Something that has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, certainly since my high school and college days, is actually a pretty special talent. But I didn’t know this until I met Dr. George Sheehan in my late 20s.
To be honest, I never “met” Dr. Sheehan in the traditional sense. But from reading, and re-reading his books, I feel as close to him as anyone I’ve ever encountered.
Dr. Sheehan came into my life when I was 27 years old. I had been playing tennis for a few years by then, but, inspired by my friend Mike Caputo, decided I needed to add running to my exercise routine. What did the trick, I think, was the night I was working late at the newspaper office and Mike dropped by to say hello. He was in the middle of a 5-mile run. It was 10 p.m. And winter. Mike’s beard was caked with ice. But he never looked happier. I needed to find out why.
When I told Mike I was planning to, literally, follow in his footsteps, he gave me a book: “Dr. Sheehan on Running.” It was all I needed, not only to get started, but to keep going. A cardiologist, Dr. George Sheehan was one of the initial proponents of running as a means of preventing heart disease. He was 55 when he wrote his first book on the topic and already had set the world’s record for the mile (4 minutes, 47 seconds) for a runner over 50.
Dr. Sheehan was as much a philosopher as he was a doctor and a runner. I found his second book, “Running & Being,” life changing. I quote it frequently and have given it as a gift several times.
His observations are interwoven into the fabric of my life. “The mind’s first step to self-awareness must be through the body.” And, “Exercise is done against one’s wishes, and maintained because the opposite is worse.” And, “Success means having the courage, the determination and the will to become the person you believe you were meant to be.”
And, perhaps my favorite, “Happiness is different from pleasure. Happiness has something to do with struggling and enduring and accomplishing.”
But it was Dr. Sheehan’s comments on another topic that told me I had been onto something important to my well-being all my life, even though I didn’t know it.
I’m talking about napping. Or as Dr. Sheehan puts it, “The Fine Art of Napping.”
In an article published in the Chicago Tribune in 1987, Dr. Sheehan lists three rules for being healthy. He was 69 years old and had just been diagnosed with prostate cancer that had spread to his bones.
He had run more than 60 marathons by then. He did not start running until he was 45 years old and wound up running 21 consecutive Boston Marathons. He ran his fastest marathon, around 3 hours flat, at age 70.
Dr. Sheehan’s first two rules offer no surprise. No. 1 is, “Exercise to the limits of your endurance.” In other words, don’t overdo it. No. 2 is, “Don’t eat fat.” Dr. Sheehan was a proponent of whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
But No. 3 is somewhat of a shocker. “Take naps,” Dr. Sheehan recommends.
“Sheehan is a big believer in catnaps,” Karyn Snead writes in that Chicago Tribune article. “He maintains that modern biofeedback, stress management and Transcendental Meditation are just complicated ways of simulating the relaxation the brain experiences during sleep. So, asks Sheehan, why not just nap?”
My dad was alive when I discovered Dr. Sheehan’s praise of napping and I had to read it aloud to him. My dad marveled at my napping genius. Often in high school or college, I’d say to him, “I’m going to take a quick nap. If I’m not up in 10 minutes, wake me.” I’d be sound asleep in seconds, and as he watched the clock hit the 10-minute mark, my eyes would open. Rarely, if ever, did he have to wake me.
Rejuvenating myself with a 10-minute snooze was always a way of life for me. I’d done it at rest stops along highways, on the floor of my office, and just a little while ago before starting to write this. But until Dr. Sheehan, I never knew what a favor I was doing for my body and my mind. Not to mention, how lucky I am. Not everyone, I’ve discovered, has mastered the 10-minute nap.
Dr. Sheehan kept running right until cancer claimed him in 1993. He was 75.
For more than 30 years I have shared his position on “The Fine Art of Napping” with my college students. If you need a nap, I tell them, by all means take a nap. And take it without guilt. Embrace that nap with everything you have.
“That’s right,” one of them said. “Nap the hell out of that nap.”
Dr. Sheehan could not have put it better. But, from all I’ve read about him, he probably would have said “heck.”
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week for Greater Pittston Progress. Look for his blogs during the week at pittstonprogress.com.