On Athletics: Once A Runner brings me back to my own forever days in Doobey Hall

John L. Parker Jr’s self-published book is still my favourite read about the art of running

Doobey Hall was about halfway down Waterman Street and directly across from the mailroom and we’d often stop in there on our way to practice.

It was one of those massively wooded American houses in a state of minor disrepair, and the guys lived on the second floor, which from the battered oak door opened up into a big room with an array of old couches and double-height ceilings and decorated in part by a poster of U2 standing in front of a Joshua tree. There was usually someone stretching on the floor, and there was always that gentle whiff of jasmine incense and filtered coffee which for many special reasons still tastes fresh 30 years later.

This was where the best senior cross-country runners at Brown lived, including our captain Justin Casserly, who had a perfectly athletic build and all-round tan and was drowned a few years later in a canoeing accident in one of California's state parks.

We shared many a laugh before and after practice in that room and because there was no sign inside or out it must have been late into my freshman year before I asked them why they called the place Doobey Hall.


“Are you kidding?” Casserly asked back, before reaching onto the shelf behind him and handing me a desperately tattered book, the faded cover held together by at least three strips of grey duct tape. “Read that,” he said, which I promptly did, and it remains of the most memorable lessons from those four years spent inside the hallowed halls of The Ivy League.

Because for reasons most people will never understand, Once A Runner, by John L. Parker Jr is a sort of bible for every college runner in America. It was self-published in 1978 and for many years remained out of print (and one of the most searched-for items on BookFinder.com, the Google of rare books) before in 2009 Scribner books, home to some of the legendary American authors, gave it the magnificent hardback edition it deserves.

It will never go down as a best-seller or literary classic, and it truth Once A Runner is a still scarcely believable piece of writing that is part training manual, part religious tract, part love story, and all about running. It’s a small wonder it was ever printed at all, and yet it still is a cult classic, at least in capturing that strange and often insular cult known as distance running.

Parker is in his early 70s now and divides his time between Gainsville, Florida and Bar Harbor, Maine. He’s been an attorney, a newspaper reporter and a speechwriter, and he’s since written the sequel, Again to Carthage, and also the prequel, Racing the Rain, published in 2015, but will always be remembered for his 1978 debut.

He wasn't the first writer to tackle the theme (Alan Sillitoe set the standard back in 1959), but Parker does nail some of the finest ever descriptions of distance running to print, especially the mile and that "last 50 yards of straightaway, legs, arms, shoulders, jawbone, ears, chest, fingers all battling the strained numb pain of the lactic acid, all striving for that normality of motion that would preserve – should heaven and hell fall into each other in a cosmic whirl – the integrity of the stride. Let others flail; the runner runs truly to the end."

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 occasionally ridiculous to the frequently sublime.

Cassidy is a student at the fictional Southeastern University, somewhere around Gainsville, living with the rest of the track team at the original Doobey Hall. His compulsive training reaches devout proportions when he hears that New Zealand’s world mile record holder, a certain John Walton (clearly based on John Walker), is coming 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 Wanamaker 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 Finnish international, and against all the odds, triumphs in 3:52.5.

Don’t worry, that’s not ruining anything, because no one reads Once A Runner for the plot. It’s those descriptions of running that sets this gem of a book apart, and unless you’ve run repeat 400 metres in around 60 seconds, or clocked 100 miles in a week, you probably won’t like it.

For Parker it's at least partly autobiographical (he ran at the University of Florida, later trained with American Olympians Frank Shorter and Jack Bachelor) and the hardest part wasn't writing it, but publishing it. After multiple rejections, Parker founded his own company and printed off 5,000 copies, never once doubting his content.

Re-reading it this week in a time of slow isolation was just like being back in college, especially the chapter on Cassidy’s cross-country rivalry with Eamonn O’Rork, a “truly hungry” Irish runner on scholarship at another fictional university in Tennessee.

It's long been rumoured that Parker was inspired by the real "Irish Brigade" at East Tennessee State University, who dominated the American collegiate scene at the time, and that O'Rork is a sort of fictional Neil Cusack, the spiritual leader of that Irish Brigade, who in 1972 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.

Cusack was, by all non-fiction accounts, a machine when training, his thin frame fleshed out only by his bushy hair and trim beard, and perfectly built for the marathon. Indeed during his final year at East Tennessee, in 1974, and without much planning, he decided he’d try Boston.

There was no appearance fee in those days, no prize money either, and no one had great expectations from Cusack, including himself. After six miles he found himself in front, was a minute clear at halfway, and after surviving the infamous Heartbreak Hill arrived home a comfortable winner in 2:13.39. The 22-year-old was greeted as a hero, and asked how he intended celebrating replied “by drinking lashings of porter”, which gave the New York Daily News their headline for the following day: ‘Irishman wins Boston, trains on beer’.

Cassidy would certainly approve of the many myths around Cusack, who remains the only Irish runner to win the Boston Marathon, which for the first time since 1897 isn’t happening this month, postponed for now until September because of Covid-19, and there’s still something scarcely believable about that too.