ONCE A RUNNER
By John L. Parker, Jr.
304 pp. Scribner. $17.00.
As “Once a Runner” is regularly heralded as the greatest piece of running fiction ever produced (and I am, of course, a runner), the novel naturally held a reservation on my “to-do” list. Written in 1978, Parker’s Afterword acknowledges that some elements of “Once a Runner” harken to an earlier time (1960’s, Vietnam era). Objectively, I found it’s theme entrenched in it. Tones of the segregated, dim-witted South, the political connotations of that long ago era, and it’s resulting protester’s mentality, all run rampant. Personally, I don’t favor time spent dwelling on this unfavorable chapter in our country’s history. However, more specifically, Parker’s running discourse works for any time.
This is the story of hero runner Quenton Cassidy, attending (Florida-based) Southeastern University. A miler at heart and member of the track team, as Cassidy’s star is on the rise he’s taken under the wing of Olympic medalist Bruce Denton. Cassidy’s political ambitions then go awry when his protest of the university’s crackdown on the student body’s liberal ways results in his expulsion. With Denton’s assistance, Cassidy secludes himself in a remote cabin, focusing singularly on running with the goal of beating the greatest miler in the world (New Zealand’s John Walton) in the upcoming Southeastern Relays. However, the expelled Cassidy must first find a way to gain entry to the race…
Torturously, it takes a significant portion of the novel to establish the characters. Further, Parker’s excessive descriptions of events as well as Cassidy’s deep thoughts left me frustrated (prepare for tedious talk of Cassidy’s “demons”). Also, criticism for Parker’s promotion of excessive training (blood in urine), and condescension of the common runner (anyone not approaching 4 minute mile range), is warranted.
Clearly, Parker (a former track team member for the Florida University Gators and 4:06 miler) know’s the running subject. The novel has a cult following. Apparently, you can regularly find “Quenton Cassidy” registrations at races across the country. Perhaps you’ve seen or heard the phrase: “The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials”? It’s origin traces to “Once a Runner”. “You don’t become a runner by winning a morning workout. The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years.” Personally, a favorite addendum to the novel involves Parker’s efforts to sell it. Publishers initially wanted nothing to do with it. Parker’s response was to start his own publishing house and print 5,000 copies, selling it at races, and making deliveries to book and run stores (asking only that they repay him for copies sold).
Google “Once a Runner” and you’ll find fast evidence of it’s fan allegiance (over 100,000 copies sold). The tale does improve after a slow start (I’m glad I didn’t give up on it). Again, Parker’s knowledgeable discussion of running grants it at least a satisfactory status (you know, like pizza, even when it’s bad it’s pretty good). Perhaps the concept of a fictional run-based read has something to do with my trepidation. What I mean is, aren’t most runners constantly striving to learn and improve our run abilities? Personally, that has me seeking more teachings in the form of truth (i.e., non-fiction). It’s this line of virtuous thinking that’s holds my allegiance and is likely why I’m humored by the novel’s dramatic conclusion. It revolves around an instance of “banditing” and attempts to paint it in a noble sense.
#DidYouKnow courtesy “Once a Runner”: In case you align yourself with the cult of “Once a Runner” devotees, the novel spawned a sequel “Again to Carthage” (2008), as well as a prequel “Racing the Rain” (2015).