Once a Runner, originally written in 1978 by John Parker, has gained renewed interest in the past few years, ranking #15on the Amazon best-seller list in the Running and Jogging category as of March 28, 2011. It has, as one reviewer put it, become a sort of “cult hit,” likely in line with the ongoing “running boom” spreading through the US and beyond. I was turned on to this book by the passages and summaries shared by Bob Kujawski on dailymile, and read it during my flights on a recent trip to Thailand.
Parker combines his talents as a journalist and a collegiate track star into a gripping and fast-moving chronicle of the journey of fictional Quenton Cassidy. Cassidy is a competitive Division I collegiate runner chasing what seems like the “easy” goal of shaving a few hundredths of a second (<0.5%) off of his mile time to break the 4:00 barrier during his senior season. While this would seem an accomplishment that should happen by mere chance of a favorable field, surface, or weather, the sacrifices Cassidy must make and disciplined life he must follow are inspiring or, for those of a lesser stomach, perhaps discouraging.
Set on the campus of a fictional Southeastern Conference (SEC) school generically named Southeastern University (and based on the University of Florida, which Parker attended), the northern Florida seasons play a big role in not only carrying the timeline of the story but also in setting the mood. It begins with the lingering heat of the fall cross country season, a sport which Cassidy views as a necessary evil on the path to spring glory on the track. The perpetually cloudy and wet winter months bring the indoor season, with draining trips to the frigid Northeast and Midwest providing hot meets and a path to self-discovery. Winter finally melts into the passions of spring, in which life heats up in more ways than one for Cassidy.
The characters that surround Cassidy, from the Olympic-hero-cum-doctorate-student Bruce Denton to the hot-shot freshman Jack Nubbins, may run a bit stereotypical and indicative of the Vietnam War-era times. This is particularly true of Andrea, the girlfriend who represents the emerging independent-thinking college woman despite what might be perceived as an upbringing as a traditional southern belle. These characters do bring color to the story and keep it from being overly sport-focused, perhaps broadening its appeal.
Beyond the anecdotes of college dormitory revelry and rivalry, with pranks and other tales which could provide for a passable book on their own accord, the true inspiration and intensity comes from following along on Cassidy’s training, both physical and mental. Some aspects are of the “don’t try this at home” variety – few if any programs call for an interval workout that results in bloody urine. What stands out is the all-consuming commitment necessary to make the seemingly slight performance gains necessary to advance from college elite to world-class. It is fascinating to follow the deep and profound thinking of young Cassidy as he struggles to cope with the isolation needed to focus exclusively on his training. While it would seem easy to slide over the edge into injury, burnout, or despair, and there are incidences in which Cassidy toes that line, one of the beauties of youth is the ability to continually push back that fringe, something us older runners can’t so casually enjoy.
In conclusion, Once a Runner has aged well, and Parker was either wise or fortunate in avoiding dating the book by too much reference to Vietnam or 1960′s popular culture. While, as Bob Kujawaki warned, you do need to invest a bit in learning the names early, it is otherwise a brisk read that is hard to put down. The book is well-paced with the right balance of intelligent philosophical reflection and on-the-track action. And the end is gripping – I stayed up late after a 2:30AM arrival in Thailand just to finish the story.
I can’t wait to read Parker’s 30-year-later sequel, Again to Carthage. In portraying an older Quenton Cassidy’s quest for the marathon as a path to rediscovery, it would seem to promise even more inspiration for this middle-aged marathoner (sans college track glory). In fact, it is calling from my bag on this flight to Houston right now.