Recently, I finished the cult-classic Once a Runner by John L Parker, Jr. It’s the fictional account of a college athlete and his relentless quest to run the fastest mile humanly possible. The protagonist, Quenton Cassidy, regularly runs 150 miles per week and sacrifices nearly everything in order to improve his time just a fraction of a second.
During the course of the book, due to his obsession with running, he sacrifices:
- His girlfriend
- His schooling
- His social circle
By the end, he is basically a hermit living in a shack. All so he can train day-in and day-out.
To many, it probably seems extreme. But in a classic passage from the book, Quenton describes to his girlfriend why he runs so much:
It is simply that we can all be good boys and wear our letter sweaters around and get our little degrees and find some nice girl to settle, you know, down with…Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the heart of mediocre talent everywhere! We can scald dogs, put records out of reach! Make the stands gasp as we blow into an unearthly kick from three hundred yards out! We can become God’s own messengers delivering the dreaded scrolls! We can race black Satan himself till he wheezes fiery cinders down the back straightaway!
The book shines during passages like that when it describes the mind of the runner. Some of the other great segments are descriptions of what it feels like to race with everything you’ve got.
It’s obvious from reading the book that the author must have been a runner himself. In fact, he trained with world-class runners like Frank Shorter and was a 4:06 miler himself. Not only was he a tenacious runner, but he had to bring the same commitment to publishing his novel.
After he finished his book in 1978, no one wanted to publish it. He described his disappointment over the whole situation and how the would-be publishers didn’t understand what he was giving them:
I got the rejections, and I kind of went, ‘What’s wrong with these people? Don’t they understand that this is like sending a writer to the moon and having him come back and describe it?’ Parker said. "There aren’t many writers who get close to a 4-minute mile, or who got to be roommates with an Olympian, and who can tell other people what that’s like." Parker started his own publishing house and printed the book himself in 1978. He sold it by dropping off stacks at bookstores and running stores and asking only that they repay him for the books that sold. As recounted to the Sun, Parker slowly became aware that the book was developing a following. "You’d start hearing comments that let you know that it had become at least a cult thing, that there was this small, hard-core group that was really into it," Parker said. "People would tell me, ‘I’ve read this book 10 times,’ or, ‘I had this book years ago, but I lent it out and someone stole it.
I’m glad that he finally got it published because, while some of the plot development is slow, the running descriptions are unrivaled. And it helps us all to look at ourselves and ask how much we’re willing to commit in order to reach our goals.
One concept that is repeated over and over in the book is that there are no secrets to being a great runner. It’s all about the “Trial of Miles”. Those that are willing to put in the extensive miles every day without a break are the ones that become great runners.
It really echoes the theme of this blog. It’s not what we do one day. It’s about trying to be better each day and making excellence a habit.
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit