Reflections from road royalty

As the Bolder Boulder approaches, runners recall decades of change in the sport

Cameron Stracher
Photo by Milton Parker

More than 60,000 people are expected to participate in the Bolder Boulder this year — what “may be the world’s best mass participation race in the United States,” according to Runner’s World magazine.

Composed of more than 90 waves, ranging from competitive runners to joggers and even walkers, the 10K road race epitomizes century running. Far from the competitive, all-or-nothing sport that came of age during the 1970s, distance running has gained social popularity at the expense of creating champions, according to author Cameron Stracher.

“American runners now are not what they used to be,” Stracher says. “They used to be the best in the world.”

Stracher’s most recent book, Kings of the Road: How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom, chronicles the transformation of distance running in America during the 1970s. Stracher writes that Boulder resident Frank Shorter, co-founder of the Bolder Boulder, launched the Golden Age of distance running when he won gold for the marathon at the 1972 Munich Olympics. It was the first time Americans had taken the gold in that event in 64 years, and the following years saw attendance at new races soar. Stracher cites as an example the Falmouth Road Race, which saw 93 runners at its first race in 1973, and more than 400 for the second in 1974. Bill Rodgers won the event that year, setting a new course record by five minutes.

Shorter, Rodgers and Alberto Salazar “were American running during those years,” Stracher says. “They gave their sport real conflict and drama for the first time.”

There has always been a strong social component to running, even though the sport is also highly individualized. In fact, that’s part of what made running “go boom” in the ’70s, Stracher says.

“It was the perfect sport for the ’70s because we had just come out of this great social consciousness movement,” Stracher says. “People who were running in the ’70s were still kind of in that mindset — sort of social, hippie, beatnik, Woodstock-type thing.”

At the same time, Stracher acknowledges that America was transitioning toward the ’80s — “a very much self-centered, me-focused, individual era.”

“In a way, running kind of combines both of those,” Stracher says. “It’s a very social activity. … But when you’re out on the road racing, you really are alone. And to be really good, you need to be really competitive. You need to want to beat other people. Once you’re on the road, you’re not friendly anymore.”

Frank Shorter | Photo by Leo Kulinski Jr.

Shorter says the training that led up to him winning the Olympic gold in the marathon wasn’t necessarily about being competitive. Running was about stress release, and a little curiosity.

“I always just wanted to find out where I would level off, and my telling people I was training — to, say, try to make the Olympic team — was enough for them to leave me alone so I could run,” Shorter says. “Because at the time, running was something you did to make an Olympic team, and then, the social expectation was that you would get on with the rest of your life.

“It was and still is primarily stress relief and my way to just be selfish with my time. I just happened to find out I was very good at it.”

Shorter was so good, in fact, that in addition to winning Olympic gold in the marathon, he was the U.S. national 10,000 meter champion in 1971, 1974, 1975 and 1977, a four-time U.S. national cross-country champion, a four-time winner of the Fukuoka Marathon and a two-time winner of the Falmouth Road Race.

Whether Shorter considers himself highly competitive or not, he acknowledges that he is an obsessive person, as are many successful runners.

“I am obsessive by nature,” Shorter says. “But I think that OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder] can be channeled constructively.”

Stracher, a runner himself, shares a similar trait. He recalls a trip to Europe with his girlfriend where he decided he had to run in Yugoslavia, even when there was a civil war going on.

“If you miss a day, you know, you start getting really neurotic about it,” Stracher says. “Running attracts obsessive people, and it also makes people more obsessive.”

Shorter and Stracher agree that, today, people run for many other reasons, with socialization and fitness at the forefront of the running culture. During the late ’90s, the “running for charity wave began,” according to Shorter. This wave signaled the second part of the running boom, when speed was no longer as important.

For Shorter, this new wave also signaled the demystification of distance running, which aided its surge in popularity.

“Somewhere around 2000, distance running became much more inclusive rather than exclusive,” Shorter says. “People began to realize that if you truly put in three months of training and did it consistently, you could run a marathon.”

The demystification of distance running produced an appreciation of effort, he says.

“People were really exclusive and borderline elitist about running, and a marker of that was time,” Shorter says. “Now the perspective has changed, and it’s just about covering distance.”

When Shorter decided to co-found the Bolder Boulder in 1979, Shorter says he and co-founder Steve Bosley were sensing a fall-off in physical activity in schools.

“Steve initially wanted to start a track race to include as many people as possible to encourage physical fitness and running in younger athletes,” Shorter says. “So, I said, ‘Well, why don’t you start a road race?’”

So they did. Approximately 2,700 runners registered for the first Bolder Boulder in 1979. Now, almost 20 times that number register to run the race each year. The success of the Bolder Boulder mirrors the cultural shift in distance running.

“For young kids now, it’s normal for them to run. When I was their age, well, maybe you ran as a form of punishment in gym class. But you certainly didn’t cover distance,” Shorter says. “More than 60,000 [people] will come out for the Bolder Boulder this year. And that’s the great thing about it — everybody will appreciate the effort behind the distance.”

Stracher, however, remains somewhat more pessimistic about the socialization of distance running in the 21st century.

“To be honest, some of it is just big business,” Stracher says. “The more social you make running and have huge races, attracting hundreds and thousands of people, the more money everybody can make.”

“I’m not saying that running for social purposes is a bad thing,” Stracher says. “I’m all for it, but I guess I would like to see a shift back more towards the hard, fast part of running.”

Shorter has a different view.

“I like the way things are now,” he says.

Shorter adds that the spirit of distance running in America has been strengthened by the bombing at the Boston Marathon this year.

“I think that the effect of the Boston Marathon bombings will push more people to run,” Shorter says. “I was running in a race down in Roanoke, Va., just a week after the bombings, and almost immediately more and more people were calling up to register and volunteer to help with the race.”

Shorter ran and volunteered in the race, the Blue Ridge Marathon, which Rodgers was also running.

No matter how the running culture has shifted within the last 30 years or what tragedies have been suffered, both Shorter and Stracher agree that the spirit of American distance running is still alive and well. For them, there is no end in sight.

“Running is such a wonderful freedom to have,” Stracher says.

“Especially when it comes to marathon running — all those miles on the open road — it’s terrible to think that stuff like that has to be closed. But really, it never does.”

The Bolder Boulder will be held on Monday, May 27, with the pro wheelchair wave beginning at 6:55 a.m., followed by the “A” wave at 7 a.m. The race begins at 30th and Walnut streets and ends at the University of Colorado’s Folsom Field. More information can be found at