Thursday, January 21, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: Once A Runner

A couple of weeks ago, as I was trolling through the ZombieRunner site I noticed they’re carrying John L. Parker's classic book, "Once A Runner". This is a book I've been dying to read, but because it's been out of print, I've had to settle for reading about the book, including its history- which is compelling in itself.

It seems the hardest part for Parker wasn’t writing the book, but publishing it. After multiple rejections, Parker founded his own company and printed off 5,000 copies. He sold the book at road races out of the trunk of his car.

The book eventually found its way into the hands of high school, college, and postgraduate athletes all over the country. Reading it became a rite of passage on many teams, and tattered copies were handed down like sacred texts from generation to generation. It has become one of the most beloved sports novels ever written. Anything supported for 30 years by "word of mouth" has to be special.

Gradually, through word of mouth, demand outweighed supply – and although he eventually printed off 100,000 copies, "Once A Runner" became one of the hardest-to-find books in America. It remained out-of-print and unavailable for less than $75 on-line. According to Bookfinder, the novel was the most-searched for out-of-print fiction or literature book for 2007 and 2008. All of that changed in April, however, when Scribner re-printed the novel.

Delighted to get my hands on a copy, I devoured the book within days. Even as I was turning the pages at break neck speed, I was aware I would be re-reading it from cover to cover the moment I was done.

As someone who ran competitively in high school and college (briefly), this book really nails the experience on the head. Parker knows what he’s writing about because it’s partly autobiographical. He ran at the University of Florida, and later with American Olympians Frank Shorter and Jack Bachelor at Florida Track Club.

The plot centers on Quenton Cassidy, a fictional miler at Southeastern University in Florida. Cassidy is on a quest to run a sub-4 minute mile, but his goal is jeopardized when he is suspended from athletics after butting heads with the University’s administration. However, (fictional) former-running great Bruce Denton takes the athlete under his wing and the duo continue to train and race. Parker describes Quenton’s twice-a-day training, bottomless pit hunger, and social sacrifices in a way that both competitive and recreational runners can relate to. For example, Quenton first shatters the all-important four-minute mile not in a race but during a random training session—"Just another goddamn workout."

This being a sports novel, there is a BIG RACE at the end where EVERYTHING is on the line. But the true climax of the book is captured in one of Quenton's workouts in preparation for the race, an interval session requiring 60 quarter-miles (for those of you who've done quarters workouts, no, that's not a typo). Denton forces Quenton to run the final 20 alone: "I know you can do this thing because I once did it myself," Denton tells him. "When it was over I knew some very important things." And thus it is after the workout, and not the race, that Quenton achieves true self-knowledge.

Critics have charged Parker’s book with being elitist and exclusive. That may be true, but I think runners of all abilities will find they can relate to the book in some small way. Running is essentially a solitary sport – what you do or don’t do is up to you. The only person to congratulate or berate on race day is yourself. Whether you’re training for a sub-4 minute mile or your first 5K, I think that lesson will resonate. This book left me with a desire to train harder and run faster, even if my mile PR is minutes slower than the Cassidy’s.

I have to admit, a part of me wishes the novel had stayed out-of-print. Not everyone is up for the running life, and not everyone should be able to get their hands on this book. It should take effort, whether that means borrowing (or stealing) it from someone or saving up $77.98. Once a Runner's portrait of running may very well smack of elitism, but it is a democratic elitism: Not everyone can be a runner, but a runner can come from anywhere.


  1. ..and not everyone stays a runner... it is a verb, just like love.