(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
November 2003. If you've run less than 10 years, we can't expect you to know the name Dr. George Sheehan. But if you started running – and reading this magazine – before 1993, we can assume that you'll never forget him.
I never will. George was the best friend I've ever had in this sport. He was my confidant, mentor and model for the writing and speaking roles that we both played, and was almost my second father.
We were teammates. He was the essayist and I the editor from his first Runner's World appearance in 1970 until he finished his last book 23 years later. I had the honor of seeing his columns before any reader of the magazine did, and to hear the private stories behind these public gems.
The most dramatic of those stories began in 1986, when George stood at the top of his many games. His books had made best-seller lists, and his columns were the best-read feature of the magazine.
He also was one of the best-known speakers on the running, fitness and sports-medicine circuits. He was one of the country's best runners for his age, 67 at the time.
Then came the type of medical exam that he'd ordered for his own patients hundreds of times. Back came the chilling report on himself that he'd delivered to others: "We have found a growth..."
He had cancer of the prostate, and the disease already had spread into his bones – beyond the reach of surgery. His first reaction to this diagnosis was to surrender. "I planned my will and turned down speaking engagements," he wrote. "I wasn't sure I'd be around in three months to fulfill them."
He also stopped writing and dropped out of racing. But he soon realized that waiting to die was no way to live his remaining time.
"There is nothing more certain than the defeat of a man who gives up – and, I might add, the victory of one who will not," he wrote at the time. I know that Robert Frost was right. I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep."
George resumed his full menu of activities. While fighting the disease to a standstill for the next six years, he delivered hundreds more speeches, ran scores more races, wrote dozens more columns and published two more books.
More importantly he patched up his personal life. He ended a long separation from his wife, Mary Jane, and eased the resulting strains with their 12 children.
By his own admission he became less self-absorbed. He was quicker to say his thank-yous and I-love-yous.
"I am still under sentence," he said, "but I have been given a stay of execution. Time to set things right and achieve what I was sent here to do."
That time stretched many more years than his doctors expected. They were good, happy, productive years before his disease finally took its inevitable course.
Even after the cancer went (in his words) "into fast forward" in 1992, forcing him to quit running and then speaking, he kept writing. His journal-style essays became a frontline report on his final battle.
These writings combined into the most intimate of his eight books, and the most inspirational. He wryly referred to Going the Distance as "my death book." But he was wrong. It's full of life well lived.
"There is a healthy way to be ill," Dr. George Sheehan had long advised his patients, readers and listeners. His final book, completed in his final week of life, tells how well he took his own advice.
Its publication now commemorates the 10th anniversary of his death, on November 1st, 1993. I choose instead to celebrate the 85th anniversary of his birth, four days later. As long as his writing is read, a part of George Sheehan lives on.
2018 Update. This column is posted on the 100th anniversary of George’s birth, November 5th. His words still live in me, most visibly in my office in this framed quotation: “Winning is doing the best you can with what you are given.”
I was also given prostate cancer at about the same age as George’s diagnosis. Thanks to detection and treatments unavailable to him, I do my best with it at the age didn’t quite reach, 75.
[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, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Running with Class, 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.]