It was Frank Shorter's Olympic marathon gold medal that put running into the forefront of American athletics, right up there with baseball and football, writes author Cameron Stracher.
In "Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom," published in April, Stracher calls Shorter one of the key figures in the history of American running. The book explores the story of this triumvirate of elite runners in the 1970s inspired generations to come. We caught up with Stracher to talk about his own history with running and the future of the sport.
How did you get into running?
I got into running in a very similar way as at least Bill Rodgers and Frank Shorter described. I was not a particularly athletic kid. I remember we had to run a half mile in 8th grade and I won. That was kind of a wake up like, 'Woah, wow maybe I'm actually good at this thing,' and then people encouraged me to go out for the (track) team and the running bug eventually caught me. Although it took a while, to be honest.
Why did you want to write this book about American running stars?
I had just written 'Dinner with Dad,' which was about my year eating with my kids. My editor said 'You seem interested in running,' and the more I thought about it, I reflected on the fact that running has been such a big part of my life, so central to who I am. This particular period that I wrote about, 1972 to 1981, is both the period that I came of age as a runner and also when running came of age.
How has running changed since you started?
I remember in 1973, I was in 8th grade and running, and it was a very weird and odd sport. It was not something you saw people on the roads doing. It wasn't a weird thing within nine years; thanks in large part to Frank and Bill and Alberto, it became this huge, booming sport. I embraced it at the same time. If I'm going to write about running, I want to write about this decade when Americans were the best in the world.
What was the writing process like?
The willingness of people to share and talk about those moments ... It's not so much that it was unexpected, but it was exciting. A lot of people buried this period. A lot of people have forgotten that period, and the ability to reflect on it with them was really terrific. I sat with Frank in his backyard for a couple hours reminiscing about that time period. That was a thrill. Frank Shorter was one of my -- all three were my boyhood idols, and Frank was the first one I interviewed. He had invited me to his house in Boulder, and I remember driving out and thinking to myself 'I'm about to meet Frank Shorter.' For me, for another American kid it might be like I'm going to meet Eli Manning. This was my Eli Manning. Then I got to sit with him in his backyard and just chat.
It seems like you're a big advocate of running. How do you think it can help with some current American problems like obesity?
It's really one of the greatest sports that way. All you really need is a pair of decent sneakers. You can wear any kind of gym shorts and a cotton T-shirt. You don't need the fancy Lycra stuff to go running and you don't need a court. You see people running in downtown New York City. You can run anywhere. It's such a great efficient exercise that can be done by anyone for a minimal amount of money.
I know when I'm in another city, I just put on my shoes and go out for a run. You never could do that with a tennis racquet or your own bicycle.
Who do you see as the next big American running stars?
I don't know. I really don't know. Ryan Hall is so good. I think though, what Frank and Bill and Alberto had was each other. Frank and Bill had this great competition, but then it became Bill and Alberto. The two of them really did a lot more than one of them could've done by himself. Even if one had come after the other, it was something about that competitive head to head almost every weekend. We just don't have that in American distance running.
--Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.