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"At the age of 45, I pulled the emergency cord and got off the train and
ran into the world. It was a decision that meant no less than a new course, a
new dimension. I was born again in my 45th year."
George Sheehan, runner, cardiologist, author
"Even before he left my mother for the first time... he would do his doctoring, his running, his writing, and then sort of present himself in our midst, taking what he wanted of our company and then taking his leave." Andrew Sheehan
Chasing the Hawk: Looking for My Father, Finding Myself
I never expected to again be writing about George Sheehan, my favorite fitness author. The New York Times called him the countryís "greatest philosopher of sport." But, to my delight, I am. Andrew Sheehan, Georgeís eighth child (of 12), has written a wonderful book about his life with his father: Chasing the Hawk (Delacorte press, 2001). He reveals his fatherís darker side, a side which gave painful birth to the "runnerís runner" that we all came to admire and love, but in the process almost tore his family apart. Itís a story which has been hinted about in the past but, until now, hasnít been fully told. Writing the story was a cathartic experience for Andrew, and his effort to understand and forgive his father can inform us all.
The fascinating details of triumph and sadness can be found in Andrew Sheehanís beautifully written book. A brief overview will serve our needs.
George Sheehanís family was essentially a carbon copy of his parentís family. That was both a blessing and a curse. It created a deep discontent and anger in George, which ultimately gave rise to George Sheehan the runner and writer, but cast a dark shadow over his family life. "I never had a choice in anything," he once told Andrew. "I feel as though everything in my life was decided for me."
George was raised in a Catholic family, the first born of 14 children. His father was a prominent physician with many wealthy patients, including the mayor of New York; he was also a doctor to the poor and a man of social conscience. Likewise, George and his wife had 12 children, all brought up in the Catholic Church. George gained a well-earned reputation as "one of the best doctors" on the New Jersey shore. Both George and his father lived in multistory mansions, with plenty of room for their large families.
As Andrew relates, outward appearances are often deceiving. Georgeís father, George Augustine Sheehan, came to feel trapped by his success. "He wanted to make a greater dent than he could in private practice, perhaps by going into medical research," Andrew writes. "Unfortunately, by the time he realized this, his medical practice was so entrenched a part of the community that his loyalty to his patients prevented him from realizing his dream." Whatís more, he was financially strapped. The burden of maintaining his large family -- and keeping up appearances -- was a constant strain. Andrew says they lived as "ruined royalty" in a "towering brownstone, where the lights didnít work, the clothes were often threadbare, and it was a challenge to scrounge up enough change to go to the movies." Georgeís mother often screamed at the children in frustration, "Weíre one step from the poor house."
As the oldest son and namesake of his father, George felt pressured to become a medical doctor. Consciously or unconsciously, he also followed his fatherís way of fathering. "Deep down," Andrew writes, " there is a feeling that [both] continued to have children long after [they were] interested in raising them."
"The burden was passed from father to son," Andrew writes. "And so, too, it seems to me, were the hidden resentments and the anger." Like his father, George came to feel that he was not living the life for which he was meant. He became a competent and successful doctor but, like his father before him, he constantly worried about his ability to support his large family. "My father," says Andrew, " fought his fears of maintenance bills, property taxes, and college education." Following in the steps of his father's family, Andrew says, "We became the ruined royalty."
George tried drinking for a while, but afraid of becoming an alcoholic, he stopped. But that didnít work either, says Andrew, because "his abstinence made for even more tension."
Then came a call at 3 a.m. from a patient whose wife was having chest pains and trouble breathing; he wanted George to come over right away. That was it. "My father got up, dressed, and then punched the wall, loading the punch with all his frustration and anger. When it landed, he shattered his hand." That was the spring of 1963.
"It was the defining moment of change," Andrew writes. "He began to run."
George had discovered running in prep school and, thanks to the guidance of a wise coach by the name of Bob Giegengack, he loved it. Unlike many coaches, Giegengack never took the fun out of running. Rather than push his runners, he got the best out of them by "getting them to see the worth of pushing themselves... The act of running made [my father] feel at one with himself and the world; it made him feel free, strong, capable, vital. In running, he began to believe in himself."
Coach Giegengack helped George get an athletic scholarship to Manhattan college. "Throughout his high school and college years, my father knew he could always find freedom by slipping on his tracks shoes and heading out the door. Running was his safety hatch, his pressure valve." Unfortunately, in the Ď30s and Ď40s running after college was considered adolescent, a frivolous pursuit. "George gave up running," Andrew writes, "choosing to live like the rest."
Born Again, 25 Years Later
It wasnít until 25 years later that George "looked to running to save himself again."
He began running in the privacy of his 2-acre backyard, but soon took to the streets Ė in spite of the fact that jogging was unheard of for a middle-aged man in the early Ď60s. He saw it as the end of one life and the beginning of another: "At the age of reason, I was placed on a train, the shades drawn, my lifeís course and destination already determined. At the age of 45, I pulled the emergency cord and got off the train and ran into the world... I was born again in my 45th year."
The new destination didnít look so bright for everyone, however. "If he was getting off the train," Andrew writes, "were my mother and the rest of our family still on it?" It seems so. George was heading off on a new course that didnít leave much room for them.
He was never around, says Andrew: "During the week he was working, and on weekends he was traveling far for a race or running some incredibly long workout in preparation for a marathon."
Thatís not all. He substituted running for going to church. "Iíve seen more of God in the last hour [running] than youíll ever see in that church," he told a churchgoer. Andrew says his mother found this very troubling, because of what people might think and because of the effect on the children.
George didnít seem to care. "To my motherís horror," Andrew writes, "he began scoffing at the infallibility of the Pope." He announced that he was "discovering [his] body" through running. By running every day, "whole new worlds were opening up for him: emotional, intellectual, and spiritual."
A New Career, A New Life
Georgeís life changed forever when the local newspaper, The Red Bank Register, offered to pay his way to the Mexico City Olympics and publish his commentary. "Two weeks later he returned ebullient and smiling," Andrew writes. He could "barely contain his excitement."
"Mexico was the living embodiment of everything he had been talking about in theory, his ideas of sport and human potential made flesh," Andrew writes. "Each competitor had lived up to his or her potential, and to my father, that became the important thing Ė not necessarily the winning."
The Register was so impressed with his work that they offered him the opportunity to write a weekly column "about running and fitness." Andrew says, "I believe my mother must have felt my father slipping away, and his search beyond his family, his medical practice, and his church must have frightened her." She encouraged him anyway. "You have something to say," she told him. "You should say it."
He agreed to write the column. Andrew believes it was the first column of its kind in the whole country. "It launched him on a new career."
The column started George on a new life, says Andrew, but one that would "eventually exclude" his wife and family. "I began to realize that I stood in the way of him and whatever he was focused on. I had become a bother, an obligation, an obstacle."
The rest, as they say, is history. George Sheehanís book Running & Being rose to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. His column became the centerpiece of Runnerís World magazine. He was featured in People magazine and appeared on the Tonight show. Along with Jim Fixx and Ken Cooper, he spurred the running boom of the Ď70s.
As Andrew Sheehanís book details, like many of the rest of us, his father was a flawed man. Nevertheless, George Sheehan helped millions of people find new meaning in running and exercise, a better, more fulfilling life. Among other things, he helped me understand the critical importance of challenge, that happiness is found in striving toward a meaningful goal.
Andrew Sheehan has written a brilliant and insightful book I want to leave you hungry to know more Ė good and bad, and thereís plenty of both -- about Andrew and his restless, ever-searching philosopher father. Itís time for me to stop and reflect on something that came home to me with special force as I read Chasing the Hawk.
I am so thankful for my own father, who died 15 years ago last month. My family beat George Sheehan by several generations when it came to doctoring. My father, my grandfather and my great grandfather were all medical doctors. I was named after my grandfather, who was killed in an automobile accident the year before I was born.
There was never any doubt in my mind that my father would have liked for me to become a doctor. He used to take me with him when he made rounds at the hospital. He even took me into the operating room one time to watch him perform surgery. The stood me up on a stool so that I could see; I almost fell off when he made the first cut. But I never really felt pressured to become a doctor.
My father decided that he wanted to be a doctor when he was about six years old. I decided I didnít want to be a doctor at about the same age. Looking back, I believe it was because we had a different perception of the practice of medicine.
My grandfatherís medical office was across the driveway from his home. My father could walk across the lawn and into his fatherís office. His father was always around. He saw the patients come to see his father and go away feeling better. His father was the quintessential country doctor. Everyone looked up to him; in fact, he was once the mayor of the small town where my father was raised.
Iím sure patients felt the same about my father as they did about my grandfather, but I didnít have a front row seat on his practice. When I was little, my father was gone before I got up in the morning and usually arrived home after my mother had put me to bed. He was so busy doctoring that I rarely saw him. To a little kid like me, doctoring didnít seem like such a good thing. I believe thatís why I decided early on that I didnít want to carry on the family tradition.
My father instilled in me the importance of getting a good education Ė he told me, as his father had told him, that education is something that no one can take away from you. But he let me go my own way. When I showed an interest in weightlifting, he encouraged and supported me. He equipped the storage room next to our garage with everything I needed to train for competition. In the years that followed, he took me to weightlifting competitions all over the country.
When I decided to break the mold and become a lawyer, he encouraged me there as well. When I was having difficulty during the first semester of law school, he encouraged me to stick it out a while longer, but made it clear that it would okay if I eventually decided law wasnít for me and decided to pursue something else. He was clearly delighted when, several semesters later, I moved from near the bottom to the top of my law school class.
He always supported me in everything I did. When I continued lifting after law school, it was fine with him. He enjoyed telling people about my accomplishments in Olympic lifting and bodybuilding. When I started writing books about bodybuilding and fitness, he continued to encourage me.
Iím sure he had his doubts when I cut back my law practice to spend more time working in fitness; in fact, he told me so, but he never made a fuss.
Unlike George Sheehanís father, my father never made me feel that I was expected to follow in his footsteps.
Sheehan, in remarks to the 300 family and guests at what he good-naturedly called "the last supper," his farewell dinner shortly before his death, said this about parenting: "I think as parents .. we have to give our children the freedom, and the experience, and the education to [be what] they were born to be."
According to Andrew, it took George Sheehan a lifetime to come to that conclusion. My father seemed to know it from the start. I believe he learned it from his father, who he called "the best dad that ever lived." He was always there for me, once I was old enough that we could talk, no matter how busy he was. He was the best listener I ever knew, and the best at holding his tongue, when Iím sure he wanted badly to steer me in a different direction. He believed people must be allowed to make their own mistakes.
As I wrote in the dedication of my first book, Ripped, and again on the occasion of his death, my father "encouraged me always."
Chasing the Hawk is available from Amazon.com, and probably from your local bookstore as well.
Ripped Enterprises, 528 Chama, N.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico 87108, Phone: (505) 266-5858, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, FAX: (505) 266-9123
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