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April 19, 2018

Once a Runner: Unpacking The Classic Running Book By John L. Parker

As the title suggests, Once a Runner starts in a place that every runner is eventually headed: The end. We meet Quenton Cassidy (heavy-handedly named after Faulkner’s Quentin Compson) in a quiet moment, walking around the track one last time before he allows himself to close the door on his running career and refocus on what it means to be a normal functioning human. From the start, John L. Parker’s running masterpiece proclaims that it will handle the ins-and-outs of competitive running with care, particularly the somber moments of acceptance. There will be no “on your mark, get set, go!” there will be “stand tall, set, *crack.*” For it’s stunning accuracy, and eerily familiar protagonist, OAR has become one of the most beloved running books ever and a must-read for any serious runner.

SPOILER ALERT for anyone who has not read the book

Base

As anyone reading this likely knows, Once a Runner follows Quenton Cassidy, a collegiate miler at Southeastern University in Florida. Cassidy drops out of Southeastern after a dress-code related dispute disqualifies him from competing. He then retreats to a cabin in the woods where he puts in a massive training block (coached by Olympic gold medalist, and local legend Bruce Denton), before re-emerging to run 3:52 and take down the world’s best miler, John Walton. There is obviously more to the story, but for now this is all we need to know.   

For non-plot background, John L. Parker self-published Once a Runner in 1978. In the 40 years since, more than 100,000 copies of the book have sold. In 2007 & 2008, Once a Runner was listed by Bookfinder (a search engine for out of print titles), as the most searched book of the year. So how did we get here? Slate’s Marc Tracy packages the phenomenon nicely, saying, “Most cult objects essentially invent their own cults (think The Rocky Horror Picture Show), but Once a Runner had a readership waiting for it.”  Tracy is right, runners pine for running content –– you’re reading this, aren’t you? That said, runners are notoriously picky about how they are depicted. Take for instance Angelina Jolie’s film adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Louis Zamperini’s story is about so much more than running, but for our sake we’re going to pretend it’s not.  Watch this scene, and wait for the announcer’s proclamation about Zamperini’s closing lap…

“That final laps folks, the record for that was 69.2 seconds. Zamperini just did it in 56 seconds!”

This is an accessible line of dialogue for any non-runner – It cleanly translates to, “Louis Zamperini is very fast.”  But for a serious runner, that line translates to “We should have asked anyone who has ever raced on the track if this sounds right.” With that line, a competitive runner will check out of the running aspects of the movie. I know I certainly did. Jolie’s misunderstanding of the mechanics of track and field make for a painful watching experience.  

So we’re left with our question: with a ready-made audience that will consume every piece of running content, How did Parker’s book become such a singular success?

The not-so-well-kept secret is that John L. Parker understands the connective tissue of a serious runner’s life better than any writer ever has. The hecklers, the respect for field event teammates, the frustration with a nostalgia-driven football coach, the feeling of a workout that stays in your body for multiple days. Parker’s story dramatizes the mundanities of everyday life, yet the delicate feelings that are baked into those dramatizations are not lost on his running readership. For the non-runner, Quenton Cassidy running 150+ miles a week is arresting; certainly no one does that in real life! Yet, for the competitive distance runner, being told Cassidy sleeps in his split shorts is what makes this book come to life. Who in the world of competitive distance running doesn’t have a routine to make it easier to get out of bed for morning runs? Runners relish their own idiosyncrasies and Parker knows it. It is not a stretch to say that an extremely abridged version of Once a Runner could read like a Buzzfeed list of “Weird Things Only Runners Will Understand.” Importantly, Parker’s version of this list wouldn’t include “A runner’s high” or a GIF of Michael Scott pounding pasta moments before racing.   

Parker’s writing is not particularly complex, but his ability to turn the mirror on his reader more than makes up for stylistic shortcomings. it’s also worth noting that this mirror is a circus mirror that turns every reader into an Olympic silver medalist. Once a Runner rests on its ability to make us all feel like Quenton Cassidy –– the ideal competitive distance runner, all the way until his graceful finish.  

The Running

If the above clip from Unbroken did not make it abundantly clear, it is essential for any running-based story to get the running portions right. There are numerous such instances in OAR, but the best example is the third chapter, titled “Morning Run.” As with all of the chapters, the name is intuitive. As Quenton Cassidy and his best friend/training partner, Jerry Mizner, settle into their morning route, Parker jumps directly into an accurate depiction of in-run conversation, “I can sleep for at least the first half mile” then, “Feeling and doing are different. Plato said that. Or Hugh Hefner. One of the philosophers anyway.” The thought of sleeping through the first half mile of a run is ridiculous, but the feeling is not. Parker knows what the first minutes of every morning run are like, and more importantly he knows that every college runner feels the same way. Parker slips a clever (not actually clever in any way) Hefner joke into the conversation, passingly capturing the way that conversation drifts on morning runs; it flows like water downhill –– unpredictable, and often nonsensical –– but always moving.  

The chapter ends with Cassidy dropping the pace to teach a new teammate a lesson, which is a realistic look into team power dynamics. Again, Parker demonstrates that he understands running dialogue, as Mizner tells Cassidy that the freshman “said he was turning off to go lift weights.” To any runner, false justification is real. If they get dropped, there has to be a reason: “I didn’t sleep well.” “I turned off.” “I had a hard session yesterday.” It’s never, “I’m not as fast as him.” Every detail of running interaction matters to Parker –– maybe even more than it matters to his readers.

OAR’s Insular Nature

“The night joggers were out as usual.”  You don’t have to look past the first sentence to find an example of the most common complaint about Once a Runner –– Parker’s book is about and for competitive distance runners… only. There is an elitism that is deeply entrenched in the book, and if we’re being honest, I’m fairly certain that this elitism is what makes Once a Runner such a sensation. Accessibility is the nectar of the masses, but relatibility, is intoxicating. Parker’s novel is dripping in honesty about the experience of a high-level runner, and that can seem pretentious. Allow me to provide examples.  

As previously mentioned in an early chapter, Cassidy hammers the tail half of a run to teach an overzealous young teammate a lesson not to pace-push when running with more accomplished athletes. The logic is undeniably flawed, but this is a common occurrence on college teams. How could a non-competitive runner understand that? No one wants to explain a pissing contest to the guy with his fly up. The explanation wouldn’t make sense anyway.  

In a quiet moment before a race, Cassidy observes that high-level runners can be labeled by their PRs. He, for instance, is 4:00.1. How could someone who doesn’t know their own PRs possibly understand that? Yet, to the attuned runner, this observation captures feelings of running-inferiority perfectly. It’s also a rare look underneath Cassidy’s armor. Despite his braggadocio, he has his insecurities, a comfort to every reader.   

“So what was all that back there?” the question from Andrea, Cassidy’s girlfriend, is a fair one. They have just watched a high jumper, “stoned to the gills,” announce his own run up, then clear 6+ feet in a parking lot, while the rest of the team cheered. Cassidy explains that the athletes are “playing track,” and that it’s necessary because when it comes to the real thing, nobody “really has much fun at it.” The logical next question, is “why do it?” and the answer will never be clear, but Parker doesn’t need to explain that. For a serious runner, the submission that what they do isn’t actually that fun is enough. Virtually nobody actually “plays track,” but the dramatization points out one of running’s truths in a playful way. A stoned high jumper is the spoon full of sugar that makes this all go down.

There is no denying the closed off feeling of Once a Runner, but importantly, this feeling points to a paradox. Often, people love sports for their ability to bring us heroes –– Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, Tom Brady –– and the stories that come with those heroes. We love to hear that LeBron James saved Cleveland, but would it ever be possible for an everyday person to understand what his life is really like? The minutiae of his routine?

Yet we insist that running be different. It’s a sport that we can all do, so we tell ourselves that it’s the same at every level, and that it should be intensely relatable. The (unfortunately alienating) reality is that that’s not the case. John L. Parker doesn’t mince his words:

 When they occasionally blew by a huffing fatty or an aging roadrunner, they automatically toned down the banter to avoid overwhelming, to preclude the appearance of showboating (not that they slowed 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 days and ways. But the runners resembled them only in the sense that a puma resembles a pussy cat.

Competitive runners love him for his bluntness. They are different, and someone is finally telling them as much. Non-competitive runners are made to feel like what they do is less important.  That feeling, of course, is misguided.

Women in OAR

The “Serious Runners Only” approach that Parker takes in his story certainly holds water as a criticism, but there is a more problematic quality to Once a Runner that needs to be discussed. Women are almost entirely ignored. There is an argument to be made that the story is about a running superstar who happens to be a man, and is written by a man, but again this point dismisses women. To suggest that Once a Runner should be an entirely different book would be to ignore Parker’s ability to build a world around his protagonist and personal experience. But to suggest that Parker should build female characters with dimension into his story should be a minimum expectation. If you are unconvinced that women in distance running are essential, and regularly more impressive than men, let me direct you to an article that this very website ran post-NYC marathon.  

A second dismissal might bring up Andrea, Quenton Cassidy’s girlfriend, or on a smaller scale, Bruce Denton’s wife, the two female characters we encounter. Yet neither of those characters are developed, they exist in the novel exclusively to remind us of how much you must sacrifice to become an elite runner. Denton ignores his wife’s suggestions not to run while sick, and Cassidy repeatedly tells Andrea she can’t understand what he is going through, until eventually breaking up with her to devote his life to running. I just spent 400 words explaining that not everyone can understand competitive running, so I won’t break that logic.  But, as surprising as it is, Andrea would likely be able to understand the concept of extreme devotion. Equally important, women can certainly understand the unquenchable thirst to become an elite runner (again, article above). Andrea may be similarly devoted to something, but we’ll never know because Parker never tells us.

The acceptance of “girlfriend as barrier to success,” is dumb. It’s an overplayed plot point meant to display a certain level of self-sacrifice, when in reality it’s dismissive to women. Our sport is riddled with strong women, and complexity around what it means to be a strong woman. It would be amazing if Parker had examined that. Rest assured, there is space in this book for more characters; give us female members of the track team, make Denton friends with Mary Decker, give Jerry Mizner a badass running girlfriend, anything. Instead, he gave us a token female character, who literally has a limp in her stride, and supports our protagonist before becoming a sacrificial lamb. As much as I love Once a Runner, I’m not going to follow Parker off that cliff.  

Quenton Cassidy as Hero

There is an interesting parallel in the relationship between Quenton Cassidy and Bruce Denton, and the relationship between the reader and Quenton Cassidy. To Cassidy, Denton represents what can be if he works hard enough. He is the archetypal big brother. He exists to guide the way toward running immortality. To the reader, Cassidy represents the perfectly realized version of the running self. He’s endlessly clever –– consistently playing pranks and charming Andrea. He is able to sustain an outrageous weekly mileage total without injury. He leaves his real life to pursue the professional dream, living in the woods to train.  He regularly has to sit by himself and push through the fact that what he is doing is virtually meaningless, until he can find a deeper layer. Cassidy’s life represents the trajectory that every serious runner tells themselves that they could be on, if only they had the time and health to do so. He becomes Bruce Denton to the reader –– a looming shadow of possibility.

The secret sauce, and the somber truth that readers have to face, is that Quenton Cassidy is not an accurate picture of reality.  Readers take solace in his graceful exit from running; they can give it their best, have one seminal race, then meagerly walk away. It is the perfect turn to end the book, but it’s not real –– we just wish it were. More often than not, a runner’s career ends as PRs slip away and joint pain arrives. We all know that there is beer weight to be gained, and pick-up basketball to be played. We see ourselves in Quenton Cassidy; for what he is, for what we are, for what he could be, for what we wish we were. At what is likely his physical peak, 26 years old, Cassidy walks off the track, showing us the perfect, completed version of ourselves. Parker is careful not to show us any more.

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