George Sheehan, Philosopher and Voice of Running Boom

November 07, 1993|By MICHAEL HILL

This country lost one of its greatest philosophers when George Sheehan died this week at the age of 74.

Not that he will be officially recognized as such because his philosophy was not written for academics and scholars concerned with the drearily parochial issues that are the realm of much of professional philosophy.

No, Dr. Sheehan wrote for people trying to figure out what this life is all about, looking for meaning and purpose and guidance. Philosophers used to grapple with such issues, but rarely do any more.

As a popular philosopher -- like Robert Pirsig, author of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" -- Dr. Sheehan was as rare as a popular poet, and as powerful.

Mr. Pirsig chose a lengthy motorcycle journey as he vehicle for his philosophy. Dr. Sheehan chose running.

Indeed, much of Dr. Sheehan's success was due to the fact that he took up in middle age two aspects of life that most of us leave behind in adolescence: philosophy and sport.

He was thus able to bring a mature appreciation to these pearls usually cast before the swine of youth. In his reading of philosophers and other thinkers, he was free to wander, unfettered by the usual academic restraints, finding connections and insights that would escape a more trained mind.

Dr. Sheehan was an amateur philosopher, not only in the etymological sense of that word, but also in the way that Marshall McLuhan meant when he observed that only amateurs can make real advances in any field because professionals have too much invested in the status quo.

A cardiologist by training, Dr. Sheehan was entering a middle-age slump when, fascinated by his son's success at running, he wondered if he could go around a track as fast he once did. In his mid-40s, he managed to run a mile under 5 minutes, no mean feat.

But beyond that, he began to wonder why this pedestrian activity of putting one foot in front of another meant so much to him. So he began reading and writing, first for his hometown paper in New Jersey, then for the magazine Runner's World when it was barely more than a mimeographed monthly.

If Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers were the legs of the running boom in the United States, George Sheehan was its voice. He articulated thoughts that everyone experienced as they made their way through their daily run, but that always seemed elusive and beyond expression.

A talk by Dr. Sheehan was the running community's equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen concert, though listening to him was more like taking off with John Coltrane on some improvised solo.

Dr. Sheehan never used notes, and often paced back and forth nervously, gathering his thoughts and references before launching into that day's journey, taking his audience far afield before bringing them back to the original melody which they now appreciated in a totally different way.

I first heard him about 18 years ago speaking to a meeting of the Maryland Chapter of the American Heart Association at Hunt Valley. A few of us who had run a 15-kilometer race in a blowing rainstorm joined the luncheon to hear his talk.

And I still quote from it. Trying to explain to these doctors that they would never convince patients to exercise by telling them that it is good for them, he said; "The key is that people have to find an exercise that they like so much, they wouldn't mind dying while they're doing it."

For Dr. Sheehan, that was running. But with a maturity that eluded too many of us running zealots, he recognized that for others it could be another sport or activity.

Once, speaking on the phone to him, I talked about how fantastic the great runners were, noting that on my best days, I could beat 95 percent of the elite field at the Boston Marathon, but I could have only kept up with with the winner for the first two miles of the 26.2-mile race.

"They are motor mechanical geniuses," he said of those top runners. "How many thoughts could you keep up with Einstein?"

Could anyone have expressed it better?

I last saw George a couple of years ago when he spoke before a race in Glen Burnie. Suffering from prostate cancer that had spread to his bones, he had already outlived his doctors' predictions and was gleefully charting the improvement in his 10-kilometer times in his post-cancer-treatment period.

He noted that those treatments had robbed his body of all its male hormone. "I have less testosterone than the women runners," he said. "I should be in a eunuch category."

Dr. Sheehan was tinkering with his medication, reducing it if it robbed him of too much of his running strength, trying to find that balance between quantity and quality in life.

As the terminal nature of his illness became more and more evident, Dr. Sheehan began writing about death, working on a book until virtually the day he died, as fascinated with the last, painful, lonely strides of this marathon as he had been elated by its joyous, crowded start.

Michael Hill is The Baltimore Sun's correspondent in Johannesburg.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.