Frank Shorter gave thought to running in Monday’s 118th Boston Marathon.
It was a short-lived idea.
“I’m really not that fast anymore,” said the 66-year-old who transformed the sport decades ago to what it has evolved into.
Why would speed matter? Tis not how fast you run the race, but . . .
“Yeah, I know, but it’s hard for me to answer,” he hemmed. “I’m not sure why.”
The only American male to win Olympic gold in the marathon really does know – he wants to finish what he started a year ago, without any horrific interruptions.
It’s been ingrained in him since an early age to never drop out of a race.
The long-distance legend who never finished in the top three in all his attempts for the Boston Marathon, was part of the Universal Sports Network telecast last year as a studio analyst. He and his team never got to do their afternoon wrap-up show after two bombs ripped through the area near the finish line, killing three people and leaving more than 250 injured.
He’s going back to be part of the broadcast again, no second thoughts about running it. Even if Boston Marathon legend Bill Rogers told Shorter he’d run with him in the event before injuring a hamstring during training, ending that thought.
Shorter instead has some time to sort out his approach to being back in Boston a year later:
Q: You’ve compared the experience of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings to what you heard and saw during the terrorist’s attacks at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, just days before you won your gold. Can you recount that a bit again?
A: When the second bomb went off across the street behind me in Boston, I was trying to get to the TV truck for our afternoon show and ended up cutting through Lord & Taylor (dress shop on Boylston Street) because there was a people jam. I just went through the first door when I heard the first bomb. I knew what that was – I also heard the shots in the early morning in Munich. I happened to sleeping outside on the balcony in the Olympic Village while my roommate, Dave Wottle, was inside our room with his new wife Nan. Dave had already won gold in his event. I was on the balcony, for three or four days – which makes sense, right, since I’m preparing for the Olympic marathon, just camping out. But that’s the way we were as a distance running team, it was a communal effort.
So I heard the shots go off at 4 a.m. and I knew. That morning there wasn’t a sound in the Olympic Village. We spent the day with a little black and white TV and we could see the terrorist across the courtyard – that classic picture of the man with the sub-machine guns. We went through that whole day, and the next day and the memorial service in that psychosocial process that they now have labels for — shock, depression, the resolution stage. It’s the same kind of way they’ve been doing things in Boston over the last year, except we did it all in a short time. Coming back from the memorial service, I turned to my marathon teammate Kenny Moore and said, ‘The only other place the terrorists could do anything is out on the marathon course. But I’m not going to think about it, because if I do, then they win.’ I ran the entire race and never thought about it.
So if you fast forward 42 years, all of the sudden I’m kind of back, in a way, in that same situation. I’ve already seen such a transformation in how it has been handled by the people around me, but it’s hard to describe. Munich was just confusion.
Q: And there was probably no real context on how to deal with that confusion at the time?
A: No, there wasn’t. But here, when you go back to when I was in that store, and the second bomb went off and we could feel the concussion through the doors, it was not like panic in a movie theater. It was very purposeful, slow and people were helping and comforting others who needed it. There was no ‘Me first,’ elbowing by others, if you know what I mean.
And then what you do in those circumstances, as I learned before, in the same way we all congregated on the balcony in Munich that day — looking for loved ones and knowing you want to go to the safe places where you’re supposed to be — we were supposed to meet by the TV truck near the library. But we couldn’t get in there. We went to the finish line where the broadcast was supposed to happen and we had our credentials, but at the security checkpoint they were not letting anybody in. But that’s where I got to watch the response in the triage. I was right next to the medical tent. The first image I had – I’ll never forget it – was a man being pushed in a wheelchair toward me. He was staring straight ahead, had his hands on the sides of the chair. And then I realized he didn’t have any legs.
The people in that triage reacted almost as if there had been a rehearsal, they had visualized it somehow.
I think there’s a certain karma about how the people in Boston reacted and wanted to do something. I don’t want to be ethereal about this, but I remember the story about the sister of the little boy who died. She had her leg blown off. The guy standing next to her has just got his certification to be an EMT and he starts to tend to her. Another guy walks up, no experience in the medical field, just wants to do something. The new EMT says, ‘give me your belt.’ He uses it as a tourniquet, picks her up and says, ‘hold this belt while we take her to the tent.’ They determine later if that hadn’t happened, she would have bled out and died.
It gives me goosebumps to remember it, but it does give hope, too. It’s not a Pollyannaish hope that everything’s OK. It’s a vigilant hope, I guess is the way to put it. For me, I’m going to make that 4 p.m. show on Monday – to complete what we didn’t complete last year.
Q: Maybe better than ‘closure’ the word is ‘completion’?
A: It’s completing a cycle. What’s going to happen Monday is that even the elite athletes want to get back. I think the men’s and women’s winners from the past three years are here, and that doesn’t happen unless they’re making it a point to be here. It’s going to be an incredible athletic event from that standpoint.
There will be 35,000 people out there running, I think like what I experienced in Munich – they’re not going to let any acts of terrorism affect them. That’s sort of their collective statement. It’s kind of like closure, but it’s more like closure of an initial chapter. Then everything will go forward from there.
Q: With no safety concerns?
A: I think, no, because there’s a certain vigilance and willingness to become involved, ever since 9/11. There’s a certain aspect of people now who don’t stop to ask, ‘Should I get involved?’ They instinctively react. I think that will be all along the course.
Q: What was your reaction on getting involved when you started to see people getting helped at the triage?
A: I wanted to see what I could do. We were supposed to go for safety in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel, and that was the logical thing to do. It now just dawns on me now that in a way I still haven’t learned my lesson from Munich. There I was out on the balcony looking at this guy who all he had to do was point the gun at us and shoot. So here I am 42 years later, standing at the security checkpoint trying to get in, in my own mind. Maybe that’s all part of the shock phase. But eventually you realize it’s best just to get out of the way.
Q: Surely, everyone who was there has some sort of emotional scars from what happened. Drawing on the ways you’ve dealt with personal setbacks and battles, how do you suggest the victims of last year’s race cope with their pains and healing process?
A: I’m not begging off the question, but I think everyone has their own way of dealing with things. The first thing that flashes in my mind in all those situations – no one deserves what happened. I don’t care what the circumstances are. But the fact it happened to you is there and done. Then it’s how you choose to go on from there. That’s really the key. It takes an affirmative thought press to not be a victim. Does that answer it?
Q: I think so, because I do believe everyone has their own coping mechanisms. But I wondered if there was something you may have developed or figured out that’s worth passing on anyone struggling to find a better way to come to terms with his or her issues.
A: You need to look for good people to become sort of surrogates in that situation. Even if you can’t find those around you who can help, you can always eventually find someone who can help. And they don’t even have to know they’re helping you. It’s part of your own healing process. You have to do something affirmative.
It brings it back around to the running and the telecast – the terrorists picked the wrong demographic to mess with on this one here. I think the way Boston deals with it is the way they’re going to deal with on Monday. You move. You do something. That’s how I deal with stress.
Q: That ‘Boston Strong’ slogan doesn’t seem to have lost its momentum, has it?
A: You’re strong, you move forward, you do something affirmative. Sure you can complain, or point out what you don’t like and do something about it. You’ve got a choice. This is a bunch of very active, goal-oriented people combined with a city that has an incredible tradition and a race that is unique in athletic history and a community that has one of the strongest senses of history anywhere. Put all those elements together and you have quite a weekend.
Q: So what then does the Boston Marathon mean to you in the grand scope of things – as an individual place to compete, as a group setting to make a statement, as an historic event in America?
A: The Boston Marathon was the first athletic event perhaps in the world that became totally inclusive in terms of anyone who wanted to train and run in it. Then, it took on a different level in the running boom, where not just the elite but the rest of the people who wanted to find out how good they are could participate. Now it’s become a race where you truly find out about yourself. The difference this year is now not only are the elite and the other runners in the field going to find out a lot about themselves, and how they perform, but the people of Boston and everyone else who is there is going to find out the same thing. It’s almost been an extension of a competitive event. And here it’s magnified because, to paraphrase Mel Brooks, ‘it’s good to be the first.’ (laughing). You can’t take that away from Boston and the people who put on the race. The city has always been true to that trust involved with that. It’s an evolution of that trust in the athletic community because it has spread to the entire community.