Once a Runner is an incredible book. On the surface it is simply an entertaining book with a running protagonist. If you take a deeper look though, you will notice that the book is paced almost exactly like a run. There’s also a lot of on-the-surface motivation for the great and grueling aspects of running.
The book stars a certain Quentin Cassidy, a 1-Mile track star at a fictional Southeastern University. For many up and coming milers, running a mile in under 4:00 is an intimidating and frequently sought after goal. Cass is no exception, and with a 4:00.3 Personal Record, the spotlight is on, and people want to see how fast he can go.
The book begins with Cass as Captain of the track team, surrounded by good friends, and wonderful mentors. He plays a few tricks on the freshman, and is blowing the competition out of the water. In short, life is good for Quentin, and he’s living it up. This part of the book is the first example of the pacing being similar to a run. The beginning of a run feels wonderful, just like Quentin Cassidy’s wonderful life at this stage.
[this quote isn't from the book]
The book also takes advantage of this period as well by commenting on some of the idealistic aspects of running. “The distance runners were serene messengers. Gliding along wooded trails and mountain paths, their spiritual ancestors kept their own solitary counsel for long hours while carrying some message the import of which was only one corner of their considerable speculation. They lived within themselves; long ago they did so, and they do today (p.17).” These inspirational elements of the novel were really what made the book so remarkable. It provided relevant and meaningful motivation at exactly the right stages of the book.
Like a run, the book begins to pick up near the middle. The pranks get bigger, Cass gets himself a girl, and the workouts get more serious. It is in this section, when things are beginning to get a little more intense, that the inspiration in the novel becomes more intense as well. One of my favorite quotes from this section is:
“From the crucible of such inner turmoil come the various metals, soft or brittle, flawed or pure, precious or common, that determine the good runners, the great runners, and perhaps the former runners. For those who cannot deal with (or evade the consequences of their singular objective will simply fade away from it all and go on to less arduous pursuits. There has probably never been one yet who has done so, however, without leaving a part of himself there in the quiet tiled solace of the early afternoon locker room, knotting his loathsome-smelling laces for yet another, Jesus God, ten miler with the boys. Once a Runner… (p121). “
And it wouldn't be a great novel without a big plot twist. Like the third quarter of a run, things become brutally difficult, and the reader begins to wonder if Cassidy will be able to make it through. I’ll spare the exact details, so as not to spoil anything, but again, there are a few really wonderful quotes I liked in this section:
“Though the toil was arduous, they rarely spoke of the discomfort of training or racing in terms of pain; they knew that what gave pain its truly fearful dimension was a certain lack of familiarity. And these were sensations that they knew very well. (p. 158)”
“Hell, forget about all that. GO for it Quenton, is what I’m telling you, go for the big time, right now, at this precise point of your life, make up your mind and do and do it. TAKE YOUR SHOT. (p. 167)”
What could that be?
And then there’s the epic ending. Again, don’t want to spoil anything, but suffice to say it’s wonderful! The very end is a little anticlimactic, but I really didn't mind. The book was an exciting and inspirational read, and I expect I’ll come back and read it a few more times in the future.
The big thing about this book, more than the plot, is the inspiration for the person reading the book. When you put the book down you've taken away more than just a story. You take away inspiration to keep pushing through the hard times. This applies to running and life in general, as the underlying theme is to take your shot in life. The message is that there are no secrets or shortcuts to life; there is only hard work. If you want to live a dream, you've got to put in the sweat and tears to make it happen. The message to live fully is the truly remarkable lesson of the novel, and is why you should go grab yourself a copy!
Once a Runner is an entertaining and well-written novel that manages to capture both the trials and the triumphs of running.
PS, you know you've got a star running book when it sneaks in more recommendations! (these were all referenced in the book)
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – Sillitoe
The Four Minute Mile – Roger Bannister
No Bugles No Drums – Peter Snell
The Olympian - Brian Glanville
A Clean Pair of Heels – Murray Halberg
(Quentin read these books in Once a Runner. aka a very subtle way to keep us reading running books!)
Touching the Void!
PS, Other great quotes:
“But then his life was most certainly focused on the Task. And hadn't he decided at one time that he would do whatever was necessary to become… whatever it was he could become? Perhaps. But at this juncture, many a runner begins to reexamine some of the previously unexamined premises. The question that plagues the runner undergoing breakdown training is: Why Am I Living Like This? The question eventually becomes: Is This Living? (p120).”
“Cassidy knew very well that he could take men, otherwise strong and brave men, to places they had never been before. Places where life and death overlapped in surreal valleys of muscle gloom and heart despair, where one begins to realize once more that nothing really matters at all and that stopping (death?) is all; where all men finally get the slick skin of civilization off and see that soft pink glow inside that tells you – in both cunnilingus and bullet wounds – THAT THERE ARE NO SECRETS. (p136).”
“Because they were covering a good deal of ground at uniform, reasonably efficient traveling speeds on any given training run they might run into and out of rainstorms, into or out of cities or counties, and into one geographically unique area and out of an altogether different one. To them the sensation was not unlike riding on some kind of very minimalist vehicle, one that traveled at a steady though unspectacular pace, and that would take them, they felt, just about anywhere they wanted to go. It was that feeling, perhaps, that inspired numbers of certain subspecies of their breed to embark on cross-continent excursions, hundred mile trail runs, and other such madness (p158).”