The following fanfiction excerpt comes from the yet-to-be-released book by America’s preeminent running novelist, John L. Parker Jr. (Kidding) We at CITIUS have written an exclusive excerpt from The Sisyphean Climb, a much-anticipated follow-up to Again to Carthage, which in turn was the long-awaited follow-up to Once a Runner.
The year is 1983, midway through the Reagan administration and half a decade after Cassidy’s last race. We join Quenton Cassidy as he attempts the second great comeback of his running life—the first having been chronicled extensively in Again to Carthage.
Now in his 40s, Cassidy has turned once again to his old mentor and friend, Bruce Denton, for guidance. Cassidy wants to—no, he must—qualify for one final Olympic Games, as he recently quit his job as a respected litigator in South Florida, and fired a harpoon through the hull of the houseboat he’d been living on, sinking it and leaving him homeless, and hungry for a third chance.
Cassidy stepped forward tentatively, and was relieved to feel the snap of fallen pine needles beneath his bare feet. As long as his hardened, calloused soles continued to crunch on this familiar terrain, he knew he was headed in the right direction. And if he veered off course, he figured he wouldn’t be allowed to stray too far into the adjacent bog. After all, Bruce Denton was half a step behind him along the well-worn path that rambled through the northern Floridian forest they traipsed through.
“Bruce, I know you love the thrill of a big unveiling, but when are you gonna take your damn hands off from over my eyes” Cassidy called back to his old friend.
Denton, who at this point was little more than a 5’2” leathered husk of an old 10,000 meter man, toothlessly muttered something in return, but Cassidy couldn’t make out what. Denton had managed to shove his thumbs—only after shouting “wet willy!”—in Cassidy’s ears while obstructing his vision with his fingers. It was all part of the plan. Cassidy knew this was the only way to heighten his lesser used senses. And it also sure as hell built up the anticipation of a surprise that Denton had promised was going to “knock the trousers right off [his] scrawny bum.”
After several more minutes of hesitant strolling and a few missteps into the marshy peat surrounding Denton’s wooded cabin property, Cassidy sense they had reached a clearing. Denton extracted his dampened thumbs from Cassidy’s ears and dramatically unfurled his fingers one by one.
“Ta-dah,” Denton croaked, revealing to Cassidy what they’d driven out here to see.
“My god, Bruce,” Cassidy stammered. He didn’t know what else to say. The partially finished cabin he had inhabited during his spartan training build-up for the race that still defined his decorated running career even twenty years later had been ransacked.
“Did squatters get to it? Raccoons?”
Denton grinned, coughed up a yellowish wad of phlegm, and shook his head. “That was me! To get you toughened up for a marathon–a fast marathon—at your age, you can’t be sleeping in a building with walls!”
Cassidy stared in disbelief at the bombed-out lean-to he was now expected to reside in for the next fourth months of 100-mile weeks. Rotted planks dangled precariously from load-bearing wooden beams, holding on by single rusty nails. Porcelain shards of what was once a toilet lay askew on the dirty tiled former bathroom floor, its pipes gurgling up brown water in metronomic bursts.
“You wily old son of a bitch,” Cassidy grumbled as a smile formed across his well-tanned, mileage en-gaunted face. He grabbed all 84 pounds of his friend, coach, mentor, and savior, and roughly pulled him in for an embrace.
“Don’t get too sappy, now, Cass. Go into your old room and kick aside the family of possums nesting in the closet. There’s another surprise waiting for you.”
Cassidy did as he was told, sidestepping fallen bits of drywall and roofing plaster, careful not to step onto one of the hundreds of upturned nails that lay scattered on the mildewy carpet, further moistened by the shack’s new open air floor plan.
There was no door left to the small, dank bedroom in which he’d hardened as a runner, and tested himself as a man. Adrenally-induced sleepless nights, quivering muscles, limping trips to urinate blood. They all happened here. And now they were all laid bear, as Denton had taken an axe, and impressively wielded it to knock the old plywood portal right off its hinges.
Inside, the hiss of possums rendered reflection impossible. Besides, this was no time for nostalgia. The purpose of Denton taking him out here had become clear: inside the closet sat a push lawn mower and a pair of kangaroo leather spikes, still crusty after all these years with blood, sweat, and memories. Denton’s heart rate—even now, generally in the low 30s—spiked. He grabbed his tools, and turned to face Denton, who had appeared, wheezing, behind him.
“Twenty by 440, Cass. Then another set. And another.”
Cassidy nodded solemnly, pushing the heavily rusted lawn mower before him. The two aged warriors strode toward the overgrown grass field that once was diligently demarcated as a standard 440-yard oval. On their short trek, they said nothing, enjoying the sort of comfortable silence only those who have shared untold thousands of miles together can truly know. Denton broke their mutual meditation when they’d reached their destination.
“The first set, you’re plowing the thicket, Cass,” Denton explained, spittle flying wildly from his dry, cracked lips. “The second set, you’re embracing The Hurt, and the third set…”
Cassidy waited to see if Denton’s pause was dramatic, of if he’d simply lost his train of thought.
Denton inched closer to his charge, whose musculature, even as he approached middle age, remained tauny, almost erotically suggestive of the paces it was still capable of sustaining. The wizened old distance man reached up and sandwiched Cassidy’s stoney face between his gnarled hands, pulling him into a stoop, the old friends meeting face to face.
“That commie Carter cost you your shot at Olympic Gold with his damned boycott, Cass.”
This what-if, more than any other still haunted Cassidy, and he knew Denton knew that—he wanted to strike a nerve, and he was succeeding.
“Goddammit, Bruce! Enough with the goddamn boycott! What about the goddamn third set?”
Bruce Denton knew more about getting a man’s legs to go lactic than anyone Cassidy had ever met. And now, he realized, he also knew a thing or two about getting a man’s mind to go lactic. And in that moment, Cassidy understood just why Denton was an Olympic gold medalist, if not much else.
“And the third set… well… the third set’s where you’ll know.”
“Know what, Bruce?”
“You’ll see what you’ll know,” he replied, cackling. He gave Cassidy’s flat rump a playful backhand, barked “get to it,” and limped toward the beach chair and nitrous oxide tank he’d conjured up from the brush, and placed near what would soon become his trackside vantage point.
“Miles of trials, Cass,” he shouted, before taking a deep inhale of his evening’s first whippet.
“Trials of miles,” Cassidy called back. Then he split his watch and willed his body and mower into locomotion.