Jeffrey's Reviews > Once a Runner

Once a Runner by John L. Parker Jr.
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Jan 07, 2011

really liked it
Read from January 01 to 06, 2011 — I own a copy

Quite simply, Once a Runner is a novel about running. Originally self-published in 1978 and sold by the author at foot races across the country, the book became a cult favorite among high school, college and professional runners of all abilities. I was skeptical when I first heard about it. What does it mean to be a novel about running? Seems like saying John Grisham's oeuvre is about law, or that Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan series is about politics. The only novel I could think of that used running as a metaphor and plot element is The Marathon Man by William Goldman, which contains the best passage about running I have ever read. Seeing as much of my writing as of late has been focused on running, I decided to give this book a read.

The story is simple: Quenton Cassidy, captain of the track team at the fictional Southeastern University in northern Florida, longs for track glory. He has dedicated himself to breaking the elusive four-minute mile, and maybe even going further. Along the way he gets caught up in a scandal involving a new dress code issued by the head of the athletic department and head football coach. What makes this novel special is not the story, it is the characters and it is the way the author managed to capture the feeling of running. I am a marathoner now, but in junior high school I was a miler. I too dreamed of running a four-minute mile, though that dream was never realized. (Now I dream of a sub-three hour marathon and a fifty mile finishers medal.) Cassidy rises early and runs in the pre-dawn hours, rain or shine, tired, hungry, hungover. Doesn't matter. He lives to run. It is his all-consuming passion. His girlfriend doesn't understand it. Even he doesn't completely understand it. It's not something that can be explained in so many words. Parker, though, manages to capture the feeling, the desire, the dedication that comes with becoming a runner. "There was no alternative, it just had to be done." "Let others flail; the runner runs truly to the end." "He was not a health nut, was not out to mold himself a stylishly slim body." "Running to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free."

This is the best quote about running in the novel:

A runner is a miser, spending the pennies of his energy with great stinginess, constantly wanting to know how much he has spent and how much longer he will be expected to pay. He wants to be broke at precisely the moment he no longer needs his coin.


The novel is not without its faults. Some of the language is stilted and cumbersome, and the opening chapters left me confused and feeling like my copy was missing pages. Though Parker wonderfully captures the feeling of being a runner, the sub plots are thin and weak and sometimes unnecessary. (I'm talking about you, Andrea.) Other stories seem to just fade away. (What ever happened to young Mize?) That doesn't mean you shouldn't read this book, especially if you run. Heck, it's a good read for anyone who has a passion and a dream, one that consumes them and one that their friends or family think they are crazy for striving towards.

The title of the book seems to refer to two ideas. One, that Cassidy was once a runner and in the beginning of the book (most of the story is told in flashback) he seems to have decided that his running days are over. The other meaning behind the title, it seems to me, is the old adage, "Once a runner, always a runner." Parker is telling us that we are all runners and that once we become that thing that we are, we can never go back to being what we were before. In fact, the title word "Runner" could be replaced with almost any other profession. In the end, what makes this book so good is that, while it is a book about running, in effect the novel is more universal than that. It's about all of us and all of our dedications.
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