Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Wed, 29 Oct 2003 07:58:49 -0500

George Sheehan, 10 Years After


Official records list George Sheehan's lifespan as November 5th, 1918, to November 1st, 1993. He took his last breath a decade ago. But part of him will remain with us as long as he is read and remembered.

George was one of the best-loved writers and speakers in running history. And he was my best friend in this business and passion that we shared.

Our connection spanned the entire 25 years of his writing career, from his first newspaper column to his last book. I recruited him to write his long-running column in Runner's World and assisted on all but one of his books.

I humbly and proudly stood in his shadow on numerous speaking stages. We talked by phone hundreds of times a year and traded an equal number of letters.

My office has the look of a shrine to Sheehan. In a file drawer within arm's length of where I sit now are most of the columns he wrote, many of them unpublished in any running magazine. On a bookshelf are all of his books.

In one of them, This Running Life, George wrote, "I will not last forever. But I am damn well going to know I have been here." And later in that same book: "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."

These lines took on new meaning when he learned in 1986 that he had a terminal illness and, his doctors warned, only months to live. He fought this cancer to the finish, which he didn't reach until almost eight years after the diagnosis. He ran scores of races, wrote dozens of columns, gave countless speeches and completed three books in those years.

On a wall behind my desk is a photo of him that still looks over my shoulder. Beside it is a medal from his memorial race, inscribed on the back with one of his lines: "Winning is never having to say I quit." He didn't -- not until his final book, Going the Distance, was finished in his final week and he told me by phone, "I'm ready to go now."

Soon after his death, a publisher asked me to write a Sheehan biography, and quickly. Its title posed the question that George often asked of himself: Did I Win?

Writing never comes easily. If it isn't hard, it usually isn't much good.

George himself rewrote each of his pieces several times. "I work very hard at making it look easy," he liked to say.

I'd written my other books that way. Each chapter had been a long, slow slog toward making it a quick and easy read.

But not the book about George. I would sit down in the morning with few or no notes beside me, and my hands would fly over the keys. First drafts often stood up as final works.

It was as if George stood at my shoulder, dictating the material to take down as he spoke it. Nothing like this had ever happened to me before, and I never expect it to happen again because there's only one George Sheehan who can give me this much help.

George keeps winning because, 10 years after his death, his words keep informing and inspiring runners. He would delight in the irony of this.

In Dr. Sheehan on Running, the book of his that I still like the best, George explained his penchant for quoting the master thinkers of history -- from Socrates to Santayana -- in his own writing and speaking. "My family rarely gives me any credit for original thought," he wrote. "When a topic comes under discussion at the dinner table, someone is likely to turn to me and ask, 'What would Bucky Fuller say about that?'

George himself became a valued source of quotable quotes. He gave voice to what other runners thought or felt or sensed, but couldn't find the words to express as well as he did.

Name any subject related to the running experience -- and many subjects far removed from sports -- and this master thinker had found just the right words to describe it. His friends and fans would ask ourselves, "What would George Sheehan say about that?"

Ten years into his afterlife, the words survive. To a wordsmith that's the ultimate form of winning.

(A shorter version of this column appears in Runner's World Daily for October 31st, 2003. A different tribute to George is in the December RW magazine.)


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