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Original Issue

It's only a transitory analogy

Frank Shorter, the ex-Yalie, ex-med student, ex-also-ran, adds the AAU championship to his laurels—without sacrificing the Elliott Gould touch

Beautiful, Frank Shorter. Here you come, sloshing down this long straight at Washington Park in Chicago last Saturday afternoon, at the end of a muddy 10,000 meters in the cold and the wind, a good furlong ahead of everyone and winning the National AAU cross-country championship, and still, for all the world, you look like nothing more than a Madison Avenue art director warming up for a Sunday morning touch football game. Well, look at you. There's all of what you call your artsy-craftsy hair exploding every which way from under that Indian headband. And there's your Elliott Gould mustache, the droplets of saliva hanging from it turning into crystals of ice. And this is without the panty hose you wore to ward off the cold when you won the USTFF cross-country championship at Penn State three days earlier.

Sorry, Frank. Despite your contention that it's "only a transitory analogy," since the movie is now a year old, you're still "the pro from Dover," as Gould airily informed the operating room nurse in M*A*S*H. Remember what you said last June after you won the AAU three-mile run? "Everyone's always trying to hassle you with rules. They say, 'No, no, not that way. Do it my way.' I say I'm good. I'll do it the way I want."

And what is that you say about your image? "The people who'll get upset about it, I don't care about them. They need to be shook up a little anyway. And the people I do care about, it just doesn't bother them." Beautiful.

The night before the cross-country race Frank Shorter, the likely favorite in a field of 239, sat in That Steak Joynt, on the edge of Chicago's Old Town.

"Did you ever feel you'd get this far?" he was asked.

"No, never," he said.

"Has it changed you?"

A circumspect man, Shorter thought a moment before answering. "You can figure it out," he said, "I've been training hard for, well, less than a year now, and I'm finding myself getting too serious over it. All this talk is just an attempt to deal with the new pressures of being the favorite. The fact that I have to intellectualize so much about my attitudes and work out all these elaborate schemes is just an effort on my part to deal with the changes."

That he is in a position to deal with them at all is as unlikely a story as the man himself. A year and a half ago Frank Shorter was the alltime record-holding second-place finisher at IC4A and Heptagonal championships. He even was having trouble winning in Harvard-Yale dual meets. Then in May 1969, his studies as a psychology major at Yale completed, Shorter began two-a-day workouts for the first time in his life. "Curiosity," he says now. "I figured I had nothing to lose." Three weeks later he clocked himself for six miles and found his time was better than any collegian's that year. He flew to Knoxville and a week later was the NCAA six-mile champion.

That fall he spent eight weeks in medical school at the University of New Mexico, before giving it up in favor of cross-country and downhill skiing in Denver and finally just bumming around Taos, N. Mex., where his father practices medicine. It was only last March that Frank Shorter moved to Gainesville, Fla., joined Jack Bacheler, the 6'6‚Öù" entomologist, on the Florida Track Club and resumed his running career in earnest. "It became a matter of singular concentration, discipline, monomania," Shorter says. "I had to zero in on one thing, I had to make it so nothing else mattered. A distance runner always knows how good he is because he knows the distances he runs, the strength he has. He can't hide anything from himself. He always has the feeling of 'if I worked harder I could have been....' I just made up my mind to work and see how good I could be. I didn't want to quit and say for the rest of my life, 'Well, maybe I could have been.' "

This soliloquy is as philosophical as Shorter will get; he prefers to define himself through his actions. "Oh, I could sit here and put labels on my attitude," he says, "start throwing terms around, but that would be quite phony, as bad as putting labels on anything. I remember a parody put out by a Yale humor magazine. It listed one of the requirements for a degree as being able to talk at a cocktail party for two hours, entertainingly but superficially, about your major. To sit here and psychoanalyze my running would be just as superficial."

Yet even with the limited recognition that has come with his success—most notably a double in the AAU and the upset win in the 10,000 in Leningrad (SI, Aug. 3)—last summer—Shorter feels that he may be getting too monomaniacal. Though he has moved to Boulder and is now a grader in the University of Colorado business school, he plans to start law school at Florida in March, as much for diversion as for a degree.

"I'm becoming sort of anxious to get back to school," he admits. "I'm concentrating too much on running. It's such a temporary thing. Before I did it because I wanted to do well. Now I'm concerned that I'm getting upset at the chance of losing. I want to think of other things. When I'm East for the indoor season I hope I can sneak up to Stowe and do a little skiing.

"I want to do well, but it can't be the end-all. I don't consider that fatalistic, but realistic. Maybe there is a lack of self-confidence to a certain degree, a tempered confidence. In a way you scare yourself into doing well."

There was little to scare Shorter last Saturday. Steve Prefontaine, the University of Oregon sophomore who had won the NCAA cross-country championship five days earlier, was back in Eugene because, as his coach, Bill Bowerman, explained, "Our theory around here in the fall is not to run the horse until all the races are out of him." But for Shorter, the AAU was the big race. He had trained for it by running 125 miles a week at Boulder's 5,350-foot altitude and, despite his nervousness, he was never really threatened. He had a narrow lead at the mile, was 20 yards ahead at two miles. 100 at three and it lengthened from there. "Easy, easy," Shorter said later. "I just set my own tempo, and when they let me do that I'm happy. I never like to think I have it won, but I knew no one was going to make up 30 seconds on me in the last mile." As he splashed down the final straight. Shorter turned to wave encouragement to teammate Bacheler, in second place, then finished in 30:15.7, with Bacheler 28 seconds behind.

So Frank Shorter carries on. "I know the work I've done," he says, "and I know the results I can hope for. The guy who stands there and says that this is some kind of joke, that I'm putting it over on them, is some kind of character actor a director picks up off a street corner. There's no way I could fool myself into thinking that way. Like, do you remember when those guys in M*A*S*H walked into the operating room wearing plaid pants and knickers and carrying golf clubs? The nurse went crazy and told them they couldn't go in. They knew what they were doing, so they casually walked by, introduced themselves as 'the pro from Dover and my favorite caddie' and did the operation. It was successful, and no one could deny them. That was great."

No, Frank. Beautiful.