong direction; a triathlon where someone stole 50 pairs of shoes during the event. He said “My job is secure because no one else wants it,” and ain’t that the truth. He got serious when he turned to introduce the woman everyone calls Joanie. He said that the most fascinating thing about her pioneering win at the 1984 Olympic marathon was that she went for it right from the start. She led the race the whole way. “That takes guts,” he said; it’s more exciting to watch than a race when someone is beaten by seconds.
So there we all were in Maine. The most famous runners in America and me.
So there we all were in Maine. The most famous runners in America and me. I got to go because my best friend Candace lives at the halfway point on the course, is friends with Joanie, and offers up her shelter-porn beautiful home for a pre-race party. This year Candace agreed to let Frank Shorter stay with her. And that’s when I decided that maybe Frank and I would get married.
The week before I left for Maine I’d gone on a group long run in Missoula, Mont., a town I’d moved away from six years ago but continue to revisit. We met, as usual, at Dean’s house, ready to hit the trails for three hours of mountain bliss and, I suspected, good conversation. I told Dean that I was en route to running camp; I’d been invited to speak to the Beaverhead Country Cross-Country High School Retreat.
Why, he wanted to know, would they ask me.
Because, I said, I’m fame-ous.
There were two new guys there, two guys I’d never met.
I’ve heard about you, said one.
But it wasn’t because I’m famous. I’m not famous. I write regularly for running magazines and for a national publication for eggheads (The Chronicle of Higher Education). I have a Lilliputian body with a Brobdingnagian personality. I narrow-cast with gusto. The kinds of places I get invited to talk are on college campuses to hector faculty for their bad academic prose and at high school running retreats in remote towns of a few thousand people.
Turns out, though, one of the guys on the run is on his way to becoming for-real famous. It took some prying on my part, since he didn’t announce this fact, but we had a lot of miles to cover and I am not shy about prying. Dave plays in a band that has achieved national success and is experiencing the attendant publicity.
As we shifted into granny gear and shuffled our way up Mt. Jumbo, I told Dave that it seemed to me that the shape of the graph that has happiness and fame as its axes looks like an upside down U. He didn’t think about it for a nanosecond before he agreed. As a drummer, he felt shielded by the front man, who was already starting to negotiate the post-peak ski slope down. On the way up it’s fun and exciting and novel to be recognized for your achievement, to be seen for who you are and what you’ve done. And then it starts to suck. It starts to suck bad. You go to the grocery store wearing torn and tatty sweatpants, having not washed your hair in a week, and there’s a photographer. People stop you while you’re on line at the porta-potty to tell you something — usually about themselves. I remember hearing about when Bill Rodgers ended up in the medical tent during one hot Boston Marathon and was signing autographs with an IV line in his arm. People think they know you. Anyone who’s ever written a memoir (I’ve penned three) is accustomed to strangers telling them “I know you.” No you don’t, you ninny, I think. You know the me I’ve crafted for the page. That’s a part of me, but it’s not me.
But still, we want to be recognized. We want people to know what we’ve done. We want to beat our breasts and sing the body electric. And we want others to join in the chorus. When they do, we feel alive. And then it’s too much and you want to wear a baseball hat and gigantic sunglasses.
Though I am far from hats and dark glasses, I still think a lot about the wages of fame and success. I once heard poet and memoirist Mary Karr quote novelist Martin Amis who was quoting novelist Ian McEwen who said something like, “when you go on book tour you become an employee of your former self.” Play Freebird, man. If you don’t understand how annoying it can be to have fans, read Stephen King’s Misery.
Early success must be even harder to manage. A spectacular and acclaimed first book is often followed, usually too many years later, by a flop. Runners like to say you’re only as good as your last race. How do you top Olympic gold at age 25?
This is all to say: I should have known better.
The fantasies about marrying Frank Shorter? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong on the dreamy montage of us frolicking on the trails. Wrong on supposing that even if he was arrogant, I would enjoy hearing his stories over candlelit dinners. Wrong on imaging than winning gold could somehow gild a personality. Wrong on believing I would be able, after three days, to see past the curated image and get to know the man. Wrong on thinking that I might present a compelling enough package for him to ask me one single question about myself. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Frank cants at the waist; his posture is like a wall clock stuck at 1:30.Frank cants at the waist; his posture is like a wall clock stuck at 1:30. Walking, when he does it, looks painful. He’s got a lovely thatch of hair, distinguished-man grey, shrewd eyes, an agreeable smile, and nice, only slightly craggy skin. His face, in fact, kind of twinkles at times, especially when it seems he’s trying to be liked. But those are rare moments. I found his bearing is so aggressive, his language so pointed, that mostly I just wanted to get out of the way.
The funny thing is, I often like people who are “difficult.” Given the option to spend time with a fascinating narcissist or a dull nice guy, I will always make the same choice. When people complain about novels whose main character they’re not fond of, I never quite get it. I don’t have to like him or her; I just have to be compelled. My all-time favorite literary character is Milton’s Satan from Paradise Lost. So he’s the devil, but I would love to have a few beers with that guy. All the ambrosia in heaven and earth would not be enough to tempt me to sit through dinner with those dullards, Adam and Eve.
So with Frank, at first, I experienced the expected thrill of being in the presence of someone who had done something I admired. We spent a lot of time in front of the TV, watching the Olympics. Look, it’s really freaking cool to watch the Olympics with an Olympian. At least I think it is.
Frank is used to being an expert, a commentator. He offered critiques of gymnastics landings and beach volleyball outfits and the sad after-pool life of Olympic swimmers. But somehow, even in this most innocuous setting, in a comfortable and cozy home on the coast of Maine, our conversations always seemed to go sideways. I spend a lot of time with college professors. Heck, I am a college professor. I’m accustomed to being lectured and can lecture right back. Like one of those annoying little dogs with a big dog personality, I never back away from an argument. But I am unaccustomed to being treated like a dolt. “You’re making my point,” Frank said about 785 times, as if conversations don’t move forward and twist and turn and that’s what makes them fun. With Frank everything had to pile up to prove he was right. “That’s my point,” he would say, with a finger stab, as if I couldn’t understand what he was saying unless he underlined it. I’ve never met a man with more points.
Frank didn’t ask questions. He explained. A number of times he left the room when I disagreed with him, which, because I’m me, didn’t stop me from disagreeing with him. It may, in fact, have encouraged my own less-than-gracious behavior. Frank’s the kid who sits in the front row and answers every question first. (Me too!) He’s the older man who’s content only when he’s talking; listening, for him, seems agonizing. He’s the speaker who says to someone he’s just met, and about whom he knows nothing, “You’ll find this interesting.” He’s been dining out on the same stories — no, the same explanations, since he seems to have no sense of narrative — for 40 years and he hasn’t tired of them. He doesn’t realize that the rest of us might not find them as compelling as he does. Except when they’re interesting. Which sometimes, they really are.
Oh, Frank. Oh Olympian, oh gold medal owner, oh running boom catalyst, I so wanted you to be different. I wanted me to be different, to be less invested in my idea of you. My little fan heart got all dinged up after we spent three days watching televised sports I didn’t care about and eating ice cream together. I didn’t really think I was going to want to marry you. I just hoped you would be a person I could feel great about having met — the way I feel about Bill Rodgers and Joan Benoit Samuelson and Don Kardong — someone whose words I could remember during hard races and take inspiration from, someone whose example could help me find the breath to keep going when I wanted to quit.
There had to be, I kept thinking, a soft spot. One of my skills is seeing past chainmail and finding, deep in some well-defended place, in even the harshest of men, a tender part that is all the more beautiful for being hidden. I cherish the opportunity to see through the crap to the core.
My first career was as an editor of scholarly books. An editor is a professional fan. I tended to like my authors; they liked me because all we talked about was them: their ideas, their sentences, their book, their reviews. If they were a little self-involved, well, fine. They were doing work I found valuable. And if they weren’t especially nice people — and a few of them were full-on assholes — well, that made sense because, what I learned at a young age is that audacity and narcissism can go together like chocolate and peanut butter, a point Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs makes beautifully. It is a study of audacity, of a will to power that is Satanesquely beautiful, in a package you wouldn’t want to have to live with.
Elite marathoning is such a small, unappreciated world that we need our celebrities to remain heroes.
In fact, audacity might require a kind of narcissism and may be dogged by unappealing arrogance. While it’s great to be around a mensch, we need those assholes who are so self-involved and motivated that they go out and do big things. We love to watch incredible performances — the ones that take guts, the ones that change the landscape of the world. We’ve come to accept bad behavior in the biographies of artists. Gauguin left madame and les enfants for Tahiti. Hemingway brawled and bullied. In sports, as in the rest of life, we put up with personal misconduct until it’s so far over the top — raping women, biting off ears, fighting dogs — that we can’t stand it anymore as fans. But we still keep watching.
Of course it’s always more pleasant to be around people of genius who are kind and generous, and when we encounter them, well, that’s one of the real pleasures in life: to have an idol be someone you want to eat dinner with.
It doesn’t take much digging to unearth a lode of Frank Shorter stories, but not one of the many people I asked about him would say anything for the record. Each person chuckled as I related my impressions of him. “We’ve all been there,” said one guy. “Yep, that’s Frank,” with a head shake. “He throws most people for a loop.” Runners value what he’s accomplished and don’t want to do anything to tarnish his reputation. Elite marathoning is such a small, unappreciated world that we need our celebrities to remain heroes. (In Greek mythology, “heroes” were the mutts of gods and humans. They did great in battle, but not so well on the home front.) A guy who’s known Frank for a long time responded, “He’s always had that cold, off-putting personality. Actually, it’s even more complicated than that. I’ve heard from dozens of people who meet him and have a very pleasant initial interaction with him, only to get the cold shoulder a day later. Guys who knew him well used to just shrug and say, ‘Well, that’s just Frank.’”
One long-time runner wondered if Frank has any real friends. He’s always gone his own way, often against groups of people who were trying to make things better for all runners. He’s a letter-of-the-law kind of guy. At one event, he was called up to speak and when he reached the podium it seemed like he was looking at a sheet of paper on which he had scribbled some notes. He was, in fact, checking the agenda to make sure he had not agreed to offer any remarks. His speech consisted of pointing out the fact that he had not agreed to speak.
When we were watching the Olympics together, he did provide a fascinating primer on the many different ways people are still cheating. It isn’t surprising that Frank’s most important post-athletic role has been with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, ferreting out drug cheats. The East German who beat him in the 1976 Olympic marathon was later found to be implicated in a wide-spread Communist doping program. If Frank can prove that the guy cheated, he might be able to trade his silver medal for gold, and Don Kardong, who came in fourth by three seconds, could get bronze. It’s easy to understand how frustrating it must be to have been beaten unfairly. As an athlete, it bugs me to be bested by women who are 20 years younger than me. At this point, youth seems an unfair advantage (a hopeless sentiment, I know). But Frank seems to live by a code of retributive justice, where it’s more important to be right than to be kind.
If people were reluctant to speak about him before, after the recent article in Runner’s World it’s like there’s a gag order. Coming out with a tale of abuse provides a kind of Teflon coating. A number of people questioned why Frank has now started speaking about the beatings he suffered at the hands of his father, a man who was loved and admired as a small-town doctor. He says in the article, “To fuse my identity with what has become a trendy syndrome, to get lumped in with the confessions of fading rock stars and politicians looking to boost their careers, is against everything I stand for,” and yet that seems to be exactly what he is doing. Why now? Maybe there’s a book in the works. Maybe it’s just the result of sixty-five-year-old man trying to make sense of his life.
Indeed, for a number of people who know him, the abuse story seems to serve as explanatory, if not exculpatory, of his behavior. After I met him I wondered if part of his motivation to speak up now has to do with the fact that he understands that no one likes him and wants to try to gold-plate his legacy. Then I thought: Nah. Frank Shorter doesn’t have a clue about how people think about him. And you know what? He probably doesn’t even care.
Candace and I like to curl up on the couch and bat around ideas. One of our conversations the weekend of the Beach to Beacon 10 K race was, for obvious reasons, about the person you would be most star-struck to meet. Who would turn you into an embarrassing gusher? For me, so many. I confessed that after I met Susan Orlean, the friend who accompanied me to the reading accused me of stroking her shoulder. To be clear, I did not stroke Susan Orlean’s shoulder. When we were talking, I may have touched her on the arm to make a point. If I saw author Michael Lewis walking down the street I might start humping his leg. I’d like to kidnap John McPhee and make him go camping with me.
Trying to draw Frank into the conversation, nudging him to reflect instead of explain, I asked who he would be star-struck to meet.
The man who had spent a weekend saying “You’re making my point!” or “You’re missing my point!” didn’t get it. He explained that you wouldn’t know you wanted to meet them until you had met them. He didn’t seem to understand what it means to be a fan. I wondered: does he really not admire anyone in that way? I wondered what it would be like to live without the pleasure of wanting to meet someone who inspires you, someone whose work, whose achievements, whose life, even, means something to you, feels bigger than you. Someone who can make you feel bigger.
I had gotten lost and accidentally run too many miles two days before the Beach to Beacon 10K. My legs were weary from traveling and a summer of racing, so I had no expectation of running fast. Instead, I decided to jog the course and let my mind roam. We were running to Portland Head Light. We were running to the lighthouse.
Then, toward the end of the race, I started thinking about
And so I spent 46 minutes (and three seconds) thinking about Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. I thought, in particular, of Mr. Ramsay, the angry and sad patriarch, a man unable to express emotion, happy only when dominating and explaining, an intellectual bully whose accomplishments, no matter how great, would never be enough to make him feel like a success, an unappealing character Woolf manages to make us care about by showing him in full and rich portraiture.
I thought about Mr. Ramsay, and I thought about the Olympian who had been sleeping in the next room, the ex-future husband who had so disappointed me.
Then, toward the end of the race, I started thinking about Frank’s feet.
Runners have ugly feet. We have toenails blackened from blood blisters that eventually fall off and leave blank, helpless spaces; we have callouses and bunions that grow like horns and threaten to do violence to anyone who brushes against them; we have toes that seem to want to go AWOL. I have seen a lot of runner-ugly feet, including those at the ends of my own legs. But Frank Shorter’s feet are on a whole other level of icky. They are gnarled like wood, stiff in a way that seems geometric. There’s yellow athletic tape across the toes of the left foot that looks like a crime scene or an emergency. Frank’s feet don’t look like they should be able to support him; they don’t look like he should be able to make them run.
But oh my, did those feet run. They ran him across the finish line in Munich five days after a gruesome terrorist attack. During that marathon Frank broke away from the lead pack at mile nine and the pack never caught up. Like Joanie’s historic race, it was a performance consisting of all guts, an effort fueled by audacity — bold, brazen, brave, thrilling. It was, in fact, a race that created fans for a sport where there had been none before. Frank Shorter ran by himself; he entered the Olympic stadium unaccompanied. It takes more effort to run alone. Running a marathon, at a certain point, becomes about managing pain. Perhaps Frank’s greatest achievement is being able to handle hurt. As I was finishing the TD Bank Beach to Beacon 10K, knowing that I wasn’t pushing myself hard enough, feeling that I could choose to run faster but not wanting to suffer, I started thinking about Frank’s feet, feet that don’t even look like they go together, frail and fragile, each seeming sad and alone in its own way, and, for the last quarter mile, I kicked it up a notch.