Once a Runner: Book Review

March 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

I just finished reading Once a Runner by John L. Parker. This book is notorious among runners for it’s status as a cult classic, a guidebook, a diary of a fictional running hero. The book began circulating in 1978 when the author, John L. Parker sold it at races out of the trunk of his car. In preparing for my upcoming marathon I thought it seemed like appropriate, and maybe even motivating reading material.

Once a Runner is the story of collegiate runner Quenton Cassidy and his “Trial of Miles” which leads to his ultimate goal of running the mile in under 4:00 minutes. That’s right, I said run a mile in less than 4 minutes. After realizing my limited exposure to the track and field end of running, this book illustrated that there is much more to being a runner than completing a distance race.

The initial tone of the book was a little off putting at first. As a new runner, running a mile in under 8 minutes seems like a major achievement to me. But passages like this promptly put me in my place :

At paces that might stun and dismay the religious jogger, the runners easily kept up all matter of chatter and horseplay. When they occasionally blew by a huffing fatty or an aging road runner, they automatically toned down the banter to avoid overwhelming, to preclude the appearance of showboating (not that they showed it in the slightest). They in fact respected these distant cousins of the spirit, who, among all people, had some modicum of insight into their own milieu. But the runners resembled them only in the sense that a puma resembles a pussycat. It is the difference between stretching lazily on the carpet and prowling the jungle for fresh red meat.

I nearly cried when I read this. Running for me is emotional, and despite the fact that I know I am a new runner, reading this paragraph made me feel like I’d just been kicked out of a club that I so proudly sought to represent. Although, I regained my pride in my personal running capabilities and turned the pages looking for further insight into the mindset of a serious runner.

The bulk of the story takes place at a fictional Southeastern University, and growing up in Florida myself, I couldn’t help but notice how similar the scenery and school politics reminded me of the University of Florida. Come to find out, the book really was based on the UF track team.

Throughout the story you gain some interesting perspective into the mind of a professional runner and are introduced to the will and determination it takes to achieve greatness in such a physically and mentally demanding sport. More than anything I appreciated Cassidy’s mental narratives which pick up near the end of the book as he nearly goes insane while living in isolation in a country cabin owned by his former Olympian coach, in order to train for a race he isn’t even allowed to race in.

There were times in the beginning where the book really slowed down and got kind of mucky. It seemed to me that some of the backstory that involved the school and its administrators was really unnecessary to the main plot. Honestly I didn’t really start to enjoy it until about the 25th chapter.  But it did give me some of the running motivation I had hoped for. I know I will never be a speedy runner. For now running is still fairly new to me, and I get plenty of satisfaction out of knowing that I have the mental wherewithal to run long distances. I do though have a new respect for all those runners out there who dedicate themselves to the pursuit of speed.

Once a Runner has a sequel that was published in 2007 named Again to Carthage. I plan on reading it too, because despite my initial disdain for the tone that left me feeling kicked out of the runners club – reading about athletes accomplishing feats I could never dream of might just push me to cross that marathon finish line in one piece and maybe even one day run a 7 minute mile.


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