Sunday, September 20, 2009

Once a Runner - Book Review

Author John Parker, an attorney and contributing editor to magazines such as Outside, Runner's World and Running Times, updates his 1978 cult book "Once a Runner: A Novel" with a strong welcome from not only the running community, but the general public. Originally, the self-published book, was sold from the trunk of his car at road races and left in running stores to be sold for a commission, but quickly became required reading and a rite of passage for high school and collegiate track athletes. Serious amateur runners weren't far behind and well worn, dog-eared copies were passed from athlete to athlete.

But the book is not about running.

Yes, it uses running as a prop, but it's about love, friendship, a shinsei-like mentor, and mostly about hope and a rare passion toward a goal. A passion so powerful it drives a person to do things most would consider unhealthy. A focus causing lost love, self-endangerment and total disregard for all things considered secure. In short, a passion so strong it causes one to ignore inborn instincts of survival.

I'm drawn to it because it uses running to explain passion. And it uses running with enough accurate and technical details to not make a mockery of the endeavor, but to keep a serious runner engaged. However, being a runner is not a requirement to enjoy this book. One only needs a passion, or to have had a passion at one time.

Meaning most of us.

The story, like most foot races or other worthy sojourns , starts and ends in the same place. Similar to running a mile, a marathon or any distance in between, it builds slowly and methodically. Parker systematically develops his characters, locations and situations often by devoting a short chapter to each.

Close to the halfway point the pace quickens and many of the minor characters and sub-plots fade, leaving the spotlight to Quenton Cassidy (Parker's alter ego), the fictitious miler with a passion to run a sub 4 minute mile, and his mentor former Olympic gold medalist Bruce Denton. To keep the pace interesting a few sterotypical politicos and coaches are included in the mix, but they're simply "rabbits" bringing out the best of Cassidy and Denton and their passion.

The final chapters build to a sprint. Parker takes seven word-worthy pages to describe a four minute race. The pages left me with a clenched jaw, curled toes, and white knuckles. I was reading through watery eyes with a full-body isometric contraction, a chest thumping heart rate, climaxed by hyperventilation.

But I'm a runner. And this book is a perfect simile for running a distance race...
  1. warm-up
  2. start at a conservative pace
  3. push the pace to a negative split
  4. finish strong
  5. empty the tank
  6. cool-down
The original book was published the year I graduated high school. I became serious about running three years later and read everything I could get my hands on regarding running. How, in almost 30 years, have I miss this book?

And why hasn't Hollywood taken notice?

If you can find an original copy let me know...we'll deal, and you won't be sorry.

Once a Runner: A Novel; 275 pages; Hardcover; $24USD; available at most bookstores

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