Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tears for a Winner

(This is 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)

March 2000. My columns and talks are like my runs. No matter how well planned they seem, I never quite know where they’ll lead. All take surprising turns on the way to their finish lines.

When I stood up last fall to speak at the Royal Victoria Marathon, I didn’t expect to sit down wiping away tears. They were good tears for a great friend. They show he’s still much missed but also well remembered.

The theme at the pre-race dinner in Victoria was masters running, which has less to do with winning races and setting records after age 40 than with slowing and aging gracefully. The talk started lightly enough and was meant to stay that way. Fidgety runners don’t need a heavy message on race eve, but only a few laughs and a little inspiration.

I told of a Canadian runner in his 80s, Whitey Sheridan, who’d run for almost 70 of those years. He advised me on my 40th running anniversary, “Hang in there, kid. You’re just getting started.”

This led to talk of winning by surviving. A survivor is the best that most of us can be. If we can’t outrun people, we can at least outlast them. I’ve outlasted Olympic champions and world record-holders while adding up the years of modest efforts.

So far the Victoria talk had stayed on safe emotional ground. But I was about to step into territory where tears lurked. I told of looking up the most to runners who have lasted the longest. The greatest of those heroes is George Sheehan, whose definitions of winning survive him.

Smiling through tears, I wrote a biography of George called Did I Win? The title came from one of the last talks he ever gave to runners. Someone from the audience, knowing George’s condition, asked, “At this stage of your life what is your biggest concern?”

George was stumped for a moment. Then he put his hands together, looked up in mock prayer and answered, “Did I win? Have I done enough? Have I been a good enough runner, writer, speaker and doctor? More importantly, have I been a good enough father and friend?”

He didn’t think so. That’s why he hadn’t retired to “watching the waves roll in and out” from his home on the Jersey Shore. That’s why he ran for as long as he legs would allow, then walked, then swam.

And that’s why he kept writing columns and worked to finish one more book. That’s why he surrounded himself with family and friends right to the end.

One of the last races George ran was the Crim 10-mile in Michigan. He ran along in last place with another man, a younger one who was injured. That runner turned to George and complained, “You know, Doc, we used to be good.”

George came right back with, “We’re as good as we ever were. We’re doing the best we can with what we have.

“You have an injury, and I have an illness. But we’re still out here, giving our all. No one can do more, or should do less.”

George Sheehan redefined winning for us. One definition was to “do the best you can with what you are given.”

I liked another one even better. The summer after he died, a race was renamed the “George Sheehan Classic” and moved from the neighborhood where he’d lived to the hospital where he’d worked. This was his noontime running course in Red Bank, New Jersey.

As I exited the finish chute, a medal was draped around my neck. One side bore George’s likeness. Seeing that, I recalled in the recent talk, I almost broke down. Then I turned the medal over, read one of his lines and totally lost control.

Just then I looked the Victoria crowd and saw a woman who had dealt with a serious illness of her own this year. She had lowered her head and was mopping her eyes with a dinner napkin.

Tears are contagious, and hers set off mine as I sputtered out the Sheehan line from the medal: “Winning is never having to say I quit.”

I caught my breath, wiped my cheeks and added, “He never did, and neither should we.”

2018 Update. This year is the 100th anniversary of George Sheehan’s birth, and the 25th of his passing. I still sometimes tear up when talking about him.

[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from 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, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]

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