You would assume that since Once A Runner is a fiction book about running you would need to be a runner to enjoy it and you would learn very little about the true working of the sport from it. You would be wrong on both counts. The book literally tells the story of a collegiate miler working to reach the pinnacle of the sport but that’s only a piece of what the book truly covers.
What Once A Runner magnificently captures is the incredible effort, sacrifice and single mindedness required of a world class athlete. Running presents a perfect canvas to tell that story due to the quantitative nature of performance in track. Quentin Cassidy, the main character, explains it quite simply:
In track it’s all there in black-and-white. Lot of people can’t take that kind of pressure; the ego withers in the face of the evidence. We all carry our little credentials around with us; that’s why the numbers are so important to us, why we’re always talking about them. I am, for instance, four flat point three. The numerals might as well be etched on my forehead.
A 4:03 mile time. That’s it. No arguing, no blaming the official, no issues with teammates, it’s black and white. If the other guy runs a 4:02 you lose and it doesn’t matter if you were running a 4:03 or a 10:45. John L. Parker draws on his own experience as a competitive runner to understand the pressure an athlete faces and describes it well. Once A Runner brilliantly communicates the effort required to shave single seconds at the highest level.
Writing a work of fiction allowed Parker to describe the quest for athletic excellence in a relatable way that doesn’t rely on the reader’s affection for any given real world running figure. The ability to craft all the circumstances around Cassidy’s running career enable Parker to demonstrate not just the effort but the selfishness required to perform at a world class level. While most easily described through the time based lens of competitive track, the truths Parker unearths are no less a reality for top performers in any sport.
The book is well written, fast moving, and if you have even a passing interest in running will have you fired up to lace up the sneakers and put in a few miles no matter your pace. Self-published in 1978, and sold from the trunk of Parker’s car, Once A Runner acquired such cult acclaim it was eventually put into wide distribution and became a New York Times bestseller so you should have no trouble finding a copy.
In 2007 Parker wrote a sequel, Again to Carthage, which I have yet to read. If you have read it drop a note in the comments to let me know if it’s worth the time.