Timeless Words from a Wise Man The essays George Sheehan published 20 years ago still inform and inspire

December 28, 1998

Remember the '70s? Disco? Bell-bottoms and leisure suits? The
running boom? While the plastic music and god-awful getups are
making a somewhat ironic comeback, it's worth noting that, once
the world started running, it never really stopped. More people
are joining running clubs and participating in road races than
ever before. What has changed, it seems, is the mind-set behind
the miles.

Back in 1978 a middle-aged New Jersey
cardiologist-turned-marathon-runner named George Sheehan
published a collection of essays called Running & Being, which
spent 14 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. To be a
best-seller these days, a book on marathoning would have to be
titled Running & Having Really Good Abs. Runners have largely
shed the spiritual side of their sport like a sweaty T-shirt.
Which makes the 20th-anniversary edition of Running & Being
(Second Wind II, $20)--the first volume in a planned reissue of
all eight books by Sheehan--so intriguing. Can the man whom USA
Today called the voice of the running movement, and whom Bill
Rodgers termed "the spirit of our sport" still have something to
say to a reader in the '90s?

The revelation upon rereading Sheehan, who died of cancer in 1993
at age 74, is just how unpretentious a guru he was. A modestly
accomplished college miler who took up the sport again in his
mid-40s in hopes of recapturing some of the fitness he had lost
during years of practicing medicine and helping his wife, Mary
Jane, raise their 12 kids, Sheehan began writing a fitness column
for a newspaper in Red Bank, N.J., in 1968. "As a writer," he
once said, "I'm Eddie Stanky, a .230 hitter.... When I write, I
tell who I am, what I'm like, what I've discovered running."

It was a discovery other runners were eager to share, and Sheehan
showed them the route. "There on a country road, moving at eight
miles an hour, I discover the total universe, the natural and the
supernatural that wise men speculate about," he wrote. Sheehan
was fond of quoting wise men from Socrates to Thoreau to Vince
Lombardi. Citing Pascal, he wrote, "We are not. We hope to be."
Sheehan was relentlessly honest in his self-assessments. "Like
most distance runners," he wrote in Running & Being, "I have all
the bad features of a saint without any of the redeeming ones.
Pity the family and friends who have to care for us."

As this book makes clear, there were rewards along the way.
Certainly for anyone who has ever laced on a pair of trainers
and slogged through a couple of miles of what Sheehan liked to
call "play," the good doctor's musings and observations, his
exhortations to excel, his inveterate quoting--his sheer
enthusiasm for the long run of life--made him, then and now, a
delightful companion.

COLOR PHOTO: ANGELA CAGGIANO The good doctor Sheehan admitted he was no stylist, but he connected with readers by quoting great thinkers on favorite topics. [George Sheehan typing]

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