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 Once A Runner: A Must-Read Running Novel
Submitted by Rickshaw :: Mon Dec 06, 2004 5:14 pm
How often do you hear about someone borrowing a friend's book, then later buying their own copy because they liked it so much? Or a book so treasured that it gets passed from friend to friend until it simply falls apart from so many readings? It’s not often that you hear a running novel described as “so good, people will steal it,” but John L. Parker’s Once a Runner is such a book. In the universe of running fiction, this popular favorite stands out clearly as the best of the best, and is a must-read for any serious runner.

Parker’s novel is in parts humorous, sad, and inspirational. It relates the experiences of collegiate miler Quenton Cassidy during his senior year on the university cross country and track teams. Through stories of Cassidy’s grueling training and off-track antics, the reader gains an insight into the often conflicted world of the serious runner. When a former Olympian takes Cassidy under his wing, his world changes and he commits himself to reaching the absolute peak of his athletic potential. Through the brutal “trial of miles”, he learns what it means to be a true runner. Describing the roots of his motivation, Cassidy explains:

"…we can all be good boys and wear our letter sweaters around and get our little degrees and find some nice girl to settle, you know, down with... Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the heart of mediocre talent everywhere! We can scald dogs, put records out of reach! Make the stands gasp as we blow into an unearthly kick from three hundred yards out! We can become God's own messengers delivering the dreaded scrolls! We can race black Satan himself till he wheezes fiery cinders down the back straightaway...They'll speak our names in hushed tones, 'those guys are animals' they'll say! We can lay it on the line, bust a gut, show them a clean pair of heels. We can sprint the turn on a spring breeze and feel the winter leave our feet! We can, by God, let our demons loose and just wail on!"

What sets this book apart from others are Parker’s vivid and compelling descriptions of what it means to run at the very edge of one’s physical limits. As Olympic marathoner and author Don Kardong puts it, “Parker has shown an ability to find that vein that runners have within them, and write about it better than anyone ever has.” His deeply accurate portrayal of the world of a serious runner will be instantly recognized and appreciated by runners at all levels. A passage from one of Cassidy’s early races provides a feel for Parker’s writing style:

“The gun went off as they banked into the penultimate turn. By now Cassidy had pulled back to within ten yards of the flying Texan. With growing confidence he crept steadily up to Ellison’s shoulder, using the entire far straight to do it, but feeling—though fatigued from the pace—that he had spirit left. He had gotten out of the jam by responding immediately to Ellison’s bid and he seemed to have something left to throw to it. He was excited and just as curious as the spectators to find out what was going to happen. The crowd, on its feet since the crack of the gun, didn’t seem to care who won. They just wanted a race.

The excitement of the approaching finish yarn, as always, caused a little prickly feeling at the back of his neck. Cassidy started to pass on the final turn, but just as he pulled up and began the effort, he heard Denton through the din: ‘NO!’ That was all he said. This time Cassidy heard.

He hung on Ellison’s shoulder all through the tiny turn and with a gasp flung himself out and into the final straight. Ellison was not finished either; he pumped smoothly and leaned into his final sprint. But Quenton Cassidy was by far the faster kicker. He easily gained seven yards on Ellison in the last straight. From the crowd came a subdued roar that signified the anti-climax. Denton jumped up onto the track and trotted up to where Cassidy was bent over in the familiar gasping position.

‘Don’t grab the knees, boy,’ he shouted above the din. ‘Here are your sweats, get’em on. But don’t you grab those knees though because you got to run a little of that off. You have just become the Wannamaker Mile champion and you got to let them know…

Cassidy’s face was the old fire engine color and his breathing still desperate.

‘Know. What?’ He tried to jog, but it felt as if his spine were made of bamboo. Nothing worked properly, lactic acid bound him into a solid block. He could not swing his arms.

‘That it feels GOOOOD!’ Denton seemed much happier at the moment than his young friend.”

Although it’s a work of fiction, Parker’s novel is also an excellent source of training inspiration and wisdom. There are certain deeply probing questions that all athletes ask themselves at times, and through Cassidy, Parker explains the answers he has found.

In recent years, Once a Runner went through several periods where it was out of print. Because demand for the book remained high, it became so scarce that used copies sold for $50 or more. The more recent printing went on sale in 2003 and helped alleviate the shortage. However, it’s already becoming difficult to find again, and is out of stock at many larger bookstores such as currently has copies in stock.

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