‘Once a Runner’ – the classic running novel

Once A Runner by John L Parker Jr

Click on image to buy the book online (Image and link: Amazon)

I had that dream again last night:

I’m 16 again, but instead of being sullen and inactive I’ve kept up my pre-teen running. In fact, I’m now running regularly in schools cross-country races and club track meets at regional and national level.

Eventually, I get noticed; let’s say I win a schools cross-country title. And that earns me the Wonka’s Golden Ticket of Irish schools athletics – the offer of a track scholarship at an American university.

Once there… well, I hadn’t got into the details but there were glimpses of snowy cross-country championships, noisy indoor races and sun-baked outdoor tracks. It all leads to selection for the Olympics – and once there

Perhaps the transatlantic scholarship route is no longer the be-all-and-end-all it once was for aspiring Irish runners like Eammon O’Roark [sic], one of the supporting characters in Once a Runner, John L. Parker’s 1978 novel of U.S. college athletics. O’Roark, whose “talent and courage had delivered him from the rigors of life in Northern Ireland”, runs for East Tennessee and probably represents the band of young Irishmen who ran for that university in real life in the early 1970s, including Neil Cusack who won the Boston and Dublin marathons and Frank Greally who is now the editor of Irish Runner magazine.

I heard of this novel when it was featured in Miles to Run, Promises to Keep, the collection of articles by Irish Times athletics correspondent Ian O’Riordan, a former track scholarship runner in the States like his father, himself also an athletics journalist. O’Riordan told of how well-worn copies of Once a Runner, then out of print, were handed down and passed around his track team like a sacred text. This I had to read!

If you watch live streams of track meets on Flotrack, listen to the House of Run podcast and follow the marvellous Daily Track Pic blog, then you’re already primed to like a lot about this ode to American collegiate running.

However, your appreciation of Once a Runner can be most accurately predicted by how you react to this detail about another of its characters, Bruce Denton. We are told that Denton “had spent several weeks in Eugene with The Pre”. Now, do you know which of those two proper nouns is a person? (Hint: It’s not that kind of novel.) And do you find that definite article and those italics just not deferential enough?

In a novel whose fictional track scene is seasoned with real-life athletics stars, including a speaking role for Frank Shorter, this is the only direct reference to Steve Prefontaine (for it was he, in the athletics-mad Oregon city of Eugene). But the career and mythology of Prefontaine, the icon of American running, loom large over this book. Its main character, Quenton Cassidy, shares the singlemindedness and anti-establishment attitude of ‘Pre’, as well as a surname with Neal Cassady, the Beat writer who inspired Jack Kerouac’s freewheeling classic, On The Road.

Interestingly, he also shares something with Walter Mitty. The “pocketa-pocketa” noise of Cassidy’s rhythm on his night run in chapter 20 is the same sound effect as the one that James Thurber’s story gives to the various machines and pistons that pop up in Mitty’s daydreams.

Cassidy has dreams of glory and heroism too, but unlike Mitty he is hell-bent on fulfilling them. Personal relationships and academic prospects wither away. No big deal; for Cassidy running and winning are everything.

That said, Cassidy takes little pleasure in his successes – he is embarrassed when reminded of his high-school victories, and even after winning a prestigious (real-life) indoor race he simply moves on to another track meet in another city. His remorseless self-examination seems to make failure, with its subsequent demand for improvement and redemption, a more meaningful and productive experience for Cassidy than the full stop of victory.

This novel won’t appeal greatly to anyone not interested in running. The plot and characterisation do their job without really drawing you in emotionally – it’s hard to care about Cassidy as a person, since he embodies an athlete’s total dedication to himself. Parker does his best to explain the technical aspects of running, as much through narratorial explanation as through the voice of Andrea, Cassidy’s girlfriend and the only significant female character in an athletics story with no significant women runners. The writing style is similar to the colour features of American sports magazines – overdramatic in places, with a tint of purple to the prose.

But perhaps most readers of Once a Runner are there to read about themselves. The book is full of aphorisms that its fans, typically college runners, have plucked and replanted as personal motivational mantras on message boards (such as this thread on LetsRun.com) and social media:

“… you don’t become a champion 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. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials.”

Once a Runner brilliantly evokes the U.S. varsity track and field experience – training, competitions, college dorms, locker-room banter, student bars and the teenager’s first steps towards maturity. Himself a former athlete, Parker captures the mental processes that make a top-class runner – the sacrifice, the accommodation of pain, the need to prove one’s worth.

And Parker’s depiction of the simple act of running, in training or competition, will ring true with athletes of all levels. My favourite part is Cassidy’s night-time run through suburbia, as he overhears the sounds of “early-evening TV silliness, dinner, children’s squabbles”:

“The night made even more acute the runner’s senses, lent more poignancy to his aloneness, made his fast pace seem even faster, generated an urgency, a subdued excitement in the act of solitary motion.”

If you take pleasure in running, especially in training, then you’ll enjoy Once a Runner. But be warned: it will give you the sort of dreams that make you want to run further, faster and more.

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7 Responses to ‘Once a Runner’ – the classic running novel

  1. I have never heard of this book but I am intrigued! I love running novels!

  2. alis_davidson says:

    I read this book last year. My favourite part was when Cassidy runs over the back of a truck after they abuse him before having to stop at a red light. For someone who never ran track and field it was a part that I could definitely identify with.

  3. avaruns42k says:

    I’ve discovered running literature this year and love it. One of the first (and best) running novels I read was Courir by Jean Echenoz (translated as Running), about running legend Emile Zatopek. Very inspiring!

    • Run and Jump says:

      I saw Courir in bookshops in Paris when I was still living there earlier this year – I’ll keep an eye out for the English translation here in Dublin. Thanks for reminding me of it!

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