Despite being a classic from the 1970s that someone in Runner's World called the best-ever novel about running, Once a Runner started off on, um, the wrong foot with me. That's because it started off with this:
"The night joggers were out as usual.
"The young man could see dim figures on the track even in this pale light, slowly pounding round and round the most infinite of footpaths. There would be, he knew, plump, determined-looking women slogging along while fleshy knees quivered. They would occasionally brush damp hair fiercely from their eyes and dream of certain cruel and smiling emcees: bikinis, ribbon-cuttings, and the like. And then, of course, tennis with white-toothed males, wild tangos in the moonlight.
"And men too of various ages and levels of dilapidation, perhaps also grinding out secret fantasies (did they picture themselves a Peter Snell held back only by fat or fear as they turned their ninety-second quarters?)."
Quivering fleshy knees? 90-second quarters? Rendered in purple prose? Let's just say, I can relate more to the night joggers than I can to Quenton Cassidy, the young miler with Olympic-level abilities who is the center of this story. And I dislike purple prose in any context.
At the beginning, the book dwells too much for my taste on Cassidy's track-team buddies at the fictional Southeastern University. The author's descriptions of their testosterone-fueled antics and 1970s dating rituals (words like "co-ed" crop up) also turned me off. But as Cassidy's talent attracts the attention of Olympian Bruce Denton and the action moves away from the track team and its dorm, the book grabbed me and did not let go.
And while the writing still had some overwrought moments, I found myself increasingly forgiving them. After all, Parker was writing about running, and all of the elemental fury and passion that goes into it when you love it. Even if I am more of a "night jogger" than anything else in Quenton Cassidy's world, I've seen and felt enough of what Parker is talking about through his gifted young hero's experience that toward the end, when the story culminates in one key race, I had fallen for this story, hook, line and sinker.
I recommend this book to anyone who loves running. You'll imagine its scenes during your own races but also on those beautiful runs by yourself, when you are aware with every tingling fiber of your body and every soaring thought that running is something you, too, were meant to do...fast or not.