Becoming a Good Animal

In 1993, I ran my first New York City Marathon. Back then, I was a frightened 20 year-old trying to prove to myself that I had the guts to complete the famous 26.2 mile event. I did so in unspectacular fashion, finishing in a respectable time under 4 hours with sore feet and a huge sense of accomplishment. Since then, I’ve run over 40 marathons worldwide and the lessons it has taught me continue to inform my life and coaching practice.

That same year, I became acquainted with Dr. George Sheehan through his columns and books. Though he started running relatively late in life (beginning at age 45), he quickly became one of the running movement’s earliest pioneers, and its great philosopher king. “Don’t be concerned if running or exercise will add years to your life,” he used to say. “Be concerned with adding life to your years.”

After medical school and a stint in the navy, Dr. Sheehan became a successful cardiologist. But, as he later confessed, he became “bored” with medicine and was getting “bombed out” every weekend. In his quest for meaning, he went to the Greeks, Emerson, Thoreau, Ortega, and William James. Then he read Ireneus, one of the early church fathers, who wrote, “The glory of God is man fully functioning.” George Sheehan knew he was not fully functioning. He started to run.

He began in his back yard (26 loops to a mile) and then became something of an oddity in Rumson, NJ running along the river road during his lunch hour wearing his white long johns and a ski mask. His new life had begun and its message was soon clear: “Man at any age is still the marvel of the universe.” Five years later, he ran a 4:47 mile, which was the world’s first sub-five-minute time by a 50-year-old. In time, this self-described “loner from Red Bank” became one of the most sought-after experts on health and fitness. His seminal work is Running and Being, which spent over 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and won him many loyal devotees. In this short video, you’ll see some of his philosophy on life and running. Dr. Sheehan was a great proponent of getting back in touch with our inner “animal”, the part of us that likes to run, move and play. “There is no substitute for learning to live in our bodies,” he says. “All the tests and all the machines in the world will fail if we do not first become good animals.” While I’m not competing this Sunday, I’ll be out there cheering on these brave competitors, in what is for me the greatest event in the New York sports calendar. What the marathon shows, and what the good doctor reminds us, is that we all can be good animals, if we allow ourselves. Running may give you a longer life, but what it truly grants us is ourselves, as we were meant to be.