Runners and readers whose connections to the sport date back to the 1970s remember Dr. George Sheehan, the US cardiologist and writer whose essays on the joy of exercise helped spark the running boom. As a columnist for Runner’s World, a best-selling author, and a popular guest speaker who filled auditoriums, Dr. Sheehan became the spokesperson for a generation of runners. No one has ever done more to explain, simply, eloquently, and honestly, the how and the why of a running life. Runners often say that running helped them “find themselves.” For many, George held a lantern. Of course, the sport has continued to boom since his death from cancer in 1993, and many of the runners fuelling this growth are probably unfamiliar with George’s work. But what he had to say about running – about living an active, honorable, fulfilling, authentic life – is more relevant than ever. The following essay is taken from The Essential Sheehan, the definitive survey of 20 years of his magazine columns and books. We hope it inspires you the same way George did when he was alive.– David Willey (RW US Editor-in-Chief), from the foreword to The Essential Sheehan
I was on a radio show discussing exercise with a woman who did not exercise. “The spirit is willing,” she told me, “but the flesh is weak.”
I had, of course, heard the excuse many times before. But for the first time, it occurred to me that the opposite was also true. The flesh is willing; it is the spirit that is most often weak. Our bodies are capable of the most astounding feats. But the horizons of our spirits do not reach beyond the TV, the stereo, and the car in the garage.
The flesh is not only willing; it is eager for action. The flesh is filled with everything our spirit lacks: strength and energy, endurance and stamina. We come from a breed that crossed continents on foot and trekked from pole to pole. Even now, we see busy mothers running marathons, retired executives climbing Everest.
We are of a flesh that asks for more and more challenges, that seeks one frontier after another. What is missing is not physical energy. The fuel is there, waiting to be ignited. We need some spark to light the fires, something to get us into action.
From the moment we wake up in the morning, we cop the plea that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. We lie abed as the alarm clock, the radio, and the family take turns trying to get us up. Still we remain immobile until the last possible minute. Yet how many kilojoules does it take to overcome inertia and get out of bed? Whose bodies are so exhausted that they can’t get their feet on the floor? I can plead that I’m in a semi-coma, not yet ready for co-ordinated action, but similar scenarios recur throughout the day. The body is ready, willing, and able, but the spirit is becalmed. Where there is no emotion, there is no motion either.
What is missing is the spiritual energy called enthusiasm. It is from lack of enthusiasm that the failures of the spirit multiply during the day. When we are enthusiastic, we develop a determination to equal the endurance of our muscles, a fortitude to match the courage of our hearts, and a passion to join with the animal strengths of our bodies.
To succeed at anything, you need passion. You have to be a bit of a fanatic. If you would move anyone to action, you must first be moved yourself. To instigate, said Emerson, you must first be instigated. I am aware of this every time I lecture. For an hour before the talk, I can be seen walking alone, muttering to myself, gradually building myself to a fever pitch so I will find it completely natural to end a talk standing on a table with nothing on but my Levi’s – and with the pants legs rolled to my knees.
But the spirit has more to offer than just this excitement. It gives us the motivation when the excitement is missing. The spirit is what gets us through when everything else fails. As Oxford professor Ralph Johnson points out in his paper “Factors in Human Endurance,” a person’s ability to survive often depends on the qualities of his personality.
The mind-body relationship is particularly striking in the historical accounts of explorers and mountain climbers, people in extreme situations who were stretched to their limits and beyond. The explorer Captain Scott, writing of one of his men, commented, “Browers came through the best. Never was there such a sturdy, active, undefeated man.” Of Scott himself, one of his companions would write, “Scott was the strongest combination of strong man in a strong body that I have ever known – and this because he was weak. He conquered his weaker self and became the strong leader we went to follow and came to love.”
Behind the enthusiasm, behind the inspiration, behind the passion, there must be the will. We can choose. We can decide. We can will to do it our own way, when we want to. When we do, nothing can prevail against us.
Otherwise, we are merely wishing, idle dreamers in the world of the flaccid spirit. We must want something and want it badly – want it with the zeal and passion and enthusiasm of a Don Quixote or a missionary. Then, we will suddenly find ourselves in motion, with a clear focus on our goal. Once moved, the spirit and the flesh are like a matched team of horses, each asking more of the other. Fused by the will for that brief and wonderful moment, the flesh and the spirit become one.
I am – just as you are – a unique, never-to-be-repeated event in this universe. Therefore, I have – just as you have – a unique, never-to-be-repeated role to play in this world. Mine is a personal drama for which I am at once author, actor, director, and producer.
Unfortunately, this perception comes late in life. It was something I knew as a child – not clearly, of course, but nevertheless with certainty. My life as a child was my own. It was filled with the play and invention, the energy and intensity, the humour and intelligence that becoming the person you are demands.
But all too soon, we become members of the herd. We learn herd rules, herd regulations, herd morality, herd ethics. We become part of society. Society must be preserved, so we accept the obligations it imposes.
Others have raised questions about this necessity. “Are we sent here,” asked Thoreau, “to do chores and hold horses?” The answer, says society, is yes. Work has to be done. And if work is not available, then make-work has to be devised. We must be kept busy. The idle mind begins to think, the idle body begins to play, and that is dangerous for the herd.
In such moments, those childlike moments, we may see ourselves as we are and recognise the life we should live. Some happy few have these revelations early. But most of us submit to the herd, with little resistance. We behave docilely until we have fulfilled our obligation to procreate, until we have used our productive years in support of the institutions that keep society on an even keel.
But then what? The 40s (and 50s and 60s) have arrived. The herd no longer needs us, nature no longer protects us, the race no longer cares. We are on our own. We have served our purpose.
What then are the prospects? Wonderful! Perhaps even better than wonderful. We can now return to the play and invention, the energy and intensity, the humour and intelligence we knew as children. The pressures that made us supportive of the herd are dying out. Each of us is feeling the urges that make us different rather than the same. Each of us is sensing the infinite varieties of body and mind, of values and temperament that make us unique.
And with that comes the knowledge that the chores are over. There are no more horses to be held. We know now about the herd. We need no longer be bound by those rules, need no longer act out those roles. Somehow, we will find the strength and the courage and the insight to make our own rules, to act out our own drama.
That is the paradox. In what others consider the twilight years, we will be more than we ever were before. At a time when we are supposed to take to the easy chair and be content with serenity and a large book, we are transformed with energy. We have a vigour and a toughness youth cannot match, and for the first time since our childhood, we know how to play.
Why must this all wait until we are age 40, or older? It need not, I suppose. It just happened that way in my case, but I am a slow learner and a creature of habit. For you, it might be different. Lightning may strike when you are 21 or not until you are 70. Today may be your day to leave the herd.
– DR. GEORGE SHEEHAN, 1980
> Get more of Dr. George Sheehan’s motivational writing, as well as timeless practical advice, in the new book The Essential Sheehan: A Lifetime of Running Wisdom from the Legendary Dr. George Sheehan.