First off this is not my typical book review. Once a Runner is not a perfect book, but this book is a must read for any runner or endurance athlete. There is a plot flaw here or there (think the lengthy diversion with Nubbins and honor court), but the meat of the text is the journey of one runner and how he learns to reach his goals through inherent and complete sacrifice.
To some running is a chore, something they do to drop a pound here and there or to get away from the stress of the world, but to many, and especially to those select few lucky enough to live running, the act becomes the stress, the devotion, the aim, the goal. Runners, as John L. Parker notes, are either obsessive compulsive or on their way there, and Once a Runner, hits a nerve the nearly every runner can understand as he follows the life of the fictional college senior, Quenton Cassidy. Cassidy is a runner, an idea that non-runners do not understand, hell, an idea that many recreational runners will never understand. He embodies athletes that I have coached, do currently coach, and that will slide down the pipe to my feet at some point. Parker lived this life, made the sacrifices, and devoted himself to doing something he loved (and hated), for that is what runners do, and thus this protagonist is real. Cassidy bleeds hatred for running but loves every painful step. He curses at cars for invading his space, at gawkers and their comments, and possess a drive and will to be great that not even those he loves can grasp and understand.
Whether it is harkening back to high school cross country and track teams, collegiate competitions, or the throngs of people who meet on weekends to tackle marathon training together, Parker encapsulates the competitive runner’s psyche. Cassidy, a man who has caused the coach in me many a frustration—but coach, they ran 400m repeats barefoot in Once a Runner so I’m going to do it now—has the will. While running requires genetic gifts: the ability to withstand pain, a high VO2 max threshold, and a high motor, it also takes a will. Cassidy reeks of this will during every minute of his cabin isolation. I hear seventy mile a week high school runners begging to run with a person, to rejoin civilization, only to blaze away from me a mile into their ten mile jaunts. They want to be told what to do, how to act, how to respond. Yet, these people are all about avoiding the blank spaces, for blank spaces are lost opportunities, chances of failure, cracks in the armor that could pop up with a 100 meters to go in a goal race. You are never sick, you are only running an undersdistance day.
When Cassidy warms up, when he cools down, when he sees friends, he basks in routine. He calls certain people captain out of custom, he trains at the same time, with the same people. It is all about routine. Same things, same times, same ideas. He basks in the smells, the nuances of exhaustion and pain. In Cassidy we see the truth: the life of a runner can be consuming, but the pursuit of the goal, in any sport, in any facet of life in general, is about said consumption. Not everyone has the grit to run 80 400’s, most of our legs would fall off, but the idea of 80 400’s, the idea that another set will not only make you more fit, but also make you understand who and what you are is why Parker attempts to convey. How many people cut their efforts short just because they are about to break mentally? The answer is an astounding too many. This book is about not quitting, not going my mind is not in it and I am overtraining and I’m cutting it short, this book is about seeing that said training is the only way to reach the goal. You cannot do the impossible unless you do your best to attempt everything that is possible.
- “He ran not for crypto-religious reasons, but to win races, to cover the ground fast. Not only to be better than his fellows, but better than himself” (121-122).
- “It [running] was all joy and woe, hard as a diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free” (123).
- “But here was the decision for all time, the decision that would lead him up the path to the higher callings or off on a side road to end up in the bushes” (262).
- “Sometimes you will work your fanny off and see very little gain; other times you will amaze yourself and not really know why” (167).
- “Such matters, as Denton had often said, were settled much earlier: weeks, months, years before, they were settled on the training fields, on the ten mile courses, on the morning workout missed here or made up there” (248).