Once a Runner: A Novel

Are you passionate about your sporting endeavors? Are you a weekend warrior? I’m NOT talking about a rabid fan who always watches their favorite team on TV or studies real hard for their fantasy draft. I’m talking about a deeper level of involvement. I’m talking about something that goes beyond knowing all the statistics and reading all of the articles. I’m talking about feeling the pain; the pain of running a 5k on a bad day, the pain of missing a four-footer on the 18th hole that lost you the match, or the pain of being in the stadium when your team got laughed out of the park. If you’ve felt this pain, and have even grown to embrace it, you need to stop everything you’re doing at this moment and find this book.

This is a book for people who like to step on to the field of play. For people who love sports and games because of the emotion and the theatre, because of how they feel when they are involved. This book will stir your emotions, make you laugh, and make you want to train for a distance event. I can’t remember a piece of sports fiction this great, period! The only thing comparable is the movie One on One. You know, the Robby Benson classic. This book may be the stepping stone needed to get me pumped up to start running more…or maybe not.

Have I mentioned that I loved this book. It’s the story of Quentin Cassidy (Cass), a miler on the track team of a fictional college in the Florida panhandle called Southeastern University. He has a girlfriend, hangs out with some cool running buddies, and is quite the team jokester. But he’s deathly serious about cracking the four minute mile barrier, and even more serious about beating New Zealand great John Walton at the same distance (fictional character modeled after John Walker, the first guy to break 3:50 in the mile). And he’ll get his chance to race Walton because Walton has agreed to come to Southeastern for the “big invitational.” So Cass just needs to train like a madman. However, life throws him some curveballs.

Before I spoil it, let me digress from the plot a little. The coolest part of this book are the running-specific digressions by the narrator and the track-centric rants by Cass. Let me give you a long example of a Cass conversation with his girlfriend and buddy (Mizner) that I loved:

“Everyone likes to think they have their own little corner; it can be anything: needlepoint, lawn bowling, whatever. Some guy may gratify himself by thinking he’s the best goddamn fruit and vegetable manager the A & P ever had. Which is fine. It gives people a sense of worth in a crowded world where everyone feels like part of the scenery. But then mostly they are spared any harrowing glimpses into their own mediocrity. Pillsbury Bake-Off notwithstanding, we’ll never really know who makes the best artichoke souffle in the world, will we?”

“Gotcha. Don’t filibuster, tell me Demons,” she said.

“Right. The thing is that in track we are painfully and constantly aware of how we stack up, not just with our contemporaries but with our historical counterparts as well. In that regard it’s different even from other sports. A basketball player can go out and have a great day and tell himself he’s the greatest rebounding forward to ever hit the hardwood, but he’ll never really be troubled by the actual truth, will he? Maybe he’s just in a weak league. Maybe Jumping Joe Faulks would have eaten him alive thirty years ago. But he’ll never know. He’ll just have to leave such judgments in the sorry hands of the sportswriters, many of whom it has been pointed out can be bought with a steak.” Mizner nodded vigorously from behind a pile of popcorn.

“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. This gentleman here, perhaps you’d like to meet him, is 27:42, also known as 13:21, I believe.”

I love that passage. I love that type of conversation about sports. Especially conversations that compare sports, like he compares basketball to track. Some people view it as testosterone-riddled drivel. I call it keen insight into why sports are so beautiful, why they are so important for understanding what makes us, as humans, tick.

I also like metaphysical discussions in one’s own mind, like this one that Cass has in Chapter 17 (titled Breaking Down), as he’s thinking about his training schedule:

Cassidy sought no euphoric interludes. They came, when they did, quite naturally and he was content to enjoy them privately. He ran not for crypto-religious reasons, but to win races, to cover ground fast. Not only to be better than his fellows, but better than himself. To be faster by a tenth of a second, by an inch, by two feet or two yards, than he had been the week or year before. He sought to conquer the physical limitations placed upon him by a three-dimensional world (and if Time is the fourth dimension, that too was his province). If he could conquer the weakness, the cowardice in himself, he would not worry about the rest; it would come. Training was a rite of purification; from it came speed, strength. Racing was a rite of death; from it came knowledge. Such rites demand, if they are to be meaningful at all, a certain amount of time spent precisely on the Red Line, where you can lean over the manicured putting green at the edge of the precipice and see exactly nothing.

Man, that’s cool huh? Taking it to the edge where you have nothing left, that’s a glimpse into the meaning of life; finding that point where you have exhausted all efforts and you have nothing left. It doesn’t matter how fast or how strong or how smart at that point, you’ve done all you can. The rest will take care of itself.

** SPOILER ALERT **

So back to the plot. Everything is clipping along fine for Cass until he gets involved in a little protest that the athletes at Southeastern University undertake, and Cass takes the fall for it. He gets booted out of school and therefore can’t race against Walton in the invitational.

However, that does not deter him from his training. Cass’s running mentor , Denton, loans Cass his house in the woods and Cass sets about training there. He becomes a bearded hermit and trains for the sake of training, unsure if he can get reinstated in time to race Walton. Kind of reminiscent of when Rocky trains in the Russian countryside by snowshoeing and carrying logs.

At the same time, Denton tries to pull some strings with the administration to get Cass back in school, but to no avail. In the end, Denton hatches a scheme that results in Cass having to impersonate a Finnish runner named Seppo from a fake university in Ohio. This is great stuff I tell you.

The book culminates in a detailed retelling of Cass’s race against Walton. I was riveted and teary-eyed at the end of it all.