Last night I finished reading Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr. I reached a point around midnight where I had to commit to breezing through the last forty pages or save it for the next day, and of course I chose the former. It’s the type of book that ends on an extreme adrenaline high, one of the few books I’ve ever read that accurately captures the action of an athletic event. (So, of course, getting to sleep after that was fun.)
Once a Runner was something of a cult classic among runners, originally written in 1978 and sold out of the trunk of Parker’s car at road races. When I was a teenager, still at the height of my running career, it was still incredibly difficult to get a copy. It was in-between printing, or maybe it was before Scribner reissued the book. The book became a thing of legend, something passed down from coaches to runners, but it was never passed down to me. I asked my parents’ for it for Christmas, but of course they couldn’t find a copy for less than a hundred dollars.
I don’t know what would have happened if I had read this book at seventeen. I definitely don’t think I would have noticed the book’s flaws quite so much at that age. Maybe I would have dropped everything and started writing! Or maybe I would have gone out and tried to do something crazy, like sixty quarter-mile repeats. I know I would have loved it, either way.
My stance on it now is this: it’s certainly not the greatest novel ever written. The plot is a bit clunky and hokey, the prose is often a bit overdone, and there are some cheap tricks in terms of POV and narration that, by principle, turn me off. But it might just be the best book about running I’v ever read. Parker captures the training of a distance runner, the camaraderie of a distance runners, the complex relationship they have with pain. He uses the concepts “demons” and “the orb” to explain, perhaps as best as it can be explained, what drives someone like Cassidy to take on an obsession so seemingly joyless and grim. Parker is there to record the moments of poetry that come on a run, the anxiety, the doubt, the guilt. He writes races very well. He writes about what it means to be an elite runner, and he writes about it accurately, and that is enough for me to overlook the novel’s other flaws.
Normally I post a single quote from the books I read, but there are too many in Once a Runner that hit me hard, that made me miss the insanity of high mileage. So here are a few beautiful quotes:
Cassidy, when asked, “What’s the point?”
"It’s a simply choice: 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…take up what a friend of ours calls the hearty challenges of lawn care…Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the heart of mediocre talent everywhere! We can scaled 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 dark Satan 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!”
On gauging distance and energy in a race
"A runner is a miser, spending the pennies of his energy with great stinginess, constantly wanting to know how much he has spend and how much longer he will be expected to pay. He wants to be broke at precisely the moment he no longer needs his coin."
The end of a very long, very beautiful passage on how a “true” competitive runner endures pain
"The true competitive runner, simmering in his own existential juices, endured his melancholia the only way he knew how: gently, together with those few others who also endured it, yet very much alone. He ran because it grounded him in basics. There was both life and death in it; it was unadulterated by media hype, trivial cares, political meddling. He suspected it kept him from that most real variety of schizophrenia that the republic was then sprouting like mushrooms on a stump.
Running to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free.”
Cassidy in the first set of his interval workout
"They began. The first two or three always seemed somehow especially bad. Actually that was misleading. They seemed sluggish because the body was shocked by such a sudden demand for sustained speed. The heart rate shot up to the hummingbird levels it would have to maintain for some time. The legs became prematurely heavy, and the central nervous system sent up the message that such punishment cannot be endured. But the central nervous system is overridden, of course, the runner knowing far better by now than his own synapses what his body can and cannot be expected to do. The runner deals nearly deadly in such absolutes of physical limitations that the nonrunner confronts only in dire situations. Fleeing from an armed killer or deadly animal, a layman will soon find the frightening limits that even stark terror will not overcome. The runner knows such boundaries like he knows the sidewalks of his own neighborhoods."
Cassidy in the last set of his interval workout
"All of this availed Quenton Cassidy not at all. His deeply ingrained conditioning and his mahogany-hard legs merely allowed I’m to push himself that much more. He had the mental ability to literally run himself right into the ground like Sambo’s tiger: He knew that Bruce Denton expected him to do exactly that, and, just as each repetition made the next seem more and more impossible, he knew that without question he would do it. There was no refuge in injury, his body could not be injured in this way. There was no refuge in mercy, there was nothing to forgive and no one to issue dispensation. And at last he saw: there was no refuge in cowardice, because he was not afraid. There was no alternative, it just had to be done.”
Cassidy on the night before his final race
"Cassidy walked on past the finish line, across which someone would hold the taut yarn and blink as the runners flashed by. IT was sell more than twenty-four hours away, but standing there in the calm anonymous night five yards past the familiar white post, Quentin Cassidy knew at that instant the depth of his frenzied yearning to feel the soft white strand weaken and separate against his heaving chest.
The demons were now in control; it no longer made him afraid.”
Just before the race
"Cassidy’s heart tried to leap out through his thin taut skin and hop into his wet hands. But outwardly it was all very calm, very serene, just as alway,s and it seemed to last a tiny forever, just like that, a snapshot of them all there on the curved parabola of a starting line eight giant hearts attached to eight pairs or bellows like lungs mounted on eight pairs of supercharged stilts. They were poised there on the edge of some howling vortex they had run ten thousand miles to get to. Now they had to run one more."