Like many a brown-haired, glasses-wearing girl whose mother is a librarian, I grew up loving to read. Every summer, Mom would bring home a box of new books and I would spend the summer “test-reading.” Oh, how I looked forward to that nearly unlimited supply of books!
Today, of course, I still read. A LOT. I try not to let it interfere with normal social activities, but there’s still nothing better than curling up with a good book. And if that good book happens to be about running, so much the better! Unfortunately, the list of good running fiction is quite short. At the top of the list are Once a Runner and Again to Carthage, both by John Parker. Once a Runner, published in 1978, has reached “cult” status and is much beloved by up-and-coming distance runners everywhere. Again to Carthage, its long-awaited sequel, was published in 2007.
I’m guessing that a lot of my readers have already encountered these books, but they’re pretty special to me and I’ve been meaning to review them for some time. I also happen to have an extra, hardback, new printing of Once a Runner sitting on my bookshelf, so I thought to myself…how about a blog giveaway? All the cool blogs do giveaways…um, not that I’d consider myself a cool blog, but I would love to share a great running read with someone! If you’re interested, just leave a comment to this blog post and I’ll do a drawing at some point in the near future. What fun! Leave a comment! Yay!
Once a Runner is a story about a boy and a dream he scarcely hoped could be a reality. Quenton Cassidy is a true collegiate middle distance runner–a lightning quick, lanky, let’s-get-cross-country-over-with-and-get-down-to-business track star. He has worked his way up the ranks at Southeastern University, and when the story opens he is a celebrated collegiate athlete and the team captain. Like many athletes, Cassidy has dreamed of Olympic glory…reinacted spectacular finishes during long runs, even dreamed of going after the world record. When a strange turn of events expels him from Southeastern, it takes a great friend and former Olympian Bruce Denton to convince Cassidy that his Olympic dreams are not the idle fantasies of any-runner. As the focus of Cassidy’s life narrows to one specific goal — Olympic gold — he learns just how far talent, heart, and discipline can take him.
Along the way, of course, there are hijinx. This is what some of the reviews I’ve read harp on. “I got this for my high schooler because I heard it was motivational. I didn’t realize that it condoned drinking, drugs, and premarital sex. What was I thinking?” To which, I have to say: Once a Runner is a novel. A work of fiction. It is not a “how-to” guide for being a successful collegiate distance runner. I wonder if these people are equally concerned that their high schooler will suddenly start running 120 miles a week. No? But that’s what Cassidy does in the book! What’s that? They’ll be able to separate fiction from reality? I see…well then, if they can do that in one case, why not more? Also, the “hijinx” in question are not the focus of the story.
Again to Carthage picks up several years after Once a Runner leaves off. Cassidy has graduated and entered the working world. He would no longer call himself a runner…sure, he still runs, but not competitively or with any real purpose. Although content with his chosen profession and his life in general, Cassidy finds himself wondering if there might be more. Could he strip away the years and become a runner once more?
His questioning leads him back to pal Bruce Denton, and a new plan is formed. They decide that the mile is no longer the ideal distance for Cassidy, but that he might — with enough hard work — have a chance at the marathon. The rest of the book follows Cassidy’s metamorphasis from middle distance runner to “civilian” to marathoner.
On a personal note, these books probably mean so much to me because I didn’t just read them…I experienced them. Once a Runner was a Christmas present when I was a junior in college. It was immensely satisfying to read about college running while I was experiencing the “trials of miles” myself. And while so much of the fictional Cassidy’s experiences are different from my own (no wild parties or legitimate Olympic hopes here!), so much of the feeling of running collegiately expressed in the novel resonated with me. There were plenty of smaller stories — such as Denton, Cassidy, and a few others running with horses — that have actually happened to me. I remember thinking, “this is true.” I’ve never read a book that told the story so well.
Again to Carthage was published when I was climbing that steep hill back to some semblance of running shape. I had taken nearly two years away from running and I was discouraged. As I read the book, I couldn’t help but smile to see that my experience was a weak parallel of Cassidy’s once again.
And because I notice these things, I feel I must admit that both books have a slight sprinkling of typos. This didn’t bother me so much in my paperback edition of Once a Runner (and who knows, the most recent printing may have taken care of them), but in the hardback edition of Again to Carthage I found it more annoying. It was more expensive, so I expected more out of it.