When he is in peak condition, Frank Shorter looks like a scarecrow on a hunger strike. His cotton racing shorts billow around his beanpole legs, his jersey seems sizes too large, and his face is haggard. But at 28 the spindly Shorter may be the best long-distance runner in the world. He won a gold medal in the marathon at the 1972 Olympic Games—the first American to do so in more than 60 years. Now he is the favorite to repeat this summer in Montreal.

"It's the one day every four years when there is no excuse and you find out who is the best in the world," says Shorter. "I'm going into my 11th year of long-distance running. And I've gotten better as I've gotten older."

Shorter became a marathon runner almost as an afterthought. The second of nine children, he was born in Munich, West Germany to an American doctor and his wife, who subsequently moved to Middletown, N.Y. He prepped at Mount Hermon in Mount Hermon, Mass., where he concentrated on skiing. As a premed student at Yale Shorter dabbled in track, but he was less than dedicated. "He'd run a meet on Saturday, then take off for skiing in Vermont and come back on Tuesday," recalls his coach, Bob Giegengack, who directed the Olympic team in 1964.

Between Frank's junior and senior years his attitude changed. "I wanted to see what I could do if I really was in good shape," Shorter says. Each day he ran 20 miles in the thin mountain air of Taos, N.Mex., where his parents had settled. When he returned to New Haven in the fall, he was ready. "He had become much more confident," says a former teammate, Steve Boyer. "Once in a six-mile race at Penn, we had all run uphill for the first quarter of the race. At the top, Frank turned around and yelled 'Goodbye,' challenging us to keep up. One guy got teed but he passed out."

After trying med school for three months at the University of New Mexico, Shorter dropped out in favor of running. He knocked around the racing circuit for six months, sometimes with girlfriend Louise Gilliland, a liberal arts major at the University of Colorado whom he had met on a ski slope in Taos. Frank and Louise were married in the summer of 1970 and lived out of knapsacks in the U.S. and Europe while he competed in distance events. In the fall of that year they settled into a basement apartment in Boulder, Colo., earning their rent plus $50 a month by babysitting the kids upstairs. To make ends meet Frank stood in line each month for food stamps. "That was demeaning," he recalls. In the spring of 1971 he enrolled in the University of Florida law school. "I guess I had to do something," he says, "to satisfy the puritan ethic in me."

Frank graduated in 1974 and passed his Colorado bar exam in 1975. He worked part-time for a legal firm in Boulder until April when he decided to train full-time for the Olympics. His life with Louise is quiet. She reads, cooks and does minor carpentry around the house. "His life," she says, "is centered around training." Twice daily, frequently with Louise or other long-distance runners at his side, Frank jogs up the mountain paths near their home.

The cruel sport consumes him. "Even if I weren't training for the Olympics," he confesses, "I'd probably be out there anyway—running with my friends."