March 10, 2010
I ran the 20K Chicago Distance Classic one summer in the 1970s when I was in high school. It was a brutally hot Chicago day in July or August—at least I remember it that way, or choose to, because at some point I was having a lousy race, decided 20K was a very long way to run, and went into a survival shuffle. But then I recognized Dr. George Sheehan among the many passing me and things changed.
Dr. Sheehan was a New Jersey cardiologist and Runner’s World columnist who had returned to running later in life. As a writer, philosopher, evangelist of the endurance way, he’d carved out a spot for himself as a Ralph Waldo Emerson in red nylon shorts. His bestseller of the era was titled Running and Being. Yes, it’s a pretty annoying, pretentious title, but I still pick the book up from time to time, dip into it, and find it can still inspire me.
But when Dr. Sheehan ran past me on that day he wasn’t spouting poetry or philosophy. Truth, yes. Beauty, no. He was clearly suffering far worse than I was. (Please hold your comments about the fact that the guy passing me was several decades older.) All runners suffer. What made George Sheehan notable was his willingness to share his suffering. “Shit..god dammit…oh, god…shit…,” or something along those lines, he muttered incessantly.
Seeing Dr. Sheehan rallied me. At least enough to pick it up and run the final few miles in the shadow of seventies running fame. As we came down the final stretch, the cursing mystic dug deep and kicked it in. Whether it was respecting my elders, respecting celebrity, not wanting to look like a teenage chump duking it out with an old guy, or just being too tired, I didn’t respond. George Sheehan 1, Tom Weaver 0.
As we did our handshakes and back slaps in the finish chute, the doctor told me I could have had him, I went easy on him. Looking back, maybe I’d let him down. Maybe the proper show of respect for Dr. Sheehan would have been to let go with my own string of invective and sprint for the line.