Remembering George Sheehan
Runner, Writer Explored the “Why”
Published November 02, 1998, in The Post-Standard.
By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
On Thursday, Dr. George Sheehan would have turned 80 years old. However, this week marks the fifth anniversary of Sheehan’s death at his home in Ocean Grove, New Jersey, four days shy of his 75th birthday.
A runner, a cardiologist and a writer, Sheehan was the philosopher of our sport. Although he wrote many books and hundreds of articles on running, Sheehan did not tell us how to run faster or further. Instead, Sheehan told us why we ran. He explained the “why,” not the “how,” of running, and earned the nickname of “running guru.”
Sheehan was born on November 5, 1918 in Brooklyn, New York, the first of George and Loretta Sheehan’s 14 children. He competed in high school and college, but stopped running in 1940 when he started medical school. He joined the US Navy as a physician in 1943. Sheehan married Mary Jane Fleming in 1944, and they had 12 children.
In 1963, Sheehan returned to running and racing. Six years later, he ran a mile in 4:47, setting an age group world record, and running the world’s first sub-five-minute mile by a 50-year old. He competed regularly, and raced often in New York’s Central Park. From 1964 to 1984, he ran 21 consecutive Boston Marathons. He ran his fastest Boston Marathon in 1979 in 3 hours 1 minute at age 60.
In 1968, Sheehan began writing a running column for the Red Bank Register, his hometown newspaper. In 1970, he wrote his first column for Runner’s World. Two years later, he published his first book, “The Encyclopedia of Athletic Medicine,” followed in 1975 by “Dr. Sheehan on Running.” The success of his writing propelled him onto the lecture circuit, and he became a popular speaker at major races.
His 1978 book “Running and Being: the total experience,” was a bestseller. In this book, Sheehan transformed running into poetry. In eighteen chapters with one-word titles, Sheehan preached about living, discovering, understanding, beginning, becoming, playing, learning, excelling, running, training, healing, racing, winning, losing, suffering, meditating, growing and seeing.
Sheehan considered himself an experiment of one. What worked for him, may or may not work for others. He saw racing as the only reason for running. He ran hard in every race, believing that a runner who could walk out of the chute did not try his best.
Philosophically, Sheehan proclaimed that the difference between a jogger and a runner was a race entry form. Therefore, when the fitness craze swept the country in the seventies, he characterized fitness enthusiasts as joggers, and competitive athletes as runners. He went on to claim that health benefits ended where competition began, and that runners raced for a goal higher than fitness.
My mentor raced against Sheehan at various venues, and watched him run and speak. He remembers him as a quiet man, a motivating speaker and a tenacious racer with a strong finishing kick.
While I never met Sheehan, he has had a lasting influence on my running and my writing. He inspired me into racing for self fullfilment, and into writing only following a run. He also gave me the courage to share those inner feelings that made every runner an experiment of one.
On a family vacation on the Jersey shore, my mentor and I ran the board walks past Sheehan’s house, partaking for a few moments in the warm sunrise over his spacious ocean. A public water fountain stood outside the house as a reminder of Sheehan’s unselfish love for fellow runners.
In his last book “Going The Distance,” Sheehan shared his fear, anger and pain, as he prepared for the ultimate peace at the end of his journey. Through life and in death, his “experiment of one” continued to touch and inspire.
Five years from now, we will celebrate the tenth anniversary of Sheehan’s death. Then, it is my hope and belief that we will also commemorate his life with the issuance of a US postal stamp.
Kamal Jabbour escapes in the writings of George Sheehan when life spawns tough challenges. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at email@example.com.