WILL 2020 BRING NEW INSPIRATION?

For those with enough wear on their tires, “twenty twenty” will always sound more like an eyesight assessment than a calendar year. Yet here we are, the dash between the 20s now erased and our vision not quite what it once was (what is?)

Yesterday, Staten Island friend Jeff Benjamin posted his first opinion column on Larry Eder’s enduring RunBlogRun.com website. It was a good one, too – Waiting For The Next “Frank Shorter Moment” In The New Decade of 2020.

Frank Shorter in Munich 1972 (NPR picture)

In his post, Jeff wondered when the next inspirational performance like Shorter’s Olympic Marathon gold medal in Munich 1972 might kickstart a renewed interest in running for today’s generation like Frank’s run did for us Baby Boomers.

But I wonder. So much has changed over the last half-century. Can that kind of lightning in a bottle ever be recaptured?

Running is a transgressive activity, full of fire and fatigue but signifying very little beyond the feeling it arouses in its practitioners. Like music and art, to be done well, running takes time and dedication but offers no promise in terms of a tangible payoff.  Maybe that’s why it was the perfect sport for a generation in opposition to all that had come before. The payoff was in the doing alone, and the fact that our elders didn’t see its merits only added to its lure from our contrarians’ vantage point.

Add on that the best guy in the world, Shorter, was soon challenged by the next best guy in the world, Bill Rodgers, and who wouldn’t be motivated?  Guys just like us had risen to the top.  Maybe I could do something, too.

*

Back in the day, running was both serious and sophomoric, because that was the level of freedom that we enjoyed at the time.  Ours was a fortunate generation in many ways, including having been educated without accruing massive debt in the process. At the same time, rents were low and jobs plentiful. Those factors contributed to a lack of financial pressure that allowed us to fully explore running’s charms without thought to the ‘morrow.  

Imagine being sophomoric today, not knowing, being blissfully unaware and free from pressure. My father once told me that kids in our Baby Boom era knew more at age 12 than he did at 20. Today, I think we can knock that back to kids at five know more now than we did at 20.

*

By its nature, training to run well is a primal behavior. No care beyond this, a dogged determination to a single, uncluttered purpose. One’s responsibility is to the training and preparation alone. Anything added will come at the cost of that single focus.  

1980s boxing legend Marvelous Marvin Hagler used to set up his training camp in Provincetown, Massachusetts on the tip of Cape Cod. No wife, no kids, no friends, no visitors, just his managers and sparring partners. And for three months he would live in that spartan environment preparing for his next opponent, all the while building up a righteous  anger at the guy for forcing him into that rigid, isolated existence.

But the end result was a Hall of Fame career and recognition as one of the best middleweights in boxing history. That’s what world-class sport requires, splendid isolation.

Now imagine how many of today’s kids with all the devices of pleasure and ease available to them will be willing to sacrifice all of it to return to a more stripped down existence of run-sleep-eat alone. 

When I first moved to Boston in 1974 in my $400 auction-bought right-hand-drive post office van, I promised myself never to accumulate more stuff than I could squeeze through the back of its roll-up door. I knew that if I began buying things like a couch or a new car on credit that I’d become beholden to those monthly payments.

And while I didn’t want to maintain freedom to just run, I did want to keep myself unburdened to just do a radio show about running. And that meant I needed to spend my days selling advertisements, doing interviews, and producing the show, not taking a job I didn’t want to pay off bills I shouldn’t have accumulated buying crap I’d eventually never need.

Today, that stripped down, spartan life is still the norm in those parts of the world where running remains one of the few bootstrap activities that can lift you out of poverty and provide a new path for family and friends. It is where the best runners in the world inspire yet another generation, as did the generation before them.

But in America in 2020, there is still too much “I want” to produce the kind of laser-like focus on training that is required to reach the heights once occupied by Shorter in the 1970s. What’s more, even if that focus was more widespread, the competition is much sterner now than back then, while the kind of payoff once available in the day no longer exists either.  And where do you go from there?

You know, Jeff, there will be new Frank Shorter moments in 2020, they just wont be coming via the running game. Instead, the new generation’s heroes will be sitting behind gaming controls lighting up computer screens awaiting entry into Olympic competition not realizing that pretty soon their own eyesight will begin to leave 20-20 range behind, too.

And so it goes.  But glad to welcome you into the opinion-writing fraternity.  Onward, into a new unknown!

END

7 thoughts on “WILL 2020 BRING NEW INSPIRATION?

  1. Running Digest was the best to me, a new runner with a whole new world in front of me…
    Thanks for those moments!

  2. When I was working at Runner’s World, Joe Henderson encouraged me to run the first of my 25 marathons in July 1978. The clincher for me was being at the finish line at Boston three months earlier with a press pass, watching that incredible Bill Rodgers-Jeff Wells battle on Boylston Street. I lived in Boston from 1970 to 1976. When I moved to San Francisco, my brother, a teacher at Brookline High School at the time, used to record your radio show and send me the cassette tapes. Those were the days! Happy New Year, Toni!

  3. So much food for thought. Shorter’s gold medal got me back out onto the roads and training in 1972. At different times I had the opportunity to do some training with both Frank and Bill. I was fairly isolated up in Vermont, surrounded by Olympic Nordic skiers but few serious runners. Now 70 years old I still miss the twice a days, hard intervals alone, and the many miles in all types of weather. I miss the quiet optimism many of us shared forty plus years ago. Dreams of making Olympic teams and more. Having coached high school runners for most of that time I found that the ones with the desire to really chase that dream are rare but if you are lucky enough to find one it’s pretty exciting.

  4. A good column….of course the real boom from Shorter in 1972 was with the already training hard crowd to start doing marathons rather than couch potatoes suddenly deciding to run 26 miles….as Joe Henderson wrote in the 1975 Marathon Handbook there were 10 times as many Americans in 1974 running under 2:30 as there were 5 years earlier…

    As noted it was a lot easier back then….Boulder in the 80s was a cheap place to live….

    I don’t see another Shorter moment coming…even an American Kipchoge would have his moment and be soon forgotten..Ryan Hall sort of fit the bill…but that was short lived…..

    Anyways the most amazing thing is that period 50 years ago happened at all….a grand time to be racing and training then….

    1. I agree, there was a latent group of actual runners inspired by Frank to try the longer distance, not just latent joggers inspired to check off a bucket list item. Happy 2020.

      Toni

  5. Another great piece Toni, and so right on (for better or worse – or maybe, just ‘different’). And how appropriate you end with “And so it goes” – the declaration Kurt Vonnegut repeated incessantly throughout his iconic “Slaughterhouse Five”, particularly when referring to the death of someone or something.

    And so it goes!

    Happy New Year….& Decade!

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