Where do you want to fly?
Greg Shank was in a class all his own.
His world was built on honor, trust and great success. The foundation was love and understanding, without a need of fame or fortune.
If you met him, you were glad you did. Men of his caliber come along once in a lifetime.
If you didn’t, you wished you had, especially if you were a distance runner.
Those who knew Shank proclaim they are better for it, in so many ways.
That’s because Shank had a special God-given, self-cultivated talent. Some way, somehow, he had an ability to make all the difference in the world.
No one really knows how Shank came about his knowledge — he wasn’t classically trained — but many benefitted from his methods.
He was the “Running Whisperer.”
That voice was quieted on Dec. 23 when Shank passed away.
With his death, the running world lost a local guy from Williamsport who did great things for his sport in his own, understated way.
Shank’s work made him one of the hottest coaches in the nation, but he preferred to work his magic while standing in the background.
“You can argue that he was the best running coach in Maryland, and maybe in the U.S., for the last 40 years,” said Mike Spinnler, the JFK 50 Mile director and a competitor who blossomed under Shank’s tutelage. “Top runners from all over the country would move here for him to coach them.
“He was a ladder. If you wanted to make it as a runner and put in the hard work, he made you climb to be your best with the amazing stuff he did.”
Shank’s philosophy knocked the art of running on its heels while keeping athletes on their toes to improve beyond their wildest dreams.
His methods were more mental than technical.
Technique was important, but that was trumped by the instincts he gained from getting to know each athlete. He tailored his lessons to their personal needs.
“He would help anyone become a better runner,” said Chris Fox, a local star who competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials en route to coaching at Syracuse University. “It didn’t matter if you were world class or just wanted to do better at fun runs.
“He made a personal connection. He had a grasp for what you needed. He had a good feel for the athletes and sports, and he was able to transfer it. He’d look you in the eye and coach by feel. He was an artist and a great guy.”
In reality, running was Shank’s passionate hobby. He was a purest.
He coached because he wanted to, all after working his day job at Mack/Volvo over the years.
His success went against the grain of today’s coaching.
“Coaches of his status get lucrative salaries,” Spinnler said. “He wouldn’t take anything. He loved the sport. He loved us.”
“I was doing this professionally and he wouldn’t let me pay him,” Fox said. “He wouldn’t take any gifts either.”
In a way, Shank figured money would complicate things. He was a man who practiced what he preached.
Shank gained his knowledge through experience and listening. He routinely spent time picking the brain of Buzz Sawyer, the founder of the JFK 50 Mile and an avid runner, to build a personal coaching library.
He backed it with his own racing credentials.
Shank finished eighth in the 1981 JFK, while setting a record time for county runners. He backed it up by finishing third in 1985 race.
Eventually, Shank became the cross country and track coach at Hagerstown Community College (1993-95). Shank was also inducted into the Washington County Sports Hall of Fame in 2007.
Along the way, Shank’s philosophy and approach set him apart from other coaches. A stable of running athletes sought him out.
“Runners have coaches in high school and college until they leave school,” Spinnler said. “Then you are out there by yourself and wonder what’s next. Greg was that good coach who found runners who were looking for help. A good coach tells you what you need.”
It started by working with Terry Baker, now a Washington County Commissioner, who was a Williamsport product displaying great talent.
With Shank’s guidance, Baker qualified for the Olympic Trials and finished seventh in the 1982 Boston Marathon.
From there, Shank’s reputation grew in waves. Local runners started to excel and national runners with world-class aspirations started calling.
“Greg was working with Terry and he made a quantum leap,” Spinnler said. “Then, I met him and he did the same for me.”
Local runners began to flock to Shank.
Spinnler won consecutive JFKs in 1982-83, set a race record that stood for 12 years and became a coach himself, all influenced by Shank.
Fox joined Team Shank, followed by Jeff Scuffins, Maria Pazarentzos-Spinnler, Brian Ferrari and Earl Stoner to name a few.
They all had Olympic qualifying experiences and/or ran for national teams. Scuffins won and established the current record time at the Marine Corps Marathon.
They were followed by the likes of Kevin Ruch, Tom Stevens, Terry Croyle, Kristy Johnston and Mark Coogan, who gained their own national accolades by working with Shank.
“He was a chef cooking a meal,” Spinnler said. “He combined everything and made it the best.”
The recipe was simple. He just cared.
Shank took the time to know every athlete as a person. It was a loving friendship, almost on a parental level.
“He cared for my running like no one else,” Fox said. “He worried about my well-being and my family. He knew when I needed to work and when I needed some time. I wanted to do well for me, but I wanted to do well for Greg.
“I became a better person because of him. We just lost a great human being. We all lost a dad.”
This was a tough week for the local running community. Shank’s passing came on the heels of Boonsboro coach Dwight Scott’s death on Dec. 19.
Scott was the architect for Boonsboro’s running programs and indoor track in Washington County. He gave the area youth a starting point to run competitively.
Shank followed by turning some of that raw talent into polished athletes who competed for greatness.
That will make him impossible to forget.
Those who were lucky enough to meet Greg Shank will always hear him whispering in their ears.