This story rings dear and true to me as I had parents who had support issues and did not encourage us to succeed in this world....
Frank Shorter is the father of the modern running boom. An enduringly popular speaker, he spins a captivating narrative about winning the 1972 Olympic Marathon. The story he hasn't told is the dark truth about his own father.
By John Brant
From the October 2011 issue of Runner's World
By painful but unequivocal choice, Frank Shorter possesses no photographs of the late Dr. Samuel Shorter, even though, of the 11 children in the Shorter family—five boys, six girls—Frank, the second eldest, looked most like his father. They had the same inquisitive eyes, thick shock of hair, and fine-boned, patrician profile. Throughout Frank's childhood, the people of Middletown, New York, frequently noted the resemblance. They meant it as a compliment, but like everything else connected with his father, the comment aroused a wild, secret fear in the boy.
Dr. Shorter served the 22,000 residents of this Hudson River Valley town, about 60 miles northwest of New York City, as a general practitioner. During the 1950s, when Frank was growing up, house calls still formed a staple of Dr. Shorter's practice, and sometimes he brought Frank along on his calls in town. Dr. Shorter would pack up his black bag in his ground-floor office of the family home, a grand Victorian, with a mansard roof and a wraparound porch, two doors down from the armory castle on Highland Avenue. Frank would follow him out to the family's Buick station wagon. There was a lot of foot traffic on Highland in those days. The YMCA stood a few blocks away, and a 10-minute walk along East Main Street delivered pedestrians to the bustling heart of downtown.
The 1972 Olympic Marathon Champion tells the truth he's been running from for 50 years.
Everybody in Middletown admired Dr. Shorter. During a fearsome polio epidemic in 1952, he'd worked tirelessly to control the spread of the disease, and thus spared Middletown the worst of the scourge. Dr. Shorter had delivered a high percentage of the children in the area's postwar baby boom, and was venerated for "forgetting" to send bills to financially struggling patients. His standing was such that years later, when Middletown staged a welcome-home celebration for Frank after he'd won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, the party honored the father as much as the son. Louis Mills, the MC of the event, called Dr. Shorter "one of the greatest humanitarians I have ever known." A headline in the local paper proclaimed "Dr. Sam: Father of the Olympian" above a lengthy and glowing profile of the man.
Slideshow: Rarely seen photos of Shorter and his family The doctor's popularity, however, led to some acutely difficult moments for his son. One day when Frank and his father were heading out on house calls, for instance, a woman on a shopping errand stopped to greet them. "Why, Dr. Shorter, this young man looks just like you!" she said, and then turned to Frank. "And I bet you're smart like your daddy, too! When you grow up, you're going to be a doctor just like him, aren't you?"
Frank remained silent. The woman smiled encouragingly, thinking that the boy was perhaps shy, that the cat had got his tongue, but in fact he didn't know how to answer. He certainly couldn't tell the woman the truth, which he knew she'd never believe, and which Frank was just beginning to admit to himself: that the man whom the community knew as a devoted healer transformed into a violent, abusive sociopath at home, capable of inflicting the most horrible of crimes upon his children; that Frank and his family lived in perpetual, suffocating fear of his father and his sadistic, incestuous proclivities; and that, even at age 9, the boy had resolved to live his life by not emulating Dr. Samuel Shorter.
As the silence wore on, the woman's smile grew strained. Feeling his father looming over him, Frank panicked. Maybe his moment's hesitation had already earned him a beating. Some night soon, as Dr. Shorter climbed the stairs toward his children's bedrooms, belt in hand, it would be Frank's name that he'd call.
"Yes!" the boy finally blurted to the woman, praying that he hadn't spoken too late. "Yes! I want to be a doctor, too!"
Today, more than 50 years later, the memory still staggers Frank Shorter. He rises from his kitchen table and moves to the window, staring out at the Flatirons standing sentinel over Boulder, Colorado, his home of nearly 40 years. Blinding January sunshine shatters off Wonderland Lake, and a steady stream of runners works the trail around it. Spotting Shorter in the window, one runner waves to him excitedly. A storm is forecast for later, but at midmorning the sky is cerulean above the Rocky Mountain snow peaks.
"I can imagine what a wonderful picture we made," Shorter says, turning back to the table. His tousled hair is mostly gray now, but just as thick as in the iconic photos of him from the 1970s. "Everybody in Middletown loved my father. They probably thought I was the luckiest little boy in the world to be able to tag along with him." Another pause. "But those house calls were like all the other times I spent around him. I was terrified. I was on red-alert every minute. You never could tell what was going to set him off. A lot of times, it didn't take anything." Shorter's voice thickens. He speaks with a Yale man's precision, avoiding profanity and cliche. "He wasn't going to hit me in the car. He'd wait until later, at home, where no one could see him."
A heavy silence descends. As the ghost of Dr. Samuel Shorter rises, Frank's eyes fill. He begins to tell a story of his father, then stops. He starts again, and stops once more. He can tell you the exact date of his first significant running injury—February 19, 1976, a hairline fracture in his foot at an indoor meet here in Boulder at the University of Colorado—but he struggles to conjure fragmentary memories of his traumatic early family life; a life that, until now, he has never fully revealed.
The silence between these pauses seems all the more wrenching because, normally, the stories flow out of Shorter: the story of his Olympic gold-medal run in '72, which is generally regarded as the precipitating event of the modern running movement; of his silver-medal marathon performance at the '76 Games in Montreal, where Waldemar Cierpinski, an East German who was later documented to be part of that nation's doping system, beat Shorter out for the gold; of Shorter being the last person to see Steve Prefontaine alive on the night of his fatal car crash in May 1975; and of Shorter's seminal work as the first chairman of the board of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Shorter fluently recounts these stories and others, weaving them into a narrative that he delivers to audiences around the nation in his enduring role as the father of the running boom.
"Frank's contributions crossed over—they affected the whole culture," says the novelist John L. Parker, the author of Once a Runner and Shorter's roommate and training partner during their days with the Florida Track Club in Gainesville during the 1970s. "Alongside figures like Prefontaine, Bill Rodgers, and Roger Bannister, Shorter was the quintessential runner."
But the story that Shorter only recently has come to acknowledge as the genesis for all others emerges in agonized fits and starts. He tried to tell it before, first in 1991. He'd been invited to a race in Florida that was benefiting a center for abused children. He mentioned to a reporter from the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel that the cause was dear to him because his father had abused him as a child. The reporter wrote an article based on that claim, and The New York Times later ran a brief item. But Shorter didn't go into detail about the abuse, his father denied any wrongdoing, and the story soon died. "There was less awareness of child abuse in that era, and more willingness to deny the extent of the problem, especially when it involved a successful man like my father," Shorter says. "Also, my father was still alive, and I was still afraid of him."
Another reason Shorter refrained from elaborating at the time had to do with his deeply ingrained stoicism and an instinct for understatement. He had long been known, even by his peers, as a bit of a loner and as someone willing to stand apart from the pack. Back in 1972 at the Munich Olympics, Shorter had watched the swimmer Mark Spitz rack up an unprecedented seven gold medals. With each race that he won, the number of handlers and marketers around Spitz grew. Shorter didn't begrudge Spitz his self-promotion; like all Olympians in that rigidly amateur era, Spitz had toiled for years without making a dime, and was only seeking to leverage his moment. But on the day of the Olympic Marathon, as he waited to run, Shorter resolved that if and when his moment came, he'd handle it differently—no entourage, no image, not even an agent.
His moment soon arrived. "I threw a 4:33 surge between miles nine and 10, and from that point on I was out of sight of the guys trailing me—Mamo Wolde [of Ethiopia], Derek Clayton [of Australia], and Kenny [Moore of the United States]," Shorter says, recalling the Munich marathon. "The whole second half, I kept hitting my pace. I had the talent to go out fast, by myself, and ride the pain. I learned that from watching Clayton and Ron Clarke, but it was also something I internalized from my childhood."
Shorter's masterful gold-medal performance, run in a time of 2:12:19, made him a household name across America, and soon thousands of his previously sedentary countrymen were taking to the roads, running in his footsteps. In the years since, in all his various roles, Shorter has upheld his resolution, operating with consistent integrity and good taste. As a track and road-race commentator for network TV, for instance, he avoided sensationalism in favor of thoughtful analysis. During U.S. distance runners' battle to gain professional status in the 1970s, Shorter rejected confrontation, capitalizing on his relationship with the sport's leaders to broker a compromise in which athletes' prize-winnings were placed in trust. During his tenure as the first head of USADA, Shorter de-emphasized outing individual dopers in favor of building an overall system of deterrence. In his present public-speaking career, he employs no agency to arrange his appearances—"People are amazed when they call me and I pick up the phone myself," he says—and prefers to stay in the homes of local runners when he travels to events rather than in hotels.
In his reluctance to build a brand, paradoxically, Shorter has done just that. Combining his Olympic fame with a bachelor's degree from Yale and a law degree from the University of Florida, he has established a reputation for dignity and decorum that resembles the status that Joe DiMaggio achieved in his postbaseball career. "Working with Frank sort of ruined me for working with other professional athletes," says Steve Bosley, the founder of the Bolder Boulder 10-K, the nation's second largest road race, whose course features a statue of Shorter. "I would compare their style to the way that Frank does business, and I was always disappointed."
Accordingly, Shorter has avoided jumping on any bandwagon—including that of abuse victim. "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," he says.
And yet, here he is on this winter morning, 63 years old, renowned and respected, with three happy adult children of his own and his first grandchild on the way, with the runners who are his heirs flowing past his sun-filled house on the edge of the Rocky Mountains, suffering to recall the crimes his father committed more than a half-century ago. Recent, pivotal events, Shorter explains, have prompted him to speak out.
The first was his father's death, in June 2008, in Middletown, on the same day that Shorter was in town for the city's annual Classic 10-K, a race he has come home to run nearly every year since 1981. The evening before the race, Shorter went to see his father, who was 86 and under hospice care due to renal failure, for the final time. "What I felt, looking into his eyes, was an enormous sense of relief," Shorter says. "Now he couldn't hurt me anymore. He couldn't hurt my mother [Katherine, who died two years later, in 2010], and he couldn't hurt my sisters or brothers. He couldn't hurt anyone. I would never have to think about him again." Or so he thought. Instead, the death started to move things around inside Shorter. Old hauntings began to stir, quietly simmering until they found expression two years later at a road race and expo in Springfield, Missouri.
At the event, which took place last November, Shorter came to speak, along with fellow distance-running legends Bill Rodgers and Dick Beardsley. While there the three men were taken to the venue the charity-race was benefiting, a residential high school for children who were in the juvenile justice system.
"Our host asked us to meet some of the kids and give a brief motivational talk in the auditorium," Shorter says. "I looked out at the audience, at all those damaged young people, and realized that I belonged to the same veteran's organization that they did."
Rodgers and Beardsley each talked about perseverance, goal-setting, and overcoming obstacles. Then it was Shorter's turn. Rather than delivering his standard motivational rap, he started remembering. "I talked about lying in bed as a child and hearing my father's footstep on the stairs," he says. "I explained how I tried to anticipate my father's moods and movements, and about the enormous daily effort it took us kids to keep out of his way. I talked about searching for an outlet for my fear and anger, and finding it in running. I admitted that I ran to escape. I described the guilt I felt for not being able to save the rest of my family."
"The entire room was rapt, silent," Beardsley recalls. "I was stunned. I've known Frank for years, and I'd never heard any of this. None of us had. Bill always looks sort of dazed, but as Frank spoke he looked even more dazed than usual. Suddenly things about Frank clicked into focus. I'd always felt this sense of aloofness and distance from him—sometimes he would look at me like he didn't even know me. I thought it was something I'd done to offend him, or it was just who I was, an average guy, when Frank is just so cotton-pickin' smart. I talked to friends, and they said, 'Don't take it personally, that's just Frank.' Sitting there at that center, listening to him talk about his father coming up the stairs and deciding which of his kids he was going to hammer that night, I understood where Frank's distance came from."
After his talk, Shorter says, a girl, who appeared to be about 14 or 15, approached him. "'That story you told, that's my story,'" he recalls her saying. "'All of those things happened to me. The way you tried to keep one step ahead of your father, and tried to protect your sisters and brothers, and hated yourself for not being able to—that was me you were talking about.'"
At that moment the dime dropped for Shorter. He realized that his responsibility to share his story outweighed the risk of appearing trendy or self-serving. "There was a purpose to it beyond feeding my ego or joining the therapeutic age," he says. "I saw that my story could be of use to people like this girl."
There was one more reason for speaking out. For his entire adult life Shorter had been explaining things to people. He explained the power and allure of the marathon to uncomprehending journalists. He explained to an exercise-adverse public that the benefits of distance running were available to anybody. He explained the pervasiveness and danger of performance-enhancing drugs. All that explaining, and yet he'd never explained the central fact driving his life and career—to others, or to himself.
"People deserve the truth," Shorter says. "I think I deserve the truth. And my father? Well, I've come to the conclusion that he deserves mercy, but he also deserves justice. It's not right for him to get away with what he did."
That Buick station wagon. A 1953 Chrysler limousine. A 1960 Chevrolet Carryall, the ancestor of today's Suburban. A 1958 Citroen, the only one in Middletown. Shorter associates these cars with his father because, even though his office was on the ground floor of the family home, Dr. Shorter was rarely present in the living quarters. Other than Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, Shorter can't recall sharing a meal with him. "He was always out ministering to patients and saving the world," Shorter says, adding that the source of his father's extraordinary altruistic drive remains a mystery. Although Dr. Shorter later worked on medical missions sponsored by the Presbyterian Church, Frank doesn't remember him being especially religious, nor does he recall him having strong political convictions. By the same token, Shorter can only speculate regarding the source of his father's rage.
"Serving others—carrying the Hippocratic Oath to an extreme—was his way of proving and defining himself," Shorter says. "His entire identity was wrapped up with being this heroically selfless healer. But somehow he developed this Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. He showered care and love on the community, and terror and abuse on his wife and children."
Samuel Shorter grew up in Middletown, a member of the city's professional elite. His father, Harry Sanford Shorter, was a prominent optometrist known for his practice's catchy motto:
"See Longer, See Shorter." Samuel Shorter graduated from Hobart College and married Katherine Chappel, his hometown sweetheart. In 1943, he entered an accelerated wartime program at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, receiving his M.D. in 1945. That year, Samuel Jr., the couple's first child, was born. Soon thereafter Dr. Shorter was stationed at an Army hospital in Germany. While they were in Munich in 1947, Katherine gave birth to Frank (25 years later, Frank would return to his birthplace to win the Olympic Marathon). In 1948, Dr. Shorter left the Army and returned to the States with his young family.
In his first U.S. practice, he served coal miners and their families in a hamlet called Cow Hollow, West Virginia. The Shorters' house had a train track to the mine running through the backyard. Around that time, during a visit to Florida, Shorter says he received his first beating from his father. "I'm running, screaming, across a hot asphalt road," he recalls. "My father has taken his belt to me because I've soiled my diapers."
Shorter says he has repressed the memories of many of the subsequent beatings that he received from his father, but he can clearly remember four or five especially violent episodes. "They tended to happen often enough, both to me and my siblings," he says, "that I came to think of them as almost routine."
The charges of beatings and abuse are supported by the five Shorter sisters who agreed to be interviewed for this story. "It was a horror show," Barbara duPlessis, Frank's 52-year-old sister, says of her childhood. "I remember my mother dressing a cut in my groin area when I was 6 years old. The wound was in the shape of my father's belt buckle." Another sister, who requested anonymity, says, "The first whipping I remember from my father happened when I was 4 years old, when some water from my bath sloshed out of the tub, and he came at me with the belt."
Along with the physical abuse, according to his children, Dr. Shorter also practiced a form of psychological cruelty. "He was a master at singling out each kid's insecurity or flaw and probing them to the point where you lost all feelings of confidence or self-worth," says duPlessis. "I was slightly cross-eyed as a kid, and he'd ridicule me for that without mercy. He took huge chunks out of my life that I'll never get back."
Frank agrees that the deepest cuts may have been emotional. "We could never relax in his presence. The only attention he ever gave me was when 'disciplining' me. During my career, he only saw two of my races." But then there were times when the father's rage and cruelty escalated to a level unconscionably beyond the belt-whippings and mind games. According to two of the Shorter sisters, their father raped them.
Nanette Shorter, 60, says that Dr. Shorter raped her once, when she was 13, in the midst of a prolonged, savage physical beating that ensued after Nanette came home from a date. "It changed me forever," she says of the attack. "My father said he'd kill me if I ever told anybody, and I believed him."
Mary Shorter-King, 55, says she can remember being raped by her father when she was 6 years old. "I believe rape was part of my father's desire to dominate," she says. "I felt like I lived under a giant thumb. The sexual abuse was part of an overall program of oppression, of keeping kids under that thumb."
Shorter's fragmentary memories of his father's attacks, along with the fear and shame that prevented him and his siblings from revealing the abuse when it was occurring, could lead to the conclusion that he and his sisters are exaggerating or distorting their late father's behavior. But Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D., a professor at the University of California-Irvine and an expert on human memory, says genuine victims of abuse sometimes do not think about their experiences for a long time and not until reminded of them later.
"Just because memories of abuse are fragmentary, or were not talked about for a long time," Loftus says, "doesn't rule them out."
Indeed, the Shorter sisters' memories form searing testimony. "Did my father's behavior constitute abuse? Yes. Beyond the shadow of a doubt," says duPlessis, a registered nurse by profession, who works with abused and delinquent youths for the state of New Mexico. "Today, he'd be arrested in a minute. I would invite doubters of my father's crimes to have lived one day in my shoes. A 6-year-old kid with belt wounds in her groin is not a sign of 'discipline,' even back in the 1960s."
"My father's abusive violence was unquestionably over the deep end," says Nanette Shorter. "I'd say it was psychotic. The terror we lived under is indescribable."
(Calls for comment made to a number listed for Ruth Shorter, Frank's 58-year-old sister, were not returned. Sam Jr. declined to comment for this story when contacted. Chris Shorter, 57, and Michael Shorter, 44, were not contacted due to their health and at the behest of their siblings. Another brother, Thomas, was born with severe health problems and died in the '60s.)
For his part, Frank insists his father's "discipline" constituted criminal abuse. "I'm not making this up," he says. "Why would I? I'd much rather have happy memories."
In 1950, the family left West Virginia and returned to Middletown, where Dr. Shorter hung out his GP's shingle. He made house calls. He delivered babies. He volunteered to cover other doctors' rounds on weekends and holidays. His work is still remembered in Middletown. If you go to the public library downtown, housed in the old passenger railroad station, Gail Myker, one of the reference librarians, will recall that Dr. Shorter treated her case of poison ivy. Ed Diana, a boyhood friend of Frank's who now serves as an Orange County executive, proclaimed a "Dr. Samuel Shorter Day" when the GP retired from practice in 1996.
"Dr. Shorter was a wonderful man," recalls Bill Bright, a 59-year-old Middletown resident. "He delivered my twin brother and me. Years later, when I heard he was dying, I went to visit him. I went into his room and just said a few words of thanks for all that he'd done for this town. His eyes were closed, and I didn't think he could hear me. But just as I was leaving, he opened his eyes and said, 'Bill, your coming here means a lot to me.' Then he started talking a blue streak about Middletown in the old days. I'll never forget that. Dr. Shorter was a great man."
By all evidence, the community never suspected that the great man showed a different face to his family. According to Shorter, his father carefully hid his ferocity. Another of Shorter's sisters, who also requested anonymity, corroborates her brother's claim.
"The violence and abuse remained a secret because of our father's standing in the community," she says. "We children felt a lot of shame and guilt, and we never talked about it, even among ourselves."
"It's my opinion that my father had a profound narcissistic personality disorder," says duPlessis. "He was also brilliant and charismatic. It was a full-time job for him to pull off his double life, but he was a master at it."
Car trips and vacations, some of them coinciding with Dr. Shorter's save-the-world expeditions, formed the principal sustained periods that he spent with his children. They also served as an arena for the devastating psychological cruelty he inflicted. For instance, in 1959, when Frank was 12, Dr. Shorter decided to go to Cuba and serve as a missionary doctor. He piled his family into the Chevy Carryall, hooked up a 26-foot Airstream trailer, and started driving south. While the family was traveling, Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries took over Havana, and Americans could no longer travel freely to the island nation. So Dr. Shorter instead drove the family to Mexico for a vacation. Frank missed an entire quarter of school.
"From the outside, that trip seemed like a wonderful family adventure, but the reality was that it passed in an atmosphere of anxiety and fear," Shorter recalls. "At any moment my father might combust. He would carry road rage to ludicrous extremes."
On one occasion, Shorter remembers, a driver abruptly swerved back into the right lane after passing the Shorters' vehicle. His father grew enraged. He pulled out into the passing lane, floored the gas pedal, and pulled abreast of the offending driver. Then, employing the trailer as a battering ram, he tried to run the other car off the road. "All of this with his wife and children in the car with him," Shorter says. "It was like a scene from a bad Hollywood thriller. We were terrified."
Such car trips, though, couldn't match the torture of the seemingly innocuous house calls around Middletown Shorter often had to go on with his father. These outings were especially disturbing because, unlike family trips, the boy would be alone with his father. While in the car, Shorter says, his father would drive a wedge between Frank and his siblings. "My father would say how disappointed he was that his children were so lazy and selfish, and weren't honoring the sacrifices that he was making on their behalf. He knew that if he turned us against one another, it would strengthen his hold over us."
Shorter would go rigid with anxiety during his father's monologues. "I just tried to be quiet and compliant, to not disagree with him, to not say or do anything that might set him off. As I mentioned, he wasn't going to hit me in the car, where somebody from the town might see him."
Finally they'd arrive at the house of the patient, often a modest house in one of the working-class neighborhoods south of downtown. There, Shorter says, his father would affect his transformation from manipulative bully to beneficent healer. "He would take his bag and go into the house, leaving me in the car," Shorter says. "I would pass the time dreaming about the afternoon, when I could get away from my father."
Apart from the house and his family, the boy felt happy and free. Middletown was still small enough to explore on foot or bicycle, but large enough to remain fascinating, especially to a boy of Shorter's energy and intellect. He liked going to the public library, playing Little League baseball, and fishing on the lake, and he especially enjoyed trotting a few blocks up Highland Avenue to the YMCA, where he swam in the pool and battled to the top of the ping-pong ladder.
Due to his secret feelings of fear and shame, Shorter says, he never hosted friends in his house. Instead he became a fixture in their homes, where a prevailing atmosphere of affection and respect proved to the boy that a functional family life was possible.
"I was especially close friends with a boy named Alec Preston, whose father was also a doctor," Shorter says.
"A few times I drove up to Martha's Vineyard with the Prestons on their family vacations, and the contrast between those trips and riding with my father couldn't have been greater. Like my father, Dr. Preston did a great deal of pro bono work. Unlike my father, Dr. Preston didn't serve others to hide the shadow in his character."
Soon enough, though, Frank would have to return to the grand Victorian that his mother could never control, and yet couldn't escape. Shorter remembers his mother as a quiet, intelligent woman and an accomplished painter who was bullied into near-total submission by her husband. "She almost never left the house," Shorter says. "She didn't have any friends and never socialized."
His mother's seclusion reached the point where it fell on Frank, when he was just 9, to do the family's grocery shopping. He would walk down East Main to the A&P, and then push the loaded cart uphill toward the house. Years later, his mother confided to Shorter that her social anxieties arose from fear rather than neurosis. "She told me that every time she left us alone in the house with our father, 'something bad' would happen to us," Shorter says. "My mother was so scared of my father, and so much in denial of his violence toward her children, that she couldn't say what those bad things were. She just stopped leaving us alone with him.
Eventually, except on rare occasions, she stopped going out altogether." (One sister remembers Katherine in a less charitable light. "My mother was frightened of my father, but she also took a lot of pleasure in being a doctor's wife," she says. "I still feel anger toward her. Why didn't she do a better job protecting us?")
But home was bearable, Shorter says, as long as his father was absent. Dr. Shorter often worked late, making house calls or rounds at the hospital, and usually came home late in the evening. It was then, Shorter says, that his father would routinely administer the beatings that continued until he was about 10 years old.
Shorter says the beatings followed a similar pattern. Downstairs his father wouldn't so much converse with Frank's mother as cross-examine her. Listening in his bedroom above, Frank would hear his father's increasingly strident accusations and his mother's increasingly frantic demurrals as she vainly tried to protect her children. "He didn't really need a reason to attack," Shorter says. "All he required was the hint of a transgression, which he'd twist into justification."
At that point, Frank would typically hear his father's footsteps on the stairs. "I would listen to him running through our names as he decided which one of us he was going to whip," Shorter remembers. He would tense and wait. If Frank was that night's victim, he says, his bedroom door would fly open and his father would stand framed by the light of the hallway. If he came at Frank, it would almost be a relief. It was more excruciating to lie in bed and listen to one of his siblings absorb a beating, Shorter says, than to bear the blows himself.
"Frank felt responsible for us younger children," one sister says. "He was always trying to protect us."
Another sister, who recalls Dr. Shorter pulling her out of bed one night when she was 14 or 15, says that Frank tried to intervene on her behalf. "Frank was pulling on my father's arm, begging him to stop," she says.
When it was the boy's turn, Dr. Shorter would throw back the covers, pull Frank out of bed, and tear away his pajama pants to expose his bottom. Often Frank could smell liquor on his breath, which was both good news and bad. The bad news was that alcohol would juice his father's fury. The good news was that, if he were sufficiently enraged, he might grow befuddled and use the strap end of his belt instead of the buckle end.
But most often, Shorter says, his father employed the buckle end. Holding his second child with an outstretched left hand, he would apply the belt with the right, lashing Frank repeatedly. "He would hit me so hard that he grunted like a power-lifter," Shorter recalls. "I can still hear the uh-huhh of his voice as he got his weight behind each blow."
Shorter says that his father hit him with such anger, hatred, and pent-up rage that, even as he delivered the blows, Frank understood, in some small, dispassionate sector of his mind, that he wasn't responsible. "I realized that no crime I'd committed could possibly deserve this," Shorter says. "I also understood that this beating went far beyond the spankings that my friends occasionally endured from their parents. This was something much bigger and darker."
Shorter says that his father would whip him until his strength gave out. If he wept too loudly, Shorter remembers, his father would often mutter the bully's cliche: "Quit your blubbering or I'll really give you something to cry about."
"So I tried not to cry," Shorter says. "I isolated my pain where I could watch it and control it. That way I could keep it secret, and eventually I could forget it—or at least seem to forget it. The whippings were extremely painful, but my father was a doctor. He knew not to leave bruises that would show."
"He focused on our backs, bottoms, and the backs of our thighs," duPlessis says. "And remember, our father was also our family doctor. We didn't see another pediatrician."
Another sister recalls suffering all day when, as a 6-year-old, she wore a wool sweater to school: The fabric scratched the scabs off the welts on her back raised by her father's belt. Then there's Nanette, who remembers when, in junior high school, a concerned PE teacher asked about the bruises on her back and thighs. The girl was too ashamed and terrified to reply.
A piercing wind carries down from the Front Range above Boulder, driving storm clouds onto the plain; the weather has turned during Shorter's long, draining morning of remembering. Still recovering from hip-resurfacing surgery a year ago, and carefully rationing his running mileage, he breaks from the house for a brisk walk. As the years and aches accrue, Shorter says, he increasingly works out in the gym, building muscle mass and bone density against the leeching of age. But he appears sanguine about his years.
"I'm happy to be in my 60s and part of the redefinition of aging," he says, lacing up his shoes at the door. "For some reason I always seem to be locked in on the main theme of the baby-boom generation. When our parents hit their 60s, they were old. We're not buying into that. I think it's an exciting age, and an interesting time."
Shorter hopes to run more marathons (he has run approximately 60 over his career; the 1980 Olympic Marathon Trials, in which he finished in 2:23:24, was his final elite effort at the distance). But for now his goals are more modest: to maintain his signature hauteur while running 10-minute miles, or in his words, "to slow down as gracefully as possible." One race, however, is circled in red on his calendar: the Classic 10-K in Middletown. The annual summer race is months away, but Shorter vows to toe the starting line this year after missing last year's with his hip injury.
Outside his front door, the Flatirons soar, appearing close enough to touch. You can taste the looming snow in the air. Shorter punches his watch and sets off, wearing a Russian-style hat with furry earflaps, his feet dancing lightly over snow crusted from earlier storms. As he moves he describes his daily routine: e-mail and phone calls early in the morning, some of it involving his continuing work on anti-doping issues, followed by a vigorous physical workout at midmorning. Then more desk work, followed by another workout. "I consider myself embarked on a 40-year, ongoing experiment in self-coaching," he says. "My goal has always been to simplify my training to the point where it becomes absolutely consistent."
He moves quietly for a moment, his breath chuffing in the frigid air. "Now you know where that hunger for consistency comes from," he says in a low voice. "What my childhood taught me was to be eternally vigilant. Vigilance evolves into consistency. I learned the solace of routine. I developed a way to ride my pain." He gives a thin smile.
"I guess you could say that's the perfect background for a marathoner."
In the early 1960s, however, the marathon remained virtually unthinkable; Frank Shorter had not yet given birth to the running boom. As Frank entered his upper-elementary-school years, his mother spent increasing time sequestered in her attic studio. In her way, however, she tried to help her children escape. She arranged for Sam Jr. to audition for the choir at the Cathedral School of St. John the Divine in New York City, a boarding school that drew students from around the country. Frank tagged along for the session. The school director listened to Sam sing, and then asked his little brother if he wanted to try out. Frank nailed the audition, exhibiting a high soprano voice, and thus Shorter spent his sixth-grade year in Manhattan. At the end of the spring term, however, Shorter decided to leave. He liked singing (later, at Yale, he was a member of one of the singing groups on campus), but not enough to give himself to it completely. He sensed that music wouldn't form his true avenue of escape. So Shorter returned to Middletown, still in search of it.
Little had changed at the big house on Highland Avenue. Now, however, Frank was spared the beatings—at least the physical ones. "I had gotten too big," he explains. "I represented too much of a challenge for my father. There was the chance that I'd resist or fight back. It was easier for him to beat on the younger children."
That fall Shorter started seventh grade at Middletown Junior High School, two miles across town. At around the same time, he got interested in ski racing. Reading up on the elite European racers, he learned that they trained in the off-season by running long distances. So Shorter started running the hilly two-mile route back and forth from school. As he ran his father disappeared from his consciousness. The miles vanished with a similar dreamlike quality. Running was just as structured as music, and yet it had a fierce, unfettered, physical dimension. Also, he was good at it. On any day that the weather allowed, he covered the distance to and from school faster than the previous run. As the autumn wore on, Shorter kept running, but he forgot about ski racing. "I was already following my escape route," he says.
Two years later, again hoping to get Sam Jr. away from the house, Katherine Shorter arranged for him to take the entrance exam at Northfield Mount Hermon Academy, an elite prep school in western Massachusetts. As was the case at choir school, Frank tagged along to the admissions interview, and again school officials were more impressed by him than his brother. Frank, not Sam Jr., enrolled at Mount Hermon, which boasted one of the top cross-country programs in the Northeast. The following year, as a 10th-grader, he won the New England prep cross-country championship. Through his prep-school years, he continued to excel as a student and athlete. In 1965, he enrolled at Yale, where he mostly employed running as a relief from studying. During his senior year, as academic pressure eased, Shorter intensified his training. A four-year series of dramatic breakthroughs followed, beginning with an NCAA championship in the six-mile and culminating, in 1972, with the Olympic gold medal.
"I was blessed to have outstanding coaches, Samuel Greene at Mount Hermon and, later, Bob Geigengack at Yale," Shorter says.
"Both men believed in laying down a solid fundamental training program, and then letting the runner develop at his own pace. That was perfect for me. By my junior year at Yale, I was essentially coaching myself, which I continued doing postcollege."
Shorter adds that, besides using running to escape his childhood trauma and, later, academic pressure, he used the sport as a means of self-discovery. "I never went into a race focused on winning," he says. "I went in wanting to find out. That was even how I approached the marathon at the Munich Games. When I ran into the stadium and crossed the finish line, my first thought wasn't, My God, I just won an Olympic gold medal! And I didn't feel like I was taking revenge on my father. That was the whole point of running for me, to pursue to my utmost something that maybe he couldn't touch and couldn't beat out of me. Crossing that finish line in Munich, I told myself, Yes! I got this one right."
A few weeks after our interview in Boulder, Shorter flies to Indiana to speak at the annual banquet of the Ft. Wayne Track Club. His host picks him up at the airport and drives him not to the Marriott or Sheraton, but to the home of Brett Hess, a local runner. You might expect that the father of the running boom would find such small-market gigs tiresome, but Shorter swings into it with gusto.
First comes a supper with a small group of baby boomers and their kids. The boomers are Shorter's core audience, men around his age or a few years younger, who remember watching on TV as Shorter, in his drooping hippie mustache, powered to his Munich gold medal. These are the fans that thrilled to Shorter's friendly rivalry with Steve Prefontaine on the track. They remember that on a night in May 1975, after a track meet at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, Prefontaine had dropped off Shorter at the house where he was staying and then sped away in his MGB convertible. Minutes later Prefontaine crashed into a rock outcropping and died under his overturned car.
These mostly graying men scarfing macaroni casserole with Shorter might've had a photo of the great marathoner up on their college dorm walls. Maybe that black-and-white shot of Shorter gliding through the streets of Munich, running all alone for the final nine miles, or the picture of him on the medal platform, standing proudly yet circumspectly as the gold medal was laid around his neck, mute proof that in 1972, during all the clamor and doubt of the Vietnam War era, an American man could prevail in a race of supreme difficulty.
This mythic figure, Frank Shorter, sits rumple-haired across the kitchen table from them, unreeling one of his greatest hits. He tells the story of the Munich Massacre at the '72 Games, of waking up on the dorm balcony because his roommate, the 800-meter runner Dave Wottle, was honeymooning with his bride in their bedroom. Shorter describes staring across the courtyard at a hooded terrorist holding an Uzi. Shorter tells of following the events on local TV in those pre-CNN days, with Prefontaine translating because he grew up speaking German. Shorter tells of agonizing with Kenny Moore about how to approach the Olympic Marathon, Moore choosing to dedicate his race to the 11 murdered Israeli athletes, Shorter saying no, the thing is to not give the horror a thought, to shut the pain away in a small, still spot inside of you, to block it out with discipline and order, and to channel your anger, guilt, and fear into the unforgiving yet redemptive act of running, one foot in front of the other.
Shorter did not tell his good friends Kenny Moore or Steve Prefontaine, nor does he tell the star-struck men in this bright kitchen on a dark winter night nearly 40 years later, the true source of his discipline, the silent boyhood suffering that taught Frank Shorter how to ride his pain.
In 1967, when Frank was at Yale, Dr. Shorter left Middletown to work at a medical mission hospital in Taos, New Mexico, and father and son were basically estranged for the rest of Dr. Shorter's life. In New Mexico, according to Frank and his sisters, Katherine rebelled at her husband's violent abuse of the couple's youngest child, a son who is developmentally disabled. The couple separated and divorced around 1978. By then, Dr. Shorter had returned to Middletown, where he resumed his medical practice and later remarried. (His second wife, Marianne Shoemaker Shorter, still lives in Middletown. During an attempt to contact Mrs. Shorter by phone, a woman who identified herself as Mrs. Shorter's caretaker said that the abuse cited by Dr. Shorter's children "never happened"; the woman declined further comment.)
In 1972, after Shorter won his gold medal in Munich, Middletown staged a welcome-home party for its native son. The town fathers sent a limousine down to JFK Airport to pick him up. Back in Middletown, Frank was presented with an additional surprise—his father had driven 2,000 miles across the country to attend the event. That was the occasion when the MC called Dr. Shorter a great humanitarian. A newspaper photo of the event shows Frank hugging his father with apparent affection. In fact, Shorter says, he was only feeling awkward. "My father turned away from me just as I started to greet him," Frank remembers. "He made a big show out of being proud of me. But he was really there to grab as much of the limelight as he could. In fact, he said he didn't even watch my Olympic Marathon on TV. He said it made him too nervous."
"Frank had barely crossed the finish line in Munich when my father started criticizing him," says duPlessis, who still lived with her parents in New Mexico at the time. "'Oh boy, Frank's going to get a big head now,' he said. My father competed against his own children. He didn't want to see any of us succeed—and that applied to Frank even after he won the gold medal. Instead of being proud, or simply letting us be proud of him, my father did everything he could to undermine Frank's accomplishment."
In 1982, Dr. Shorter made a brief visit to Frank's home in Boulder after his second child was born (each of Shorter's two 13-year marriages ended in divorce; he has two children by his first wife and one by his second). At the time, Shorter owned a dog named Smokey. One morning his father stepped outside to pick up the newspaper, and Smokey tried to follow him. Frank says Dr. Shorter slammed the door on the dog, breaking one of its ribs. "That'll teach you to try and escape," Shorter recalls his father saying.
Shorter decided at that moment to never allow his father around his children, and they grew up with no relationship with their grandfather. "I just told them that it wasn't good for him to be around children," Shorter says. "And my kids never questioned that. I think they sensed something was wrong about him. And because of my experience with my father, I never raised a finger against my children. Privately, my purpose in life has always been to stop the cycle of violence."
With the publication of this story, Shorter says, he'll begin to state that purpose in detail and in public. Already, he says, ventilating old secrets has had a healing effect. "My father's violence, and his complete lack of love and respect, profoundly affected all of us," Shorter says, referring to himself and his siblings.
"Several of us have struggled with issues ranging from substance abuse to the inability to trust or maintain relationships." The most severe instance involves Sam Jr., who was convicted in 1989 by the Orange County Court of the State of New York for felony sexual abuse and sentenced to one to three years at Downstate Correctional Facility.
"There's been a tragic waste of potential," Shorter continues. "Most of us haven't kept in contact with one another because we don't have many happy memories to share. Now, as word of this story gets out among us, I see lines of communication opening."
At times, however, the communication has proved painful. For instance, Frank was unaware of his sisters' claims of rape before they discussed them for this article. "I believe it," he says, his voice shaking with anger.
"I still don't intend to jump on any bandwagon," he adds. "I'm not going to suddenly bill myself as a spokesman on this issue. But at the same time, in certain situations, in front of certain audiences, I think I have something to offer. For a big chunk of my life, I felt like the only way I could contribute—the only way I could survive—was by burying the memories of my father. Now I feel just as strongly that the best way I can contribute is by talking about what he did. In the end, I'll likely approach the issue of my father's abuse just like I have my running. I want to find out. I want to get it right."
In mid-June, Frank Shorter hits the road again, traveling to Middletown for the 2011 Classic 10-K. He drives up from Newark Airport two hours behind schedule on the night before the race, thus missing the Orange County Runners Club dinner at a downtown restaurant. During the meal a woman named Valerie Kilcoin comes up to the bar. "Frank's going to be exhausted when he finally makes it in," she says.
Kilcoin explains that she and her husband have hosted Shorter for the last five or six years when he's returned for the Classic.
"Frank's great," she says. "He's no trouble at all. He loves coming home to Middletown."
There's no hint of irony in Kilcoin's voice, no sign that, during his visits over the years, Shorter might have confided to her about his father's abuse. "He doesn't talk too much about his childhood," she says, adding that she grew up in the same neighborhood as the Shorter family and went to school with one of Frank's sisters. "I didn't really know him then, but I remember watching him run past our place when he came home from prep school and college. He was such a beautiful runner. He lived in that big beautiful house with his doctor father. He seemed like the happiest, luckiest guy in the world."
Other townspeople, however, know about the shadow. "The real story of Frank Shorter lies right here in Middletown with his relationship with his family," says Frank Giannino, a codirector of the Classic. "We know that the relationship wasn't all good. We learned that back in '91 when Frank first talked about it to the press. The consensus around town is that Dr. Shorter carried normal corporal punishment—normal for the time, anyway—to an extreme. Today we might consider that child abuse." Giannino pauses, choosing his words carefully. "This area, this part of New York State, is a little bit different," he says. "A lot of families go way back to the Dutch settlers. Middletown has a lot of stories, and a lot of secrets."
Many residents, clearly, prefer that the secrets remain sealed. "No way could Dr. Shorter have done those things to his kids," says Bill Bright, the man whom Dr. Shorter delivered. "In my opinion it's just not possible."
Kevin Gleason, a sportswriter for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, wrote a column about Frank Shorter's appearance at the 2008 Classic, which fell on the day of Dr. Shorter's death. "I debated whether to mention the trouble between Frank and his father, and finally put in one sentence about it," Gleason says. "Some readers called to complain. They thought I'd been disrespectful of Dr. Shorter. They have so much respect, pride, and gratitude for Frank, but they have an equal affection for his father."
Race morning in Middletown breaks cool and overcast. "A no-excuse morning," Shorter tells the field of about 60 at the start of the 5-K. He's decided that he's not up to the 10-K, but can handle this shorter distance. At the starting line, as he's done here for the last 30 years, he welcomes the field of runners. He tells the story of running to school as a seventh-grader, carrying his books in his left arm in those prebackpack days. "Even today I hardly move my left arm when I run," he says, and the crowd laughs appreciatively, basking in the presence of a man who is both legend and local hero. You wonder how Shorter will be received at the start of next year's race, when his relationship with his father will be more widely known.
And then the race is on. Shorter runs once more through Middletown, along the streets he covered as a boy. He moves with a light, tentative stride, mindful of his hip, but manages to look graceful logging 10-minute miles. When runners pass him, they give a shy, respectful greeting, careful not to intrude on his privacy, or to violate that odd sense of distance that Dick Beardsley talked about, that ineffable but unmistakable cone of dignity and loneliness that has always enclosed the father of the running boom.
"Way to go, Frank!" the guys in front of the firehouse yell to him. "Thanks for coming back!" hollers a man at the water station.
Over the last mile, with the crowd at the finish at the high school stadium within earshot, Shorter breaks his race-long silence.
"See that house with the van in the driveway?" he says, pointing. "That's the house where I last saw my father, the day before the 2008 Classic. He was dying from kidney failure. He was in a sort of semi-conscious daze by then, but when I saw him his eyes were opened wide and staring at me. And while he couldn't talk, I could see the pathological anger was still there. I said what I had to say and left pretty quickly. The next day, after the race, I flew back to Boulder. When I landed, I found out that he'd died while I was in flight. I didn't come back for the funeral service. I didn't see the need."
The noise from the stadium grows louder.
"I've thought about what this story will mean for the people of Middletown," Shorter continues. "I'm aware that it might make people uncomfortable. But the story isn't about them—it's about my father. I love the people here. Why else would I keep coming back each year? I wouldn't have survived without my friends in this town. I'm not trying to hurt them. The truth can only help. Maybe some kid going through the same thing will get counseling. I wish my sisters and brothers and I had gotten help. I wish all the tools and awareness that are available now were around when we were growing up.
"I wish my father had gotten help," Frank Shorter says finally, making the course's last turn and, to the rising, enduring cheers of his old hometown crowd, running alone into the stadium.
For an exclusive video interview with Frank Shorter, along with a slideshow of rarely seen photos of Shorter and his family, visit runnersworld.com/frankshorter.
Runner world October 2011