Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.
Thu, 16 May 2013 04:55:19 -0400
By GeorgeRUNNING COMMENTARY 989
(The latest, and probably last, home for my magazine column was Marathon & Beyond. That seven-year stay ended in 2011. Now I have permission to republish those pieces. This one comes from the January 2006 issue.)
Dr. George Sheehan beat his own doctors’ time-left forecasts by many years, but his end finally came in late 1993. Soon afterward a favorite race of his was renamed and moved to his old training course.
The next summer I walked to the start of the George Sheehan Classic in Red Bank, New Jersey. A young runner ahead of me turned to another and said, “This is a cool race. But who is this Sheehan guy, anyway?”
He said “She-han,” not the proper “She-un.” At that time and place this was like asking who that Kennedy was with his name on a New York City airport. Every runner should have known George Sheehan by then. Or so his friends and fans liked to think, though he himself knew better.
Others built up his bigger-than-life legend, and he sometimes felt the need to knock it down to size. The two of us once walked away from the adulation that always greeted him at the Boston Marathon. He shook his head in amazement, then added, “Two blocks from here I’m just another skinny old Irishman.”
For all the fame heaped on him in his later years, he didn’t take all of this too seriously. Being famous was a phase that started in his late 50s, when the practices of his lifetime were pretty well set and wouldn’t change much the rest of his days.
As long as I knew him, which was 25 years, he wore the same blue(jeans)-on-blue(shirt and sweater) uniform while greeting crowds of runners. He drove the same well-used little cars, VWs and Hondas, that doubled as his mobile locker-room.
He spoke and wrote his last words in 1993. Which means that many of today’s runners can be excused for asking: “Who’s this George Sheehan?” Many Marathon & Beyond readers came into the sport after George left. They never had the pleasure of hearing, reading or knowing him in life.
But it isn’t too late to get acquainted with a figure who once stood taller than anyone in this sport. (Put John “Penguin” Bingham on Jeff Galloway’s shoulders, and you get an idea of George Sheehan’s stature at his peak.) No one to come along since has given better speeches to runners or written finer literature on running.
George was an accidental author. He wasn’t trained as a writer and had practiced medicine for half his life before publishing his first article at age 50. His medical career was winding down when he wrote his first book seven years later.
By then he’d settled into his distinctive style of writing: personal, philosophical and padded with quotes from great thinkers from outside of sports. The Sheehan Style would come to be widely mimicked (and occasionally mocked) but never matched.
His first book, Dr. Sheehan on Running, sold well among his Runner’s World readers, but the wider world wasn’t yet ready to buy running books. That would happen soon afterward.
During one amazing month of 1978, three different books for runners ranked among the top 10 in national sales – for all topics. Each book took a different look at the sport. Jim Fixx’s Complete Book of Running profiled people who ran and what it meant to them. Bob Glover and Jack Shepherd’s Runner’s Handbook advised how to run. George Sheehan’s Running & Being examined why he, and we, ran.
George’s book, along with his previous and later ones, gave voice to what other runners thought but couldn’t quite express. They embraced him for this for the rest of his life, and beyond. They loved him all the more as he wrote as openly about his final life test as he had about other subjects.
In 1986 George was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer that had spread into his bones. His doctors told him to hope for another year but to plan for less. He lived seven more years – good years, mostly.
He wrote three more books during that illness (finishing the last, Going the Distance, in his final week), published dozens of newspaper and magazine columns, and spoke at hundreds of races (running them as long as he was able, including the 1989 World Masters Championships). His end came just days shy of his 75th birthday.
Who was George Sheehan? The best way to introduce yourself to him now, or to renew acquaintances, is to read one of his books. I worked with him on all but one of those books. He never once, in almost two decades of writing them, named one as his favorite.
“These books are my babies,” he said. “I could no more single out one than say which of my own children I like best.” His kids outnumbered his books, 12 to seven.
Once you’ve read any of them, you’ll want to read more. Once you read him, you’ll know him and won’t forget him.
UPDATE: A new book combining the best of George Sheehan’s magazine columns is in the works at Runner’s World. Earlier titles of his are available in used bookstores and from online sources.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in three different formats: (1) in print from Amazon.com; (2) as e-books from Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com; (3) as printable and shareable PDFs from Lulu.com. Just released was Learning to Walk. Other titles: Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Marathon Training, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log (not an e-book), and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe (e-book only). The middle book of the memoir series, Going Far, is being serialized in Marathon & Beyond magazine.]