Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Two Docs

(To mark twin 50th anniversaries in 2017, as a fulltime running journalist and as a marathoner, I am posting a piece for each of those years. This one comes from 1975.)

A LOVELY feature of published writing is that you don’t need to read and heed it right away. It’s there, waiting, whenever you’re ready for it.

My introduction to Dr. Ernst van Aaken came in 1960, when he penned the first article for the first issue of a magazine called Track Technique. I skimmed the first paragraph of “Speed or Endurance Training?” – which seemed to have little to do with me – and rushed on to his advice for serious athletes.

Now I’m rereading the introduction by the medical doctor and coach whose last name rhymes with “gone walkin’.” He wrote, “The play of children is nothing more than a long-distance run, because in a couple of hours of play they cover many kilometers with several hundred pauses. The play of children is a primal form of interval training.”

In 1960, I thought I’d outgrown my childish ways. My running was no longer playful, and I was into serious interval work. I never walked between the fast runs.

Fifteen years later I’d come around to van Aaken’s way of running, quoting him to support my practices. I was working on overcoming my own lingering resistance to taking walks during runs when a pair of events aligned perfectly during a single week in 1975.

One was my first meeting with Ernst van Aaken, during his West Coast lecture tour where Dr. Joan Ullyot served as his host and translator. He delivered his talks from a wheelchair, the result of losing both legs after being struck down by a car while running three years earlier.

Van Aaken’s topics ranged widely in his San Francisco lecture and our personal conversations, lasting eight hours in all. He breezed through the subject of run-walk intervals in five minutes, repeating what he’d been saying for years but I’d only recently been ready to hear.

I might have missed Dr. van Aaken’s point yet again if not for an episode that same week. A sore calf, injured in a race earlier that month, stopped me two miles into a Saturday group run. I waved the other runners on, then swore and kicked at the ground for having to quit the highlight run of my week.

Walking sullenly back toward the parking lot, I realized that the pain had eased. I ran again until the muscle threatened to spasm, walked until it loosened, ran a little farther than before, and ran-walked some more while letting the tender leg dictate the mix.

This slow-interval session ended up lasting the full two hours that I would have gone with the group. My leg felt better at the end than it had at the start.

I’d taken 15 years to appreciate what Ernst van Aaken had written in 1960: If you want to go long, you need to stop once in a while. The pause refreshes.


GEORGE SHEEHAN is a physician, and his patients think he’s one of the best. Yet “doctor” is one of the last things I think of when I picture him.

Runner, yes. Writer, absolutely. Practicing eccentric, to be sure.

Dressed in long-johns and ski mask, he once ran past a family moving into his neighborhood. They stared at him. He shouted, “Go back! Everyone in this town is crazy!”

In a field that trains its people in scientific reasoning and laboratory-tested fact, Dr. Sheehan ventures guesses and trusts what he learns in his “experiment of one.” He says, “The doctor is educated in the treatment of disease, not in health.”

George Sheehan was meant to write, and we were fated to get together. I was the new editor of Runner’s World in 1970, and George was fairly new to writing.

When I asked him to write for RW, he said, “Ask for readers’ medical questions and I’ll answer them. Print some of the better ones.”

Letters arrived by the dozens each week, and George answered them all personally… plus writing a weekly column for a newspaper (the Red Bank Register) in the New Jersey town where he practiced medicine. The best of these found a second home in Runner’s World, and eventually in his books.

George lived across the country from me, and I heard from him by letter or phone almost every workday. But only twice had we gotten together to talk in recent years. Both times he was speaking at sports-medicine seminars.

At the first of those talks, he said, “I’m not here as a doctor but as an athletes’ representative.” And he talked athlete-to-athlete and athlete-to-doctor, not doctor-to-doctor.

I noticed then how little importance he gave to appearances. He wore a faded blue shirt with a frayed collar. A paper clip held his narrow tie in place. Later his speaking uniform became even less formal.

He wrote, “I now wear skin-tight Levi’s, over-the-calf hose, old running shoes and a cotton turtleneck shirt. Anything added to this is simply for concealment.”

The second time I heard him speak, he had lost his reading glasses ($2 Woolworth’s specials), so he spoke without notes. The talk was to be on heart abnormalities of athletes, but he barely brushed that subject.

Instead he spun out the Sheehan Philosophy. The audience, numbed by a day and a half of clinical lectures, loved what George had to say.

The statement that stayed with me the longest: “For every runner who tours the world running marathons, there are thousands who run to hear the leaves and listen to the rain, and look to the day when it all is suddenly as easy as a bird in flight. For them sport is not a test but a therapy, not a trial but a reward, not a question but an answer.”


Photo: George Sheehan (un)dressed for the stage.


[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. Latest released was Miles to Go. Other titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Journal, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, and Starting Lines, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]




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