Speed Reading

Once a Runner,the best novel ever about distance running.

On New Year’s Day 2004, a runner named Quenton Cassidy finished second among high-schoolers in the Resolution Run 5K in Atlanta. In 2005, he finished first among an all-ages set in a Massachusetts 5K and third in the Fifth Annual Cure Autism Now 5K in Maryland. A year later, he seems to have lost a step, finishing fifth in the 2006 Des Moines Midnight Madness 5K.

Quenton Cassidy is not actually a real person, some itinerant jogger bent on winning charity races nationwide. Rather, he’s the hero of John L. Parker Jr.’s novel Once a Runner, a cult object among serious distance runners. To demonstrate their devotion to the book, runners not infrequently take its hero’s name as a race-day nom de guerre.(I can’t help but notice that the Quenton who ran in the Maryland race—second picture down—looks an awful lot like my old track teammate Ben.)

Since its publication in 1978, Once a Runner has purportedly sold more than 100,000 copies and spawned a sequel. * Yet Parker sold the last of his original self-published editions in 2004. Demand has never subsided. The cheapest used paperback on Alibris was recently going for $77.98. And according to Bookfinder—the Google of dead books—the novel has been the most-searched-for out-of-print fiction or literature book each of the past two years.

There won’t be a threepeat: This time next year, Once a Runner will no longer be eligible. The novel’s place atop Bookfinder’s list caught the eye of Brant Rumble, an editor at Scribner, which is printing new copies  in April. A nonrunner, Rumble told me he nevertheless found himself “completely engrossed” in the detailed descriptions of Quenton’s runs.

That puts Rumble in a small minority. The paradoxical nature of the novel’s popularity—it was the most-wanted book that not enough people wanted anymore—suggests an intense but narrow appeal. There’s a reason Once a Runner has never managed to find a mainstream audience. It aggrandizes the insular world of running in a way that, with due respect to its new publisher, no nonrunner could possibly relate to. It is written for runners—and to keep nonrunners out. But it also nails the running life like no other novel ever has.

Quenton is an undergraduate miler at the fictional Southeastern University in the Florida panhandle. He spends most of his time training with the cross country team and with Bruce Denton, an Olympic gold-medalist distance runner who lives nearby. The plot pits the liberal, free-spirited runners against a counter-countercultural football coach and a retrograde university president. For vague, dubious reasons that include Quenton’s authoring of a petition protesting a dress code, he is suspended from intercollegiate competition, prompting him to leave school altogether and move, alone, to a cabin in the woods. There he trains for a race in the spring at the university against, among others, a world-champion miler from New Zealand. If he can only figure out how to sneak into the competition, from which he has been banned …

That’s pretty much the extent of the plot. As for the prose, it frequently reads like the work of an eighth-grader going through his Beat phase. The novel’s goofy literary pretensions—Quenton’s name, for example, is surely a not-so-sly reference to Faulkner’s equally time-obsessed hero, Quentin—only make matters worse.

Most cult objects essentially invent their own cults (think The Rocky Horror Picture Show), but Once a Runner had a readership waiting for it. The book doesn’t just have a cult, in other words—its subject is a cult, and it depicts the cult’s rituals in the minutest detail. Parker captures how it all feels: how during a tough workout a random word or phrase will materialize in your mind and be turned over and played with like “seals with a beach ball”; how as you wander around a track meet you feel as though your personal record is the dominant fact of your life (“This gentleman here, perhaps you’d like to meet him, is 27:42”); how after a race your spine feels as though it’s “made of bamboo.” Reading these dead-on descriptions, a runner feels a pleasurable sensation of recognition. The nonrunner, I assume, feels nothing.

Like many cults, distance running has its mysteries, and The Secret—how you become a real runner—is Once a Runner’s chief concern. (“As Denton’s reputation grew,” Parker writes, “a number of undergraduate runners decided they would train with him, thinking to pick up on The Secret.”) But it turns out that The Secret is that there is no secret. The runner must pound the mileage, as we say. It’s a grueling, tedious, insane lifestyle. So why do we keep doing it?

To understand the answer, you have to understand a bit about distance running. For one thing, it helps to know that only nonrunners talk about a “runner’s high.” It’s not that it doesn’t exist, that weird feeling of euphoria you sometimes get briefly after a tough day at the track or a superlong run. But no one could possibly be a runner just for the highs, whether brought on by natural chemicals or by winning a race. The running life is mostly just lots and lots and lots of miles. Only a few competitions punctuate the grind of thankless workouts on anonymous tracks, and you literally need a very loud gun to snap you out of the training existence and tell you it’s time to save nothing for later. There simply isn’t enough in the way of traditional rewards as compared with hard labor to make it worthwhile—that is, if you’re only after the traditional rewards.

Once a Runner gets all this. It presents the distance running life as overwhelmingly mundane. It is appropriate that Quenton first shatters the all-important four-minute mile not in a race but during a random training session—”Just another goddamn workout.” This being a sports novel, there is a Big Race at the end where Everything is on the line. But the book’s true climax comes during one of Quenton’s workouts in preparation for the race, an interval session requiring 60 quarter-miles (for those of you who’ve done quarters workouts, no, that’s not a typo). Denton forces Quenton to run the final 20 alone: “I know you can do this thing because I once did it myself,” Denton tells him. “When it was over I knew some very important things.” And thus it is after the workout, and not the race, that Quenton achieves true self-knowledge, the end of any novel of growth. “I know,” Quenton gasps afterward. “But it is a very hard thing to have to know.”

The forthcoming edition is by far the handsomest copy of Once a Runner I’ve seen, but a part of me wishes the novel had stayed out-of-print. Not everyone is up for the running life, and not everyone should be able to get their hands on this book. It should take effort, whether that means borrowing (or stealing) it from someone or saving up $77.98. Once a Runner’s portrait of running may smack of elitism, but it is a democratic elitism: Not everyone can be a runner, but a runner can come from anywhere.

Correction, Jan. 2, 2009: This article originally referred to a Once a Runner movie and linked to its purported trailer. There is no film version of Once a Runner; the trailer is a joke. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)