I’m not sure when I first encountered the book; it was either my freshman or sophomore year. As I recall, I was sitting at our lunch table in Mitchell Hall, and as usual, we were talking about running. Definitely not girls. Never girls…at least not ones we knew anyway, but that’s another story. Anyway, the guys were talking about some book, how great it was. I’m sure I scoffed (as an English major I was the pre-eminent authority at the table, to be sure) at some piece of fiction…but Andy “Karlos” Marx said he’d let me borrow his copy. Later on, he handed it to me with a warning, while wearing his giant black afro wig:
“Be careful, Matzu; this book is dangerous.”
“It just is, man, it’ll make you want to do some crazy things.”
He was right…
Once A Runner set my expectations for what fiction about running should be, and ruined my ability to write it forevermore. John L. Parker Jr.’s hero, Quenton Cassidy, has captivated thousands of avid runner-readers over the years, and the book, which details Cassidy’s quest to break 4:00 in the mile, and what he undergoes to do it, simply astounded me. At one point in the book, Cassidy runs 60 x 400. Sure, you say – it’s fiction. But wait, there’s more: Parker put it in the book because he did it himself as a college miler.
Karlos was right – it made me want to do stupid things. I tried, once, to replicate the 60×400 workout. But I made it through 20 and threw in the towel. I borrowed a passage from the book for our senior year CC team shirts, which hardly anybody thought was cool (I still have a few for sale if you’re interested). I even tried to write a running story, but all I could do was plagiarize OAR and change the names and places. Seriously? Obsess much? The book just generally made you want to go out and train really really hard, pull silly pranks, and come up with nicknames that sounded vaguely European. I’ve known guys who would swear up and down they were on the track to glory until they read OAR, and then they just ran themselves into the ground.
There are other good books out there, like The Other Kingdom, which is as much a treatise on philosophy as it is a piece of running fiction. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on an out-of-print copy of The Long Road to Boston for some time, and even Parker’s sequel to OAR, Again to Carthage was decent enough. But OAR is literally the running book to rule them all, if you ask me. It’s got everything you need in good fiction, to include clever usage of select passages of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot (an absolute must if you have as refined literary tastes as me) Parker is a fine writer, to boot, and he knows how to keep you engaged as a reader.
I’m not exactly sure why I’m blogging about OAR today. Probably has something to do with yesterday’s post and the idea of looking back at influences along the way. If so, it makes sense, since OAR has informed me in quite a few ways. At any rate, it’s a great book, and I highly recommend you at least give it a shot, since it’s back in print these days.
My copy of OAR is the same one I read some fifteen-odd years ago, because when he graduated, Karlos left me his copy as a sort of going-away present. The flimsy paperback is threatening to disintegrate from overuse, and the pages are dog-eared and yellowing. But not a year goes by when I don’t read it at least one more time, and recall those younger days and ways, with not just a little bit of nostalgia.
Oh yeah, you should read Parker’s Runners and Other Dreamers if you haven’t already and if you can find it, Run Down, Fired Up and Tee’d off.
I’ve actually read them both, but I need to find myself some copies so I can complete the Parker canon. A decade later, and I’m still defending the cartoon: it wasn’t me!
The reason no one thought your Once a Runner quote shirt was cool was because you put a miniature picture of yourself on the front and your screensilker mispelled a bunch of words on the back. I still have mine though. Good blog.