This is really a two book review and in essence a full circle review of his life from his height of popularity to his final profound statement and ultimate demise to cancer. The first book, “Running & Being, The Total Experience” was written in 1978 at the age of 59. Dr. George Sheehan was coming off over a decade of masters running culminating in his 4:47 mile at the age of 50 (a national record) and becoming the ‘medical’ expert and the voice of the running boom of the 1970’s, imploring everyone to get off the couch and take to the streets (running/jogging that is). Although a national level runner thru his 50’s his message (and Bill Bowerman’s as well) was to get out and run no matter how fast. The goal was life-long fitness and because of that a better life. George was a fitness guru, medical consultant, psychologist and a bit of a fanatic. The hook in his message I feel is that this running thing has to be ‘PLAY”. It should be fun and there are many ways to make it so: from where you run (the beauty) to how you run(pace change/fartlek) to whom you run with(group runs/hash house runs/post run socializing). By making each day’s run your playtime it instills a fun element that draws you back the next day.
The second book I am reviewing and also his last, “Going the Distance” concerns the last years of his life and reviews his fight with cancer (while remaining a runner). The first book was written when running was his life (he had quit his medical practice) and although in his late 50’s was at the top of his game mentally and physically (at least his perception). Like many of us just over middle-agers, in our minds, we are very much younger, so too was Dr George. He proselytized that aging was just a mindset and (in his mind) he proved that by running a 3:01 marathon(his PR) at the age of 61 and ran over 60 marathons and 21 straight Boston marathons.
The first book has an overall feeling of extreme confidence, maybe even arrogance. It is written by a man at the height of his popularity, an expert voice. He is the face of a nation of newbie runners all thirsting for the answers of how and why to run. He was more than happy to be that voice, those answers. His one word chapter names begin: Living, Discovering, Understanding, Becoming, Learning which give the feeling of a transactional analysis self help group(remember the 1970’s? Est?). These morph into: Running, Training, Healing, Racing, Winning, Losing, Suffering… are more of what you might think a running book would be about. The information in the book is a bit dated but much running data has not really changed dramatically (contrary to the shoe industry literature) so I found it interesting at the very least as a historical perspective. About his writing style especially in the first half of the book- I found it a bit painful as he quotes every philosopher known to mankind and kind of takes the ‘play’ out of the actual point he is trying to make. The second part, the running chapters I enjoyed more. Again I didn’t find this book a scintillating read but as a historical and insightful view of the Voice of the running boom (of the ‘70s) I think it is indeed worthy of the time spent reading it.
The second book is an entirely different animal. A man, not entirely broken, but viewing the end of his life and still fighting yet not with the same fervor of his beginning fight with cancer. I think the book would have been entirely different if he had started it at the beginning of his fight. The overall tone is much softer, I think his goal is to leave something more to his children. His interaction with them(and in the book, “Chasing the Hawk” reviewed previously and written by his son, Andrew Sheehan) are now full of a man sharing his emotions and wanting his children to share time with him. As a younger man, as a father, he was aloof and solitary. In fact his running, writing and lecturing continued to separate them as a family. In this book, as well, he used quotes from many philosophers. Yet here I found the quotes helpful, instructive even enlightening as I felt they fit the story George was telling. At the end of one’s life I would expect to be more philosophical and Dr Sheehan indeed is and is writing his goodbye and passion for his children. I enjoyed everything about this book. (Dr Sheehan wrote six other books which I have not read. One might see a change in his style as a progression or perhaps it is just his emotion plainly written).
As an aside, I felt Dr Sheehan’s son’s book (Chasing the Hawk) was the best of the three but together they made an interesting trilogy of the story of the somewhat dysfunctional Sheehan family. I can recommend them individually and as a trilogy if you think you can take that much information about one family. If I was to do it again I would read Dr Sheehan’s first book ‘Running and Being’, then Andrew Sheehan’s book ‘Chasing the Hawk”, finishing with ‘Going the Distance’. I have these books available if someone wants to borrow them.
- “Running & Being, The Total Experience”, by Dr. George Sheehan, Rodale, Inc., New York, NY, pp. 255
- “Going the Distance”, by Dr. George Sheehan, Random House, Inc., New York, NY, pp. 185.