The Invisible Thread

Winning a gold medal and witnessing a new age of terrorism at the 1972 Summer Olympics

Legendary distance runner Frank Shorter had an eventful 1972 Summer Olympics, becoming the first American in 64 years to capture gold in the marathon, just five days after eleven Israeli Olympic team members and one German police officer were taken hostage and killed by a Palestinian terrorist group. The following is an excerpt from his memoir, in which he describes his moment of triumph and the unusual surprise that awaited him at the finish line.

At 3 p.m. on September 10, 1972, I stepped to the starting line of the Munich Olympic Marathon. I felt the calmness that comes when you know that you’ve done everything within your power to prepare for a test. I also felt the thrill of anticipation that comes in the moment before a test, when you sense that everything is breaking your way.

Everything, that is, except for the fact that, a few days earlier, I had listened to a fellow Olympian get murdered; the fact that 10 more of the victim’s teammates had been slaughtered; the fact that a new age of terrorism had begun right under my nose; and the fact that a follow-up attack out on the wide-open marathon course was a distinct possibility.

But all of those facts, and all their implications, were out of my control, so I let them go. My provisional reaction to the massacre was to ride it out. It’s going to unfold according to its own pace and rhythm, so wait to see what happens. I had a lot of experience in this kind of situation. Dealing with my father, Dr. Sam, had taught me the art of vigilance. By necessity, I had learned to read a room — to anticipate how people were going to act and react and to locate the exits and lanes of escape. Maybe I was just a little more at home in chaos than my brother marathoners.

I regarded the race itself with a similar sort of engaged detachment. I was about to find out if my surge-and-recovery tactic was going to work. As much as I’d invested in my plan — all of my body, mind, and heart — I could take a step back from it, treading a cool mental edge. Just wait for the gun to go off. Feed off the buzz, but don’t take too big a bite. Draw just the proper measure of energy from the crowd. This was the Olympic Games, but it was also only a track meet. Here I am. Take it step by step and see what happens. The gun, the leap from the line, the break to the inside lane, the parading out of the stadium and into the city, the falling in with the leaders at a 5-minute-a-mile pace that, for an Olympic marathoner, feels comfortably within one’s lactate threshold. Five miles, eight miles, here comes the Nymphenburg Castle, and oh yes, oh man, this still feels good. Here it comes… the fountain, the 150-degree bend, and bam! A mile-long bull rush that blew open a 1,000-meter lead.

It still felt good. It still felt way short of maximum effort. I had built a reputation as a heady, cerebral sort of competitor, but the truth was I raced on feel — how I was feeling, how the other runners must be feeling when they watched me blast away, how they would feel a few miles down the road when they’d contemplate the energy expenditure it would take to reel me back in. I felt my own energy pulsing inside, almost separate from me; in the parlance of The Teachings of Don Juan, a best-selling book of the era, I felt my nagual. I was almost playing with it — how long to dole out the effort, when to dial it back, how close I could get to the edge without tipping over the line. It wasn’t something I thought about; it was a way of knowing that those hundreds upon hundreds of intervals — those 35-second 200s, those 20 by 800s — had drilled into my bones.

Once I was cleanly out front and running alone, I started to think again, plotting when I could throttle back from my surge. Because I knew the course so well, because I’d trained over almost every mile, learning the angle of the turns and the slant of the sunlight and the texture of the road surface beneath the tissue-thin soles of my racing flats, I was able to conceive of the distance in segments. I didn’t think about running 17 more miles; I just thought about running each 5-K stretch between time clocks, moving from segment to segment to segment. The Nymphenburg Palace to the English Garden. The English Garden to the Pinakothek art museum, the Pinakothek to Sendlinger Tor. It was the same way I thought when I raced the 10,000; you go lap by lap, mile-split by mile-split. I was carrying out my plan to approach the marathon as if it were only a very long track race.

Meanwhile, behind me, the other runners still appeared to be thinking like traditional, steady-state, war-of-attrition marathoners. On the track, when a runner threw a midrace surge, the rest of the lead pack went with him, or at least kept him in their sights and within striking distance. When I made my mile-9 surge in Munich, however, those other guys let me escape. Given the course’s frequent bends and turns, I was immediately out of sight. This was a considerable psychological advantage. In any kind of distance race, there’s an invisible thread that stretches about 10 meters. If a competitor is running 10 meters or less in front of you, you don’t worry about him; you know you can pull even or spurt past him just about any time you choose. But once a guy hammers a gap of more than 10 meters, then you start to worry. Then you start calculating the hurt and juice it will take to close the gap. Soon you start to worry that you won’t be able to close it at all.

Not only had I snapped that invisible 10-meter thread, I had disappeared entirely.

Now I was running alone. It was just me and the long blue line that traced the 26.2-mile route through Old Munich, the city where I had been born. I was only vaguely aware of the crowds lining the course. In those days there were no barriers separating the sidewalk from the road, and not even the terrorist attack had induced the authorities to beef up security out on the marathon course. Not that it would have done much good anyway. Today, in the 21st century, marathons are run in cities everywhere around the world, including the capitals of the most repressive regimes, but I think that the marathon expresses the essence of the free, open, democratic, cosmopolitan spirit. As the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing so tragically proved, a marathon course is vulnerable by its very nature. In 1972, in Munich, at the dawn of the age of urban terrorism — and the dawn of the age of the modern running movement — the marathon was at its most vulnerable.

Before the race, Kenny, Jack, and I had briefly speculated that a follow-up attack was possible.

We were all potential targets, but now, running alone out in front, with the ABC cameras following my every step, with my drooping mustache and the letters USA emblazoned across my singlet (in 1972, the dispiriting end of the Vietnam War era, America’s global standing was at its nadir), I might as well have had a bull’s-eye painted on my back.

Had I not been so absorbed in my race — in following my plan, traveling from segment to segment, calibrating my effort, riding my pain — I might have been unnerved. As it was, true to my pledge to Kenny, I did not give the massacre a thought. My boyhood had taught me to avoid the what-ifs. And if an attack had materialized, my boyhood had also taught me how to escape. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen.

In the English Garden, around the 21-mile mark, I came to a bridge and saw my friend Roy Benson, a runner I knew from Gainesville who would later become a prominent coach and exercise physiologist. As I crossed the bridge, Roy cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted that I had a 90-second lead — spectators along the course would often call out these sorts of updates, but Roy was a source I could trust. That news set the wheels turning in my head. A 90-second margin translated to more than a quarter mile. In order to close that gap, I would either have to slow down precipitously, my pursuer or pursuers would have to throw a surge equal to the one I had executed at the 9-mile mark, or a combination of those two things would have to happen.

Neither seemed likely. I was clicking along comfortably at a 5-minute-mile pace; or, more precisely, I was riding my pain, managing the bone-deep, full-body toothache that comes from running that fast for that long, no matter how good a shape you’re in. At any rate, I wasn’t going to slow down, and I knew from their past performances that none of the other contenders — not Kenny or Hill or Wolde or Clayton — was capable of mounting that quality of surge at that point in the race. In short, barring a disaster, no one was going to catch me.

Now there was only a mile to go. I ran down a wide boulevard called the Leopoldstrasse. The Olympic Stadium lifted into view, built over a crater dug by American bombs during the Second World War, its vaulting, acrylic-glass canopies embodying themes of peace, hope, and rebirth — a wistful thought in the wake of the massacre. From across the narrowing distance I could hear the surflike roil of the crowd.

I would cross the finish line within minutes. Rather than feeling jubilant, I felt quietly, almost grimly, satisfied. Apparently, I had gotten this one right. Now I recalled one of the cardinal tenets of the sport, a lesson I had learned back at Mount Hermon Academy from George Bowman: Work through the finish. Never take victory for granted. Just as I was about to enter the tunnel leading into the stadium, I heard a roar from the crowd. It was the final day of track-and-field competition but not the final day of the Games; I assumed an athlete had just cleared a major height in the high jump or pole vault.

And now my moment was nigh, the air-guitar fantasy moment that every runner dreams about: gliding out of the shadowed tunnel and into the light and roar of the Olympic Stadium, 60,000 spectators and a worldwide TV audience welcoming my triumphant arrival. For a moment I was Pheiddipides, finishing my run from the battlefield at Marathon, announcing with my dying breath that the Persians were defeated.

This was my moment, and I opened myself for the roar, but instead my entry into the stadium was greeted by silence.

What’s going on? I wondered. I know I’m an American. I know that nobody likes us nowadays, but give me a break . . . then I heard an American voice drift down from the stands: “Don’t worry, Frank! You’ve got it!”

This was strange. Why should I worry? Of course I had gotten it; my closest pursuer was still out on the course, at least 90 seconds back.

Now I noticed a commotion at the finish line, and the whistling — the booing — reached a crescendo. Only later would I learn what had happened. One more pulse of weirdness had hit the Munich Games. An imposter had run into the stadium 38 seconds before me: a young man wearing the facsimile of the all-white uniform of the West German track team. The interloper duped the waiting crowd into thinking one of their countrymen had magically appeared to win the gold medal.

Up in the ABC broadcast booth, Erich Segal, my former classics professor at Yale and a pioneering citizen-runner hired by the network to provide “expert” commentary, recognized the stunt right away. Amid the tumult, Erich seemed to forget that millions of people were listening to him back in the States. “He’s a fake!” the professor shouted. “Get that guy off the track! Get him off now! You’re the real winner, Frank!”

A beat later, the crowd realized what was happening. That was the instant when I ran into the stadium. Amid the very Greek-like pandemonium, I might have been the calmest person in the arena.

Finally, over the last 200 meters, the silence turned into cheers, and I had my truncated, belated moment. I crossed the line in 2:12:19.8, the first American to win the Olympic Marathon since Johnny Hayes at the 1908 London Games. Later, some historians would say that that moment gave birth to the modern running boom. But only one thought kept running through my brain: My plan had worked; I had gotten this one right.

Excerpted from My Marathon: Reflections On A Gold Medal Life with the permission of Rodale. Available from Amazon, B&N, Apple, IndieBound, and BAM.