Once a Runner by John L. Parker Jr. has already gotten me into some trouble. I loved this book, enthusiastically recommended it, and received confused sighs in response. So if you’re not a runner, you may not like it. If you are a casual runner, you may not like it. If you’ve ever ran competitively to the point of physical obsession, I think you’ll adore it. And if you disagree, drink some kale and try again.
As countless others who do like it have said, Ahem Runner’s World, it’s one of the best books on running ever written. But also the only fiction on running I think I’ve ever read. There’s no tension. No major stakes. Not all of the characters are fully developed and those that are aren’t too likable. So what makes Once a Runner so good (to some)?
The story follows a college runner named Cassidy; a sub 4:30 miler not too fond of racing longer distances, but it’s fall so he must. We’re with him through the course of almost a school year from practice to painful practice to the races. The story is about the mental and physical processes Cassidy goes through to push himself beyond his own limits.
The writing is loose and poetic at times. The dialogue is pretty silly and there’s an entire section that could be chopped and I wouldn’t miss it, but then sentences like this win you back:
Several dozen athletes screamed, laughed, cajoled and punched one another in the easy fond intimacy that sports give to young men in groups and that they would consciously or subconsciously miss for the rest of their lives.
And then there’s moments like these:
There distance runners were serene messengers. Gliding along wooden trails and mountain paths…they lived within themselves…
In track we are painfully and constantly aware of how we stack up. Not just with our contemporaries, but with our historical counterparts.”
If you love running you probably get it, and maybe you need to get it to like this book otherwise it’s like running on a treadmill instead of a trail. Distance running doesn’t tickle. Going inside your own head gets you through, and once inside you’re so glad to be there that you go an extra mile for a little more pure time.
How I know I’m in love with a book is when I can’t stop writing down its lines – to keep something with me even after I’ve handed it off to a book thief. (Why does nobody ever return books?) It makes sense that some don’t like this book, but you should give a try because it’s so different from everything else on the shelves.
Once a Runner has had an interesting life. Parker first wrote it in 1978. As the back of my now stolen copy said, he could’t find the kind of book he wanted to read so he wrote it himself. He ended up self publishing the book and selling it from the back of his car until it was picked up by a publisher. If you’re curious, but scared to read it, this Slate article takes my side and NO, I wouldn’t have linked if it didn’t.
Still not convinced? Here’s another review by a running blogger.