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ANOTHER GEORGE SHEEHAN, CLASSIC

George1

redbankgreen called George Sheehan Jr. a couple of Saturdays ago to find out what he was up to. First words out of his mouth: “I’m in my underwear getting ready to change into my shorts for a run.”

Well, thanks for putting that picture into our heads, George.

So why bring it up? Not to ruin your breakfast, or Sheehan’s, but because on reflection, it seems fitting here. Sheehan, you see, is a running pioneer of sorts, one old enough to have been derided as a “man in his underwear” when he did his training runs in the 1960s. And thanks to men and women like Sheehan who shrugged off such taunts, millions of people could later run through the streets of America without hearing any snide comments about underwear.

Some 2,500 or so such folks are expected to do just that at Saturday’s George Sheehan Classic.

Of course, it must be said that the race is named for the late Dr. George Sheehan, the “Running Doc,” a trailblazing and best-selling writer on the sport. He deserves more credit for turning fitness jogging and running into something of a mania in the latter decades of the 20th century than his eldest son—or just about anyone, really. And for all his aplomb with a self-deprecating narrative, George the Younger is a reluctant interview subject, one who tried repeatedly to deflect our attention to his 11 siblings, several of whom, like him, will run the five-mile race Saturday morning.

But George Jr. (he’s actually George III) has these attributes going for him: he spent the first five years of his life in Red Bank, grew up in Rumson, and again lives Red Bank. He’s had a series of jobs in bars and stores hereabouts, and now drives a cab in Red Bank. He laments the absence of Prown’s (though he was pleased to find an alarm clock at the Rite-Aid on Water Street). And, most important, he blurts out that he’s in his drawers when that’s really not what you want to hear. Thus, he’s redbankgreen material.

So redbankgreen caught up with Sheehan that afternoon over a beer at the Globe, where he talked about life as the co-eldest child of Doc and Mary Jane Sheehan (he’s got a twin sister); his time at Christian Brothers Academy, which his father helped found; and “Dad,” a cardiologist who once put a corpse in the waiting room after a patient died in the physician’s home office. “People thought he was asleep,” Sheehan says of the deceased.

Mostly, though, Sheehan unspooled about running.

He says his father pulled him out of class one day in the spring of 1958—young George was in the eighth grade—and took him to the Penn Relays at “historic Franklin Field” in Philly, the first of several such events that made him realize, he says, “that this was going to be my sport.” At Manhattan College, his father’s alma mater, he ran cross-country and track distances up to three miles. “I think the records in my categories were a little weak, but I managed to erase them,” he says. “I never had any speed or kick, but I could chase people.” (Sheehan and his father, who died in 1993, are the only father-son pair in MC’s athlete’s hall of fame.)

Sheehan spent some years as his prolific father’s business assistant, and later worked as a bartender and running-shoe salesman. For the past four years, he’s been driving a cab when not out golfing or running.

Now 61 years old and never married, he still goes to the Penn Relays each year for three days of scoping out young talent and catching up with old friends. Three years ago, though, the excursion took an unexpected turn.

He had gone to Philly as a spectator, and had no running shorts with him, but somehow got roped into running the anchor leg in the 50-and-over four-by-four relay for the Shore AC Running Club at literally the eleventh hour when they desperately needed a body. And no, this is not a man-in-his-underwear tale.

“I had my training shoes and black socks,” Sheehan says. “They threw me a shirt and shorts.” After changing, he joined his sudden teammates, “a ragamuffin Iraqi army” of doomed runners. As he emerged from the stadium tunnel into the track, Sheehan—who had not trained for this kind of thing—saw he’d be running his leg against a guy who “was built like Michael Johnson.” And soon after the race got underway, it was clear that this army was in for Gulf War-style humiliation; well before Sheehan took the baton, his crew was trailing badly.

“So there I was, no warm-up, in black socks, our team almost 400 yards behind the leaders, and the announcer comes on and says: ‘And… in this race… the Shore AC “B” team will be anchored by… GEORGE… SHEEHAN… JUNIOR!’” He pauses. “It was like that Woody Allen movie where he goes to buy a copy of Playboy, and the guy at the register shouts out, ‘HEY, HOW MUCH FOR PLAYBOY?’”

Still, his team was so far out of competition that all Sheehan had to do was get across the finish line to salvage his dignity. And he ran his first 200 meters in a respectable (for the circumstances) 35 seconds, but then fell apart, struggling simply to finish the 400 in 89 seconds, after which he collapsed, completely drained.

“I realized I had hit bottom,” he says, laughing. “I knew I was a fraud.”

Still, he trains, and sets goals for himself, allowing himself wiggle room on his target finish times. “It’s like the perfect crime,” he says of training. “I like the planning aspect of it.” Lately, he’s been preparing for the race that was born in 1981 as the Asbury Park 10K but renamed for “Dad” in 1994, when it moved to Red Bank.

After the race, the 12 Sheehan brothers and sisters, ranging down in age to 44, will gather for a family reunion.

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