Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Last Supper

(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 1993.)

WHAT IF someone threw a party in your honor and no one showed up? That was George Sheehan’s fear when local friends approached his son George III in early 1993 about organizing a dinner for The Doc (as they called him).

Young George then broached the subject with his dad. Dr. George’s first reaction: “Definitely not.”

“Fine,” said the son, “it’s your call.” The next morning “Dad came to the office with 10 pages of notes. They told where the party could be held, what the program might be and who should be invited.”

Later Dr. George started to worry that no one would come. “I gave a recent talk in Florida, and only a dozen people showed up,” he said. “What if that happens here?”

“No chance of that,” the son reminded the dad. “We’ll draw a crowd with the Sheehans alone.” Just to be safe, they extended the invitation list and published an announcement in local newspapers.

By the time I left home for New Jersey, the guest list stood at 300 and was still growing. Young George said, “We could top 400.” The crowd would grow to 500.

Paying tribute to George Sheehan took a long time. He had lived almost 75 very full years, and the program planners couldn’t leave out any of his phases. The program took three hours to cover them all.

Finally, on the far side of 10 o’clock, George himself took the stage. His voice came out quiet, slow and hoarse at first.

But as he warmed to his topic and his audience, this became the George Sheehan we’d always known: lively, eloquent, funny and heartfelt. Everyone else had taken care to avoid the subject that brought us all here.

George himself didn’t hesitate to mention what everyone knew he faced. He said, “Dying [of advanced prostate cancer] is my current experience. I’m going to face it and find out what it’s all about.”

With his finish line in sight, George felt fortunate. He’d had an early wake of sorts, when he could be there to enjoy it with 500 of his nearest and dearest. We should all be so lucky.

NO RUNNER wants to leave anything unfinished. Dropping out goes against our training and our nature.

George Sheehan worried in his last months that he would leave work undone. He wanted to finish one more book.

He called it his “death book.” Knowing that no publisher would accept that stark a title, I suggested that it be “Miles to Go.”

That line comes from a Robert Frost poem: “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep.” It best describes how George lived with the prostate cancer that had spread into his bones and was inoperable when discovered in 1986.

In fact, he used Frost’s words himself when first revealing his illness. George went those miles.

He spoke for all runners when he told me in an interview several years earlier, “What we are interested in is performance. Our consuming concern is getting up in the morning and doing our best the rest of the day.”

Speaking for himself, he said, “At my age I could be retired, I could be sitting by the ocean, watching the waves roll in and out. But I feel I’ve never achieved all that I could. If you take less of a view than that, you’re finished.”

He kept performing in the face of his cancer. He demonstrated what he called “a healthy way to live.” He wrote hundreds of articles, gave dozens of speeches and ran scores of races in the next six years.

Two new Sheehan books came out right on schedule during that period, as he took the usual three years apiece to fill them. Maybe he couldn’t do his all-time best after the cancer struck. But he still tried to do the best job he could with the tools at hand.

George fought the cancer to a standstill for six years after his diagnosis. It hadn’t advanced, but neither had it retreated. The final battle began in 1992 with news of further metastases.

He continued to race until August 1992, finishing the Crim 10-mile before the disease took him off the road. He continued to speak until spring 1993, talking at the Boston Marathon before the disease took him off the stage.

George continued to write into that fall, turning his back on the ocean view until he’d gathered enough columns to fill the next book. While Random House expressed interest, it still hadn’t offered a contract by fall. George was weakening by then.

Finally, in October, an editor planned to bring an offer to George’s Jersey Shore home. This was one of his bad days physically and he felt like canceling the meeting, but he had promises to keep. He would reach this finish line no matter how hard the final miles felt.

George called me on October 20th to say, “We made the deal.” He sounded as exhausted yet ecstatic as a marathoner at race’s end.

Now he could sit and watch the waves roll in and out. He could rest in the glorious peace that follows a big effort.

Photo: George A. Sheehan, M.D., died at home on November 1st, 1993, four days shy of his 75th birthday. His wife Mary Jane and their 12 children were at his bedside in a room looking out on the ocean. His final book would come out the next year under the title Going the Distance.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Miles to Go, 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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