Parker's gem takes me on a long run down memory lane

Sat, Apr 18, 2009, 01:00

ATHLETICS:The runners’ bible, Once A Runner, was one of the hardest-to-find books in America, writes IAN O'RIORDAN

SLOW WEEKS are the curse of every sportswriter and this looked like one of them until the postman knocked on my door around lunchtime yesterday. Under his arm was a small cardboard box with that unmistakable amazon.com label – and inside was all the inspiration I was looking for.

Last year the most searched-for item on BookFinder.com – the Google of rare books – wasn’t some old bestseller or literary classic, but a fairly whimsical piece of writing that is part training manual, part religious tract, part love story, and all about running. It’s only had two paperback editions and it’s a wonder it was ever printed at all.

But for reasons most people will never understand, Once A Runner, by John L Parker Jr, became the bible of every college runner in America. It’s a cult classic, not in the sense of creating a new cult, but in capturing that strange and often insular cult known as distance running. And after years of absence it’s finally back in print, my shining new copy arriving yesterday in magnificent hardback.

Parker is 62 now and divides his time between Gainsville, Florida and Bar Harbour, Maine. He’s been a practising attorney, a newspaper reporter and a speechwriter, and will always be remembered for his 1978 debut novel. He wasn’t the first writer to tackle the theme (Alan Sillitoe set the standard back in 1959), but Parker did nail some of the best ever descriptions of distance running to print.

He introduces Quenton Cassidy, the hero of Once A Runner, as “six foot two, his meagre 167 pounds stretched across his frame in the manner dictated by the searing daily necessities of his special task” – and from there the story shifts from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Cassidy is a student at the fictional Southeastern University, somewhere around Gainsville. He’s hugely respected for his compulsive training, and this reaches devout proportions when Cassidy learns that New Zealand’s world mile record holder, a certain John Walton, is to compete in Gainsville that spring.

Sensing his moment of glory, Cassidy seeks inspiration from Bruce Denton, an Olympic gold medallist living nearby. He wins the Wannamaker Mile and everything looks rosy until, for some dubious reason to do with the Vietnam War, he’s suspended from intercollegiate competition.

So he retreats to a country cabin and trains obsessively under Denton. He runs 60 times 400 metres, and a 3:58.6 mile, in training. Then, for the showdown with Walton, he disguises himself as a Finish international, and against all the odds, triumphs in 3:52.5.

Parker knows what he’s writing about because it’s partly autobiographical. He ran at the University of Florida, and later with American Olympians Frank Shorter and Jack Bachelor at Florida Track Club.

The hardest part wasn’t writing it, but publishing it. After multiple rejections, Parker founded his own company and printed off 5,000 copies. Gradually, through word of mouth, demand outweighed supply – and although he eventually printed off 100,000 copies, Once A Runner became one of the hardest-to-find books in America.

Shortly after starting college in America, way back in 1990, I was entrusted with a copy of the book and after carefully studying the sacred text passed it on to a younger team-mate. That was the way the book was circulated for the past 30 years and reading it again last night was just like being back in college again, especially the chapter on Cassidy’s cross country rivalry with Eamonn O’Rork, a gutsy Irish runner on scholarship at Tennessee University.

I’ve no doubt Parker was inspired by the real “Irish Brigade” at East Tennessee State University that at the time were dominating the American collegiate scene.

In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if O’Rork was a sort of fictional Neil Cusack, the spiritual leader of that Irish Brigade. In 1972 Cusack won the NCAA cross country title in Houston, Texas, and helped the East Tennessee team – which also consisted of Eddie and PJ Leddy, Ray McBride, Kevin Breen and Frank Greally – to finish second.

Greally has often recalled this glorious era in the back page musings of his Irish Runner magazine, which have recently been collected in another gem of a book, Running Commentary.

Cusack was, by all accounts, a machine when training, never letting up. The harder the run the better, and his thin frame, fleshed out only by his bushy hair and trim beard, was naturally built for the marathon. During his final year at East Tennessee, in 1974, and without much planning, he decided he’d try Boston.

After just six miles he found himself in front, and was a minute clear at halfway. Surviving the infamous Heartbreak Hill, Cusack arrived home a comfortable winner in 2:13.39 – the second fastest time in the then 78th running of the Boston marathon.

The 22-year-old was greeted as a hero, at least in the immediate aftermath. Asked how he intended celebrating, Cusack replied “by drinking lashings of porter” and that gave the New York Daily News their headline for the following day: “Irishman wins Boston, trains on beer.”

On Monday, the 113th running of Boston takes place, and these days the winner gets $125,000, plus a hefty appearance fee. Cusack has been invited over to mark the 35th anniversary of his victory – this time with all expenses paid. The only condition is that he competes in Sunday’s Boston 5k Fun Run, and naturally he was happy to oblige. After all, once a runner . . .