Weighing in on everything from avocados to Zimbabwe

Weighing in on everything from avocados to Zimbabwe

Once a Runner, Never a Novelist

posted by Leila Z. on ,


In the last few months I have slowly become a bit more serious about running. First I bought a Garmin to entertain my data-loving mind, then I took up speed work and tempo runs for fun courtesy of the FIRST training program, and these days I am rarely without some sort of Oiselle dud on my body (whether running or not). To top it off, I recently married a Very Serious Runner. So when my husband Greg told me that reading Once a Runner by John L. Parker, Jr., was the thing that separated Very Serious Runners from non-serious runners, I knew I had to read it.

Only the Very Serious and the Very Fast need apply.

Part of the allure of reading Once a Runner comes from its pedigree. After self-publishing the book in 1978, Parker sold the book out of his trunk at races for years. Runners ate up the detailed descriptions of training regimens and the inner life of an elite distance runner, and, once the book was out of print, copies of it eventually sold for hundreds of dollars on eBay. (Fear not! These days it can be bought for more normal prices, thanks to a new edition published in 2010.) 

Once a Runner tells the story of elite miler and college student Quenton Cassidy, who wants to run a sub-4:00 mile and qualify for the Olympics. He chases this goal despite the best efforts of several Anti-Runners (a slimy university president! a thick-headed and inept football coach!). I enjoyed the book most when it stuck to Quenton's training, describing grueling workouts, the feeling of effortless running, or the mindless phrases/song snippets that can get stuck in a runner's head. I enjoyed the book least whenever Quenton stopped running. Good thing it was a book about running. 

They say there's nothing like a great novel. And this is nothing like a great novel. Parker's prose is often clumsy; as this Slate review summarized, "it frequently reads like the work of an eighth-grader going through his Beat phase". There's not much of a plot. Bit players with elaborate back stories are introduced only to disappear by the following scene. Parker himself describes his writing process as "cutting the top off my head and pouring out everything about running that was in there". This is the Technicolor version of Parker's life: the story as he wished it had been, where runners are clever and heroic, and university administrators are evil plotters at worst and hapless dupes at best. To me, there is something tender and raw about seeing someone's fictional best self. Taken in this way, it feels petty and a little unkind to poke fun at the book.

On the other hand, John L. Parker, Jr. started this rumble. My tl;dr summary of the book is as follows:
  • Runners are special, otherworldly beings.
  • Runners cannot be understood by any person with double-digit body fat percentage.
  • And don't even think about trying to date a Runner. 
In this idealized world, Parker seems to be enamored of running fast to the exclusion of all else. Quenton's "inverted teardrop" thighs are lovingly and repeatedly described; when not running, Quenton enjoys staring at his single-digit-body-fat self in the mirror (seriously -- in great contrast to Parker, *I* think an author should only get to use the phrase "fluted lines" once per book.). In the voice of Quenton, he describes how a slower runner is not worthy to launder the jockstrap of someone faster. In the author's view, "runners" resemble "joggers" (described variously as "huffing fatties" and "aging road runners") "only in the sense that a puma resembles a pussy cat". It is clear which type of feline Parker considers himself -- the first edition of the book even listed Parker's own PRs(!).

For me, Parker's snobbery about running -- especially read in 2014 -- is too much to bear. As Parker himself writes about running, "the Secret is that there is no Secret". The only thing necessary to be a runner? Running. That's all. I will never have single-digit body fat and I will never run a 4:00 mile (or a 6:00 mile, or possibly an 8:00 mile, for that matter). But I am still a runner. And I can train hard and be my best self and #fangirl all the amazing strong and fast runners that come across my path. Without laundering a single jockstrap. One of the things I love about Oiselle (other than their amazing clothes) is how they embody this philosophy, simultaneously celebrating fast, competitive women AND the larger running community (no matter how fast).

In response to all my raging, Greg (an accomplished runner himself, if several jockstraps below both the protagonist and the author) reasonably pointed out that distance running WAS a very strange thing to do in the 1970s. When runners read this book, they felt like they were finally understood. Point taken. But all in all, in 2014, I prefer to stand on the side of community, support, and inclusiveness.

As a coda, I have two more possibly relevant tidbits to add. One is that I have to admit that, despite all the complaints above, I did read the recently published sequel to Once a Runner, Again to Carthage (more readable, yet with all the pomposity you know and love). And Greg and I now regularly make references to the pair of books. So JLP must have done something right?

Second, I saw this advertisement the other day on Facebook:

Clever hacks, by John L. Parker, Jr.

"Miles of trials" (though not "miles of smiles"!) is a direct quote from the book. Impossible as it may seem, thirty-five years after it was published, Once a Runner has gone mainstream.


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