Frank Shorter’s father was a kindly, charitable town doctor who savagely beat every member of his family. Young Frank got into running, initially, as an outlet—escaping to the roads to cope with his violent home. In college, at Yale, he did the same— escaping to the roads to cope with his rigorous studies.
At the suggestion of his coach, Frank increased his mileage a bit and placed 19th at NCAA cross country championships. At the suggestion of Jack Bachelor— and entomologist and America’s best distance runner— Frank increased his mileage even more, and won the NCAA six mile championship on the track.
After college, Frank continued to increase his mileage, bouncing between town and jobs before finally settling in Gainesville, Florida with Bachelor and his training partner, Jeff Galloway. The trio trained like madmen— running twice a day, searing through intervals sessions twice a week, and each weekend running twenty miles— all in the heavy Panhandle heat. The interval sessions usually consisted of ten to fifteen quarter mile repeats with very, very little rest. They sped carelessly along the thin red line between improvement and injury, and in 1972 all three of them made the Olympic team.
In Munich, Frank set an American record in his heat of the 10,000m. In the final, he set another American record, finishing fifth behind Lasse Viren’s world record. Days later, Frank ran the marathon, broke open the field with a vicious surge, and won a gold medal.
His tactics revolutionized the marathon— strategy prior to Shorter involved outlasting your enemy; Shorter’s surges added actual tactics. His win revolutionized running in America— soon everyone wanted to run a marathon like the famous Frank Shorter; road races became big business. His fame revolutionized athletics—Olympic restrictions prevented athletes from earning off their endeavors; Frank wielded his stardom to abolish amateurism and allow runners to make money from their efforts.
To do all this, Frank followed a simple formula:
“Two hard interval sessions a week and one long runs, 20 miles or two hours, whichever comes first. Everything other run is aerobic and you do as much of that as you can handle. Do this or 2-3 years. You’ll get good.”
With this weekly structure, now a familiar cadence employed by runners everywhere, Frank Shorter fathered the modern sport of running.
Bill Rodgers is famous for winning the Boston Marathon four times. He is also famous for running ludicrously high mileage. Rodgers' career exemplifies the benefits of setting goals and making running a habit.
While Rodgers ran in high school and college, his running career began in 1970. He didn't love training in college. He ran with Amby Burfoot, his captain, who had won the Boston Marathon, but he'd often show up to long runs with a crippling hangover and a smoker's hack. Upon graduating, he quit running, picked up smoking in earnest, and rode his motorcycle everywhere until it got stolen. Without transportation, he started running to work and found he liked it. Then he got fired, but he kept running. He went to the local YMCA and ran 10 miles a day on the indoor 12-lap-to-the-mile track. He found the simple monotony soothing, and he could focus and excel around the endless loops in ways that he couldn't in the real world.
Soon he ventured outside, trading the track for the tight loop around Jamaica Pond, where he'd run sixteen miles around the 1.6 mile loop. He began running with the Bill Squires and the Greater Boston Track Club out of Boston College, and found he was pretty good at racing.
Like his old captain, and any competitive runner in Boston, he tried to win the Boston Marathon. He dropped out after twenty miles, quit running, went stir-crazy, then got back into it with a vengeance. He dropped out of the next Boston, but hopped back in and finished fourteenth. He ran the New York City Marathon (when it was four loops around Central Park), finished fifth, then won the Philly Marathon a few weeks later.
In January of 1975, he redoubled his efforts. He ran ten miles every morning, ten miles every afternoon, slept ten hours a night (with a break at 3am to eat spoonfuls of mayonnaise or bacon bits or pizza or pizza covered with mayonnaise and bacon bits), and hit the track once a week with the track club for some long intervals under Squires' direction. He placed third at Cross Country Nationals (losing to Frank Shorter), placed third at at the International Cross Country Championships (at the time, the highest place ever by an American), won the Boston Marathon (in an American Record), then won it three more times (and won New York four times, too).
For Rodgers, running began as a sport, but it wasn't until he made it a habit that it became his calling.
I once met a Peruvian tour guide who, at the base of every climb, would sternly warn every tourist that they were not to pass him. He would then proceed to walk very slowly up the hill, and while the group behind him might champ at the bit for the first part of the climb, the altitude would get to them eventually.
Running is like that. I loved running, initially, because it made me feel tough-- the constant wallowing in discomfort-- I took pride in how much work, how much pain I could handle. But the climb gets to you eventually, because vanity is not a sustainable reason to undertake any endeavor.
There are a thousand reasons to enjoy the sport, and if you're willing to improve slowly then you will, over time, eventually improve far more than if you rushed.