Once a Runner

A book about a collegiate runner… in Florida… of course I had to read it.

I just finished devouring John L. Parker, Jr.’s Once a Runner. I guess there’s something to be said for the fact that the first book I get to write about in this blog is about running. I have been reading Lawrence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman for over a month now, and I read Oscar Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray (though, looking at my MA reading list, I guess I only had to read the first few chapters), but I haven’t gotten around to writing about those two yet. Just finishing Tristram Shandy is a challenge that is waiting to be overcome. It’s a well-written book and hugely funny and thought-provoking, taking in many different aspects of philosophy, religion, science, and politics, but the digressions… more on that later.

This is the original 1978 cover of the novel. It’s a lot like I looked as a collegiate runner, obviously. The room, shoes, and shorts, at least, look familiar.

As for Once a Runner, I’m not sure if I agree with Runner’s World’s praise that it is “the best novel ever written about running,” but it is pretty good. It ends in a way that is to be expected–full of the hard-fought, well-earned single-moment decided success–but it reminds the reader about all the work that goes into being ready for that single race. Of course, a miler is the same as a writer or a successful actor in that all successful people need to dedicate a lot of time to working on their practice before it becomes something that earns them recognition and they reach the top. I was surprised to see the ten-thousand hours of preparation that I thought were Malcolm Gladwell’s in Parker, Jr.’s story-line. I prefer his other way of calling it: the Miles of Trials, or Trial of Miles.

There are surprising things I learned about one-mile runners, but on the whole I just appreciated the ways in which Parker, Jr. expressed that which I have experienced myself, on and off the track. For example,  the description of what Quenton Cassidy (the main character) and his friend go through to “be able to enjoy the day like any other citizen” could be used to describe my own life:

“In order to arrange this day of perfect drifting, an entirely traditional local pastime [referring to inner  tubing on a river], he and Mizner-now floating up ahead with his date-had arisen at 7:30 and run seventeen miles. It was the only way they could spend their day in the sweet haze of Boone’s Farm apple wine and still appease the great white Calendar God whose slighted or empty squares would surely turn up someday to torment the guilt-ridden runner. They went through such contortions to prove to themselves that their lives didn’t have to be so abnormal, but in the process usually just ended up accentuating the fact” (Parker, Jr. 43).

Any one in my family or circle of friends can attest to the fact that this is how runners are, and that I am a runner. Parker, Jr. helps one think about what that means and what striving for a goal, that is both within reach and miles of trial away, means.

Thus, this is a book worthy of reading by runners and non-runners alike; there are excellently drawn-in allusions to political debates at the time, such as the deployment of U.S. soldiers to Vietnam, Cold War communist fear, post-World War II fascist critique (it’s not often you have an American writer point out that there were fascists in the States too), and the beginnings of LGBTQ rights. There’s also a lovely story line with Cassidy and his girlfriend, though a lot of that is to show what it is like to be in-love with a runners… from the runner’s point of view.

One critique I have of the novel is that it is very male-oriented with little development of the few female characters. It is also rather annoyingly framed and interrupted by the story of head coaches, team managers, and southern attitude. I think all these things are interesting and worth writing about, but the two worlds were not as intricately drawn as I would have liked. It was rather superficial the way in which Doobey and Prigman were brought in to show the capitalist or military mentality of southerners and Americans. I did appreciate the subtle critique of America, but this too was merely touched upon… on the other hand, it is a book about running, so likely there wasn’t room for much more than merely touching upon it. I guess I am annoyed that it was touched upon at all, then, since Parker, Jr. does bring it up and they are fairly complex criticisms and worth exploring further.

At any rate, I encourage readers to judge for themselves and to take a look at this book. I bought Once a Runner for less than five dollars on Amazon, and it is a book I don’t mind keeping on my shelf for a very long time.

Now, on to higher-brow (I guess, I think that’s…I may be a bit insecure about what my professors will think of me reading Once a Runner)  literature. The fact that I was able to read this book in a day gives me hope that I will be able to finish Tristram Shandy within the week after all.



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