What happens when a running legend and a cycling legend battle head-to-head in a run-bike-run? A race to remember.
They were legends in different sports. John Howard was the four-time U.S. National Road Racing champion, a three-time Olympian, a Pan American Games gold medalist and he set the bicycle land speed record when he went 152.2 miles per hour.
Frank Shorter won four U.S. National Cross Country Championships and four U.S. National 10K Championships, was inducted into both the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Olympic Hall of Fame, took home a gold medal in the Olympic marathon in 1972 and followed that up with a silver medal in the same event in 1976.
1989 would turn out to be a year filled with classic races: Greg LeMond’s eight-second win over Laurent Fignon at the Tour de France in July, and Mark Allen finally beating his longtime nemesis, Dave Scott, at the Ironman World Championship in October. But to kick the year off in February, nothing could have been better than 42-year-old John Howard going head to head with 41-year-old Frank Shorter at the Desert Princess Duathlon in Palm Desert, Calif.
The distances were unique. The race started with a 10K run with the “Dirt Road From Hell,” an infamous mile-and-a-half off-road section that stretched from mile 3.5 to mile 5. After a 62K—that’s 38.6 miles for us metric-system-challenged folks—bike ride that was hilly and windy, the duathletes dismounted and traversed that same tough run course, now even tougher because their legs were toasted, the sun was beating down and soft spots in the “Dirt Road From Hell” felt like quicksand.
While the race for the win up front was always interesting, the real showcase for the February 1989 edition was the 40-plus-year-old cycling legend against the 40-plus-year-old running legend in a run, bike, run event. Since Howard had won the Ironman World Championship in 1981, he obviously could also run a bit. The big question going into the race: Could Frank Shorter ride a bike?
“I actually spent a lot of time training on the bike,” Shorter says. “I had had a bad back for two or three years and had incorporated cycling and weight lifting into my training. At 140 pounds I was bench-pressing 195 pounds plus riding a lot of miles, and I had been riding with cyclists for a long time. One of the best compliments I had gotten was from Hugh Walton, who had ridden for the Canadian Olympic team. He told me one day that I didn’t ride like a runner, and I took that as a compliment. I figured I was doing so much training on the bike that I might as well compete in some races.”
Shorter learned early on that, as you age, you just can’t run the same mileage as you did at your peak. “You could do more training in swimming and cycling than you could in running,” he says. “I realized that I was slowing down and rather than bemoan it, why not find a way to retard it? Why not find other ways to compete and other areas where I could get better? Duathlon was something I could get better at.”
Duathlon suited Shorter since he was light on his feet and wasn’t a power runner. The bike seemed to take very little out of his running legs. In the first 10K at Desert Princess, Shorter ran an impressive 31:33 while John Howard ran 35:00. Shorter rode with aerobars for the first time ever that day and was feeling strong. There came a point in the bike ride, though, where Shorter realized he was in for a bit of a challenge. “Something went by me and all I saw was a big butt and a vapor trail,” he says, laughing. “As John disappeared up the road, I was hoping that I still might have a shot to catch him during that last 10K.”
Howard remembers first meeting Shorter while he was in Kona for that 1982 Ironman. “We hung out for a bit in Kona and chatted,” he says. “We talked about cycling and how his body was getting beat up from all of the running he had done over the years. But I hadn’t seen Frank since then and going into the Desert Princess I had no idea how good he would be on the bike. To be honest, I was impressed with his ride.”
Shorter’s bike split was 1:42:14 while John Howard’s 1:30:51 was the second-fastest bike split of the day.
Howard got off the bike with a 7:56 lead. Now all he had left to do was hold off an Olympic gold medalist.
“I was running scared,” Howard says. “I went too hard on the bike and wanted to walk when we got to the dirt part of the run course. I was struggling and coming unglued.”
When the runners left the dirt, they still had a full mile on pavement left to go. At that point, Howard still held the lead.
What Shorter liked about this new sport was that, even at 41, he could stay in the same zip code with the best runners in the sport—guys like duathlon great Kenny Souza. Then he would ride as hard as he could knowing that, in his personal battle against aging and slowing down, he was still a world-class athlete. “It was fun to get off the bike and run people down,” he admits.
He out-split Howard 34:01 to 43:30 in that final 10K, caught him in the last half-mile of the race and ended up winning by 1:13.
It was a battle between two 40-year-old legends from different sports who went head-to-head in a race that wouldn’t be settled until deep into the last mile.
What could be better than that?
Bob Babbitt (@bob_babbitt) is an inductee into the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame and USA Triathlon Hall of Fame.