You might think it isn’t possible to write a compelling novel about running. Doing laps of a track or pounding pavements doesn’t exactly have “Booker Prize” written over it. But remember this: we live in a world in which there is a category of, ahem, literature known as ‘dinosaur erotica’. When you realise that there is an audience for a book called Taken by the T-Rex, you understand that anything is possible.
Once a Runner depicts the story of Quenton Cassidy, a college athlete hoping to make a name for himself in the mile, with an ambition of breaking 4mins, and hopefully even making the Olympics. Wearing my literary criticism hat for a moment, the book fits into a common staple of American literature: the campus novel. All the themes you would expect in this genre are present and correct. There are daft practical jokes; university authorities doing their best to be obstructive (and looking ridiculous in the process); a fair bit of drinking; and seemingly very little academic work getting done. Inevitably, it all builds towards one big race.
The book itself has quite a backstory. Originally self-published in 1978 and sold out of the author’s car at races, it gained a cult underground following amongst athletics teams in America. It was eventually published professionally in 1990, and reached a wider audience when it was re-released in 2010, spawning a sequel, Again to Carthage. The paperback is covered with accolades:
“The best novel ever written about running” – Runner’s World;
“The most accurate fictional portrayal of the world of the serious runner…a marvelous description of the way it really is” – Sports Illustrated.
“So inspiring it could be banned as a performance-enhancing drug” – Benjamin Cheever, author of Strides.
Hmmm. Maybe I’m too much of a cynic, but I can’t say I came away feeling inspired by the book. Perhaps to get something deeper out of Once a Runner you have to be the kind of reader who draws motivation from pseudo-self-help books such as The Alchemist by Paulo Coelhio, whereas I never thought the hero of that book should have sold his sheep, let alone pursued some sort of ill-defined destiny suggested to him by a dirty old man claiming to be a king. There’s good money in sheep farming. Solid, reliable career that. Healthy, outdoor work. Plenty of opportunity to train on the fells. Can’t do that in Egypt.
Quenton Cassidy himself is also almost entirely devoid of any sort of personality, which makes it hard to root for him and his running odyssey. There’s a token love story in the book, but it’s difficult to really believe in it, or care too deeply when Cassidy’s running goals cause a rift between the couple. As a reader, I think you’re expected to inhabit Cassidy’s trainers, but it’s tricky to identify with a man who has all the charisma of belly button fluff.
What is good about the book is that the author was himself a school and college athletics champion, and the novel is infused with the lived experiences of a top runner. There are various episodes that ring with the truth of someone who understands the niggles and neuroses of the sport. The description of a cross country race, with Cassidy absolutely doubled over on the finish line, seemingly on the verge of death after running an especially hard race, while his horrified non-runner girlfriend looks on, is spot on: “His eyes bulged insanely, breaths came in greedy rasps, and his face was a splotchy violet color”. If you have ever desperately had to recover 50 places in a race after losing a shoe in the first mile (Harwell XC, Feb 2015), you will relate to this.
A later chapter, called “The Interval Workout” describes what goes through the mind and body of someone doing 60 (yes, 60) x 400m repeats. By contrast, this ridiculous session is something to which hardly any of us will relate, but for me it was one of the best chapters of the book. The pure mental and physical hell of speedwork, taken to extremes, is captured perfectly in the line “Each new quarter now began in a kind of physical sorrow and ended in nothing less than spiritual despair”, accurately describing my day at the office as well as a training session. And in a piece of Zen-like wisdom, the author manages to convey the entirety of what it feels like to run intervals in just two words, when Cassidy says to himself as a new rep starts: “You. Bastard”.
Ultimately, this is an enjoyable, undemanding novel, and I’ll admit that it did keep me interested in the story to the very end. However, I just don’t buy the view that this is one of the best books ever written about running. There are too many non-fiction books out there with much more gripping narratives, including The Perfect Mile. Perhaps it would have benefited from taking much more advantage of being a work of fiction, and injecting a bit more imaginative fantasy into it all. Roger Bannister: Beating the Brontosaurus anyone?