Once A Runner – A book review

By – Ashish Kumar (LMB)


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Once a runner, first published in 1978 by American novelist John L Parker Jr, is a depiction of a prodigy competitive runner’s life.The history of the book is as intriguing as the actual plot. It was not until 2009, it’s re-release, that it become a best-seller fiction themed on  running.  Till that time, the out-of-print novel was shared among track teams and passed between training partners. Used paperback copies sold for over $75 online and copies of the book passed on from hand to hand !

Over all these years, it has become a marvel among some finest pieces brought about on the  running sport. Anyone looking for athletic inspiration will find a hero in the protagonist ‘Quenton Cassidy’ , who with all his non-conformances, struggles and triumphs .  A runner who loves to think for himself and loves to run.Those who’ve had themselves indulged in competitive or amateur athletics  will relate to  rituals of training routines, pre-race jitters, anxiety, pain and the eternal self-doubt questions  that keep  popping up erratically  like “What am I doing here?”  or “Why am I doing this?”

To some, the book is mostly carped for  being a cult classic  and a  runner’s geek fest. That’s not entirely wrong. The author has tried to balance things out by bringing up an  uncanny love affair of Cassidy and some tricky encounters Cassidy experienced while at the university hostel. There are some instances of humour that are squeezed in like there’s an  indictment and trial of Cassidy’s fellow jock ‘Jack Nubbins’ and there’s the practise of riding over someone in exams.

The writing style may seem a little uncertain at times (especially at the start) with choice of words so atypical that I very nearly gave up on it, but once you get a hang of the plot and get to the halfway mark, you’ll certainly fancy the last quarter which purely showcases  the actual  ‘mile race’ that Cassidy ran with a beautiful depiction of the twists and turns the psyche of a runner goes through during those four dreaded laps.

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Some excerpts from the piece which caught my attention are :

Cassidy’s heart tried to leap out through his taught skin and hop into his wet hands. But outwardly it was all very calm, very serene, just as always, and it seemed to last a tiny forever, just like that, a snapshot of them all on the curved parabola of a starting line, eight giant hearts attached to eight pairs of bellows-like lungs mounted on eight pairs of supercharged stilts. They were poised on the edge of some howling vortex they had run 10,000 miles to get to. Now they had to run one more


You don’t become a runner by winning a morning workout. The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many day, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials. 


Running to him was real; the way he did it the realest thing he knew. It was all joy and woe, hard as diamond; it made him weary beyond comprehension. But it also made him free


It’s a simple choice! 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… Take up what a friend of ours calls the hearty challenges of lawn care… Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the hearts 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 satan himslef  till he wheezes fiery cinders down the back straight away… They’ll speak our names in hushed tones, ‘those guys are animals’ they’ll say! We can lay it on the line, bust a guy, show them a clean pair of heels. We can sprint the turn on a spring breeze and feel the winter leave our feet! We can, by god, let out demons loose and just wail on!

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