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Book 33 of 52: Once a Runner

"They were a strange crowd, runners."

Yes, yes we are.

Once a Runneris a great story -- and I don't just mean the book itself, which is phenomenal. Parker's perseverance in getting the book published and in the hands of other runners is enough of a feel good story itself.

Parker self-published Once a Runner, a book about a runner gunning to run under a four-minute-mile, in 1978 and sold it at races out of the trunk of his car. Runner's World has called it the best novel written about running, and I can see why. Even without the running portion, it is a finely crafted, tight novel with characters that come alive from the first chapters.

Those copies from 1978 were passed around and passed down, almost like a rite of passage, among runners. And I'm not talking about Sunday jogger or even 8-minute-milers like mean. I mean serious elite runners -- the guys who think 6-minute-mile runs are a jog, the guys who log over 100 hours a week, the guys for whom running a mile in over five minutes is a failure. It became one of the most sought-after out of print books, and copies on ebay sold for hundreds of dollars. Scribner re-published the book in hardback form -- it just came out (again) on April 7.

I know some of these elite runners -- they said to me with a straight face that they hope to finish in the top 20 of the Broad Street Run, which has somewhere close to 20,000 entrants. I hope not to get sucked up in the mob.

Quenton Cassidy is such a runner. He's the "under four minute mile" runner of the novel, and the book follows him as he tries to run faster. I wouldn't recommend anyone follow his training techniques, which involve logging over 130 miles a week and doing intervals to the point of peeing blood. But it's as clear a shot as I've ever seen into the mentality of these runners where running is everything. Absolutely everything. They aren't themselves without it.

I haven't reached that point (obviously with 8 minute miles), and I don't know if I'd ever want to. I played high level softball and didn't like being that linked to one sport, like it consumed my identity. I'm certainly training harder, though -- I dropped over 16 minutes off my 10 miler time this year, and I'm logging over 30 miles a week, including exercises to make me faster. I spend time in the gym lifting, too, to get stronger -- sometimes running in the morning and lifting at night. Some people might think it's crazy, but running has become enough a part of me that it matters.

At one point in the book, Cassidy explains to his love interest that sometimes pole vaulters and shot putters like to "play" at their sport. They work so hard and competition is so intense that it's not fun. So they might have a few beers or a few tokes and just play for fun.

I had something close to that today. I ran this morning and lifted this afternoon between phone calls and writing. Then, still in my workout clothes, I took my dog for a walk. It's a gorgeous day in Collingswood, so I walked her down to the park, which has an asphalt trail and grass on each side. Emily's getting older, but she still has some kick and likes to run, so I started jogging with her. She started running ahead of me, so I sprinted. She sprinted, too.We slowed, then did it again. Slowed, then did it again.

I wasn't running for a pace or a time. I let my legs just go as if I told them "go ahead and make me fly." And I they did -- past slow joggers, senior citizens sitting on benches to enjoy the sun, and early evening walkers -- with my little dog flying by my side. I don't know what it was -- the weather, the dog, or finally letting lose the power I've built in my legs over the last three years -- but I felt completely free, and even laughed when I was done.

It's not something I'd have ever done without reading Once a Runner, and even though I don't run at that level and don't really want to, I am so glad to have read it. So glad. Thank you, Scribner, for making that possible, and thank you, Bill, for buying me a copy.


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