BOULDER — A man answered the door to his home in Boulder’s north end, favoring one leg as he led a visitor into his living room.
The 70-year-old’s limp was tied to a recent surgery on a knee that was now bone-on-bone. That will happen after more than a half century of running and a successful stint in the Olympics.
Frank Shorter helped turn Boulder into the mecca for elite distance runners and hotbed for recreational athletes that it is today.
The two-time medalist — gold in 1972, silver in 1976 — took a seat and turned his thoughts to the spring of 1970, when he came to Boulder for the first time after graduating from Yale. Raised in New York, Shorter became an early believer in the benefits of altitude training. In setting his course for Olympic glory, he chose Boulder because the University of Colorado had the only indoor track above 5,000 feet in the United States.
He remembers only a couple of other post-collegiate runners in town at the time, including a hotel dishwasher who ran a crash pad for hippies.
Two years after his first training stint in Boulder, Shorter became the first American in 64 years to win an Olympic marathon.
Shorter’s historic breakthrough at the Munich Olympics, coupled with his silver medal four years later in Montreal, helped ignite the recreational running boom of the late 1970s, and inspired subsequent Olympic hopefuls to move to Boulder for the same reasons he did. Then-exceptional international runners, including three world-record holders, arrived in the ’80s. After that came the world-class cyclists and triathletes.
Meanwhile, CU emerged as a power in cross country running, producing six individual national champions and seven team titles.
Today, Boulder teems with world-class endurance athletes and some of the country’s fastest recreational runners, and it all traces back to Shorter’s hunch about altitude training. Runners of that era didn’t know why it worked — scientific explanations would come later — they just knew if they trained at altitude, they ran faster when they raced at sea level.
“I sensed it,” Shorter said. “There was no real science you could look at. I didn’t know your blood volume increased. All I knew was that I was getting better, more on an exponential curve than even a straight line. I knew that there was something about doing it that didn’t just have to do with my increased training intensity.”
The story really begins in 1968, when the Olympics were held in Mexico City at an elevation of 7,350 feet. Altitude-trained Kenyans shocked the world, winning eight medals on the track.
The U.S. Olympic trials for the marathon that year were held in Alamosa because of its similar altitude (7,500 feet), and Shorter ran in those trials. He didn’t make that Olympic team — he was still a student at Yale — and after the trials, he trained for awhile at altitude in Taos, N.M., before going back to Yale for his senior year. There he saw a big improvement in performance.
We know now that training at altitude increases the percentage of red cells in the blood which carry oxygen, improving their performance.
In the weeks leading up to the 1972 Olympics, Shorter wanted to train even higher, so he went to Vail, running on a golf course at 8,000 feet with training partners Jeff Galloway and Jack Bacheler. Shorter would win the Olympic marathon by more than two minutes, while Galloway finished fourth and Bacheler was ninth.
It was clear that altitude training worked, and Boulder came to be seen as a welcoming place to practice it. Some of America’s best road runners moved there, working at Shorter’s running store on Pearl Street and training with him. They would do their Sunday “long runs” together, starting at Shorter’s house.
Rich Castro coached track at CU in those days and recruited Mary Decker, a Californian who became CU’s first national champion in cross country in 1978. Castro also worked for the Frank Shorter Racing Team and Nike in athlete-support roles.
“Having a university community that was young and vibrant made it very appealing,” Castro said. “Frank being willing to give people jobs in his store was instrumental. It was sort of, ‘Once you get to where you’re going, turn around and help the next one in line.’ “
In 1978, Castro founded the Boulder Road Runners. A year later, Shorter helped Steve Bosley found the Bolder Boulder 10K. In the early years of the race, top American road runners competed in it, and soon the race began to attract elite runners from other countries through Castro’s contacts.
Some of them decided to make Boulder their home, because in addition to altitude, they found a climate conducive for running and a community that welcomed runners.
One was a young Mexican named Arturo Barrios. An unheralded Texas A&M grad, Barrios showed up for a 10K road race in Phoenix in March 1986 with $25 in his pocket and crashed in a fellow runner’s hotel room. The next day, he broke the world record for a 10-kilometer road race, running 27:41 and becoming a star in the sport. Two months later, he won the Bolder Boulder, fell in love with the area and decided to stay. He won the Bolder Boulder three more times, broke the world record for 10,000 meters on the track (27:08.23) in 1989, and continues to live in Longmont.
“The people understand running,” Barrios said this week. “It’s hard to find that someplace else. If you go someplace else and you start talking about running, people treat you like you’re speaking Chinese. Here it’s completely different.”
Other great international runners came in the ’80s. Rob de Castella of Australia set the world record in the marathon in 1981 and moved to Boulder the following summer. Steve Jones of Wales broke de Castella’s world record in 1984 and moved to Boulder in 1988. South Africa’s Mark Plaatjes came in 1990, became an American citizen, won a gold medal in the marathon at the 1993 world championships and co-founded the Boulder Running Company in 1995. Uta Pippig of Germany came in 1992, winning the Boston Marathon three times (1994-96) and the New York City Marathon in 1993.
Boulder continues to be a leader in American running at the elite and recreational levels. Two former CU runners won medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics — Jenny Simpson in the 1,500 meters and Emma Coburn in the steeplechase — and the Bolder Boulder long ago became one of the world’s biggest road races. It surpassed 40,000 entrants for the first time in 1998, hit 54,554 in 2011 and has hovered between 48,000 and 52,000 since that peak.
The Bolder Boulder will celebrate its 40th running this month on Memorial Day. Another huge throng is expected.
“We weren’t trying to create anything, and that’s always been the satisfaction, that it wasn’t a marketing platform or ploy,” Shorter said. “It was a shared idea. Yeah, maybe I was one of the first to be in Boulder and sort of recognize this and do it, but it was great to find out that people had the same kind of interest, sharing the interest.”
On May 19, Frank Shorter and Steve Bosley will be at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., to speak about and sign “40 Years Bold” at 7:30 p.m. Cost is $20. Information at boulderbookstore.net.