Running With George Sheehan
Article by: Michael SelmanReproduced with permission of the author
As most of you who read this, I love to run. I have stuck with running for a longer time than anything else I have done in my life. Longer than marriage. Longer than formal education. Longer than I have resided anywhere. Running has been the one constant in my life for the last 18 years. Barring injury, regardless of what direction life leads me, running represents the one aspect of life I can most often have control of.
Non runners look at us and shake their heads in amusement, puzzlement, bewilderment, wondering what this pull is that attracts us to pound the pavement week after week, month after month, year after year. When asked, the answer is not so easily phrased. Runners, by and large, are private people who use their running to be alone with their thoughts, to daydream in an appropriate manner, in an acceptable forum. We use this time for problem resolution, as well as stress release. Sometimes, we use running to race faster. As a competitive runner, although mainly with myself, I am often "guilty" of this. But the run I am writing about today was special, and I knew in the midst of it that I finally had to start sharing my thoughts with other runners.
I can't believe it was almost 4 years ago now, on January 7th,1996, that I started my writing career with an article inspired by a single run in the snow. I woke up early that morning to find a beautiful white blanket of unbroken snow covering the ground, and it was still falling rather heavily. It had been a few years since I had last run in the snow, which is one of my favorite things to do. I quickly pulled on my special black running tights which had printed snowflakes running up the sides. I had been saving these tights for just such an occasion. Today was the day. A few more pieces of foul weather gear and I was out the door.
I have a nice rolling loop in my neighborhood which covers about 1.25 miles. As I started today's 7 1/2 mile run, I observed that the snow lay pure on the road ahead of me. The only disturbance was left in my wake. My mind started to wander to thoughts of Dr. George Sheehan, who in my opinion, was the most insightful author of running psychology and running philosophy I have ever read. He had an uncanny ability to allow a single run to have a profound effect on his entire life from that point forward. Not only that, but he would then write about his experience and share it with the rest of the world, so that whoever wanted to could actually benefit from his experience. What a wonderful, caring, and giving man he was, I thought. He lived his life to benefit other people, both through his profession and his writing, and he has ensured that his legacy will live on throughout my lifetime and beyond. We all have intimate thoughts while on the run. Why not share them with the rest of the world? I'll bet he could have written something wonderful about today's run. Here is a man in whose footsteps I would be honored to follow.
At about this time, I noticed that the snow that lay ahead was no longer unbroken. There was a single trail of footsteps ahead of me, already carved in the snow. I hit the split timer on my watch to mark the completion of my first loop. Whose footsteps were those that lay ahead of me? Was I just repeating my own footsteps, running around in circles, or were these actually someone else's footsteps, beckoning me to follow? As I continued my run, I felt a strange presence, as if I were not alone. George Sheehan had come to Lawrenceville, GA, and was with me, stride for stride. I quickly started recalling the few brief times I met him.
I used to see him at races in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in New York, where he was basically just another good age group runner. People didn't make a fuss about him there, as this was his home running ground. He wasn't a guest here, he was competition for other people in his age group.
Then there was the year he was a guest speaker at the Salisbury Winter Flight run in North Carolina. Everyone clamored to see him there, but he was just as friendly and approachable as you could imagine. The last time I saw him in person was at the Old Reliable Run in Raleigh the next year. I remember passing him at about the two mile mark of that race, which I had never done before, and noticed him wheezing heavily. I asked him if he was all right and he just smiled and kept on going. I learned two days later he had cancer.
As I ran my sixth and final loop, the road left the impression that a marathon had just been run along the left hand shoulder. I had just run the last six miles of my wonderfully snowy run with Dr. George Sheehan. Not only is he still alive, but he taught me a most valuable lesson today. It's okay to walk, ( or run ) in someone else's footsteps, but never, ever forget that, each step of the way, you are also forging your own path, which others may then chose to follow. Have no regrets about the trail you leave.
Why do I run? Sometimes a run can make your day a little bit better than it otherwise would have been. But once in a blue moon, as George Sheehan so consistently pointed out, your whole reason for being, the way you look at life can be changed by a single run. For me, it was once upon a snowy morning in Lawrenceville, GA, where I experienced first hand what it's like to create my own footsteps, as well as follow in the footsteps of someone I have the greatest admiration for. I also got to the experience sharing a run with the immortal George Sheehan. I have wanted to write about my own running thoughts for years. January 7th, 1996, Dr. Sheehan told me, was a great day to start.
Now that we're nearing the clutches of winter once again, I eagerly watch the weather channel every day, hoping that somewhere in the report, they forecast the return of George Sheehan to Lawrenceville, GA.
Michael Selman Roads Scholar Atlanta Georgia USAMichael Selman is a freelance writer who has appeared in publications and web sites throughout the world, including Runner's World, Footnotes, and CoolRunning.