Remember the '70s? Disco? Bell-bottoms and leisure I suits? The running boom? While the plastic music and god-awful getups are making a somewhat ironic comeback, it's worth noting that, once the world started running, it never really stopped. More people are joining running clubs and participating in road races than ever before. What has changed, it seems, is the mind-set behind the miles.
Back in 1978 a middle-aged New Jersey cardiologist-turned-marathon-runner named George Sheehan published a collection of essays called Running & Being, which spent 14 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. To be a best-seller these days, a book on marathoning would have to be titled Running & Having Really Good Abs. Runners have largely shed the spiritual side of their sport like a sweaty T-shirt. Which makes the 20th-anniversary edition of Running & Being (Second Wind II, $20)—the first volume in a planned reissue of all eight books by Sheehan—so intriguing. Can the man whom USA Today called the voice of the running movement, and whom Bill Rodgers termed "The spirit of our sport" still have something to say to a reader in the '90s?
The revelation upon rereading Sheehan, who died of cancer in 1993 at age 74, is just how unpretentious a gum he was. A modestly accomplished college miler who took up the sport again in his mid-40s in hopes of recapturing some of the fitness he had lost during years of practicing medicine and helping his wife, Mary Jane, raise their 12 kids, Sheehan began writing a fitness column for a newspaper in Red Bank, N.J., in 1968. "As a writer," he once said, "Fm Eddie Stanky, a .230 hitter.... When I write, I tell who I am, what I'm like, what I've discovered running."
It was a discovery other runners were eager to share, and Sheehan showed them the route. "There on a country road, moving at eight miles an hour, I discover the total universe, the natural and the supernatural that wise men speculate about," he wrote. Sheehan was fond of quoting wise men from Socrates to Thoreau to Vince Lombardi. Citing Pascal, he wrote, "We are not. We hope to be." Sheehan was relentlessly honest in his self-assessments. "Like most distance runners," he wrote in Running & Being, "I have all the bad features of a saint without any of the redeeming ones. Pity the family and friends who have to care for us."
As this book makes clear, there were rewards along the way. Certainly for anyone who has ever laced on a pair of trainers and slogged through a couple of miles of what Sheehan liked to call "play," the good doctor's musings and observations, his exhortations to excel, his inveterate quoting—his sheer enthusiasm for tire long run of life—made him, then and now, a delightful companion.