Chasing the Hawk
by Greg Hitchcock 1.16.03

Chasing the Hawk recently came out in paperback—it was originally published in late 2001. It is a book by George Sheehan's son Andrew.

I cringed when I picked it up to read, wondering if I was in for another child-of-a-celebrity (and a small celebrity at that) telling all of the celebrity's dirty secrets and blaming all of the child's problems on the parent. Instead, it is a meaningful bit of literature, a book that could have been a good novel were it not a good biography.

For those who do not know, Dr. George Sheehan was the most popular running writer of the 1970s and most of the 1980s. He was a popular figure in the midst of the running boom. His regular column in Runner's World and his books such as Running and Being dealt as much with the spiritual side of running as the nuts and bolts.

And that is just as well, because when it comes to the nuts and bolts, George's advice could be nothing but nuts. For example, in Chasing the Hawk Andrew describes—when he was a freshman or sophomore in high school and had just run well in an early season mile—his father urged him to come along with him to run in the Boston Marathon. I would add that the father might as well have provided him with a six-pack of beer and an escort of the fairer sex, except I don't think beer and women would do near the damage to a young runner that a mid-track-season marathon would. So much for the early promise of Andrew's running.

As it turned out, beer and women did become a problem for Andrew. These problems had several causes: his father's examples; emptiness from an oft-absent father; and plain old weakness of character. Running was the one way Andrew could connect with his father.

"I had always chased my father, chased after his love, chased him through his many changes. I chased him even when I thought I was running in the other direction. Today, even though he is gone, I chase him still. I know he is the key to my freedom."

While his father found meaning in running and his celebrity, he also neglected his duties to his family. He cheated on his wife and then moved out altogether. He was away most weekends as a guest speaker at races and conventions. He worked late to write his articles and books. And he was a medical doctor, a position that alone can lead to neglect of family.

George was known as the poet or philosopher of running. But a philosopher is one who creates a new approach for living. And a poet is one who gives us an original way of looking at the world and our place in it. George studied philosophers and poets, and borrowed heavily from their teachings and related the best of what he found to the world of the serious runner. In that he was inspirational and educational, but he does not rank a poet or even a philosopher.

At the time he wrote, I was a highly competitive runner and could not stand still 10 seconds for the drivel George wrote. Here is a fair sampling from one of his essays:

"Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset wrote, 'The hero is someone in continual opposition to the status quo. The hero is always becoming himself.' As I stood on the starting line at the Marine Corps Marathon I was surrounded by such people—no longer satisfied with the status quo, desperately involved in the heroic project of becoming themselves. They had been their own drill sergeants through the self-imposed boot camp of marathon training. They were raw recruits, now fashioned into warriors. Common variety human beings, ready to take on the most grueling challenge devised by man.

"I do not exaggerate. World-class runners approach the marathon with trepidation. Olympians fail to finish. Record holders collapse. This contest has consequences in pain and exhaustion unrivaled in sport. And all the more so because this agony is self-inflicted. The end of the marathon—and the end of heroism—is always just one step away. You can stop anytime you like."

But now that I am middle-aged it sounds pretty good. And to hundreds of thousands of runners is sounded pretty good throughout Sheehan's two-decade heyday.

Back in the family home with 12 children, it looked more like the eloquent runner was trying to escape a crushing responsibility. As Sheehan gained prominence, he dropped his family and Catholic roots.

Andrew escaped his responsibilities as well. He gave only a modest attempt to his high school running career, and then set out on his own self-discovery. This led to embarrassing moments of drunkenness and failed relationships. He managed to push forward a career in journalism in fits and starts.

One day he hit bottom and saw he would fail those who cared for him, much as his father had. He returned to the principles that had informed his early years, found love, lost alcohol and became an adult.

At this time his father contracted cancer. George returned home and discovered that he too had run full circle. He rediscovered that a bedrock principle was indeed found in the love of a family. The question of whether we run to live or live to run altered for George as he reconnected with those that mattered most.

Frank McCourt said of Chasing the Hawk:

"This book is so profound and moving that it would bring tears to a statue. Sheehan is a man who drank and sank and resurfaced to find and finally embrace his distant, dying father. A triumphant love story with victory over alcohol, over anger, over depression, over self. This book is for those who have loved and lost and for those who have loved and won."

If you enjoyed George Sheehan’s writing about our sport, you may enjoy seeing a more complete picture of his life. But you don’t have to have loved George Sheehan to love this book. Nor do you have to love running. This book stands as a very good read for anyone with a heart.