Running With Quenton Cassidy

One of my all-time favorite running books is John Parker’s cult classic Once a Runner. Self-published over 20 years ago, Parker’s novel tells the story, in vivid prose, of Quenton Cassidy and his coach/mentor Bruce Denton on their quest for Olympic long-distance running glory.

From the opening chapter, Parker develops deeply complex characters and provides a gripping storyline. In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, he describes a workout in which Cassidy runs 30 x 400 meters only to be told by Denton upon completion that he needs to do 30 more. The relationships, trials, and individual exploits described in the novel are the kinds of things that are all too familiar to all of us who love to run.

However, for me, one of the most interesting aspects of the story is its setting. Set in a fictional college town on the Florida panhandle, Once a Runner takes place in a location that is utterly plain. It is not the Florida of theme parks, sandy beaches, and luxury hotels. Rather, Cassidy’s Florida is a place of sandy soil, hot and humid air, flat countryside, and thick scrub forest. In other words, it is the ‘real’ Florida.

And so it was with great delight, about four months ago, that my family and I booked a campsite for this week’s spring break on the Florida panhandle. While the goal of the vacation, naturally, was to spend a little time in warmer temperatures after our long Virginia winter, I looked forward to the added bonus of experiencing just a little bit of Quenton Cassidy’s Florida. The experience has not been disappointing.

Over the past few days, from our campsite in St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, I have been able to explore the countryside on foot taking runs through dense pine forests at sunrise, along quiet sandy dirt roads at sunset, and along peaceful, rolling rivers at midday. I have felt the presence of Cassidy and his mentor Denton in these altogether ordinary places which have given meaning to my running and connected me to a favorite story.

While we all love the photos, videos, and narratives from the high peaks in Colorado, Switzerland, and New Zealand, and we all long to run the famous trails of the San Francisco Bay Area, Chamonix, and Nepal, I found solace this week in the trails I learned about through John Parker’s written word. In the everyday world of the ‘real’ Florida I found, once again, that running is as much what you make of it as what it makes of you. In this case, I am thrilled to have found yet another delightful little slice of this place we call home while running the Florida panhandle with Quenton Cassidy.

Bottoms up!

 AJW’s Beer of the Week

Cigar City Brewing Florida Cracker Belgian-style White Ale label sqThis week’s Beer of the Week comes from Cigar City Brewing in Florida. Their Florida Cracker Belgian-style White Ale is a nice warm-weather twist on this common variety. It’s one of the few beers I know that tastes legitimately better with a twist of orange, seriously.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Have you read Once A Runner? Okay, never mind, we’ll just assume you have. Where and when in your running have you found pieces of the book’s storyline?

There are 15 comments

  1. Shanefelle

    I read that book too AJW, didn't like it as much as I thought I would, saying that there are some good parts especially the interval session!
    Try Emerald Underground by Michael Collins, an Irish writer living in the US who has won plenty of Ultras to boot! Book is a good bit grittier than Once a Runner but far better
    Bottoms up

  2. stayvertical

    Yeah that 60×400 chapter is amazing. I pull the book out often to read that chapter and the race with Walton. Pure electric.

    Again to Carthage is the sequel and should be read by any fan of the first. It's quirky like Once, but the heart of it is true. An aging Quenton comes out of retirement for a run at Olympic Marathon glory.

  3. walesdrgn

    One of my favorite books, running or otherwise. I think it helps that Parker was/is a solid runner himself.

    I read both of his books early every year when I'm getting into training mode again after my December break. It always helps motivate. me and remember just why I do this.

  4. crowther

    The truly fanatical among us will note that the mythical track workout was actually divided into 3 sets of 20 repeats, not 2 sets of 30, and that each interval was a quarter mile (440 yards), not 400 meters. Better read that chapter again! :-)

  5. JoelFT

    I was just going to say the same thing! He started off thinking he was just doing 20 reps then was told he was doing another 20 and then another.

  6. Steve Pero

    Great post, AJW. I read that book when it first came out and was addicted to it, being a runner who found running in the 70's, also read AtC when it came out, but it wasn't as good as the original. Another good book of Parker's not mentioned here is "Heart Rate Training for the Compleat Idiot". Probably the most common sense training book I've read. Thanks for the memories, might have to pull out the original off the shelf and read it again…and get excited to train like a madman ;-)

  7. solveforxy

    The trans-Martian running scenes in Kim Stanley Robinson's Blue Mars are, yes, out of this world.

    As much as I enjoy the verisimilitude of books and scenes like the one detailed in this article, I find my imagination piqued by more fantastical sources like, say, lung-gom-pa legends, etc.

    Then again, I never competed in track and field events…

  8. @wanderplace

    The scene where Quentins girlfriend is woken up by an earthquake has always stuck with me. Of course, it isn't an earthquake, just the slow rolling thunder of Quentins resting heartbeat shaking the bed!

  9. davethecanuck

    I thought both the original book and sequel were very well done – a slow burn building to an edge-of-your-seat finale. I especially got a kick out of my old running buddy, Gary Fanelli, getting a shout-out in "Again to Carthage" as the early leader in the 1980 trials race. "Fanelli? Yah, he's crazy…" – everybody who meets him says that!

  10. @jasonefarr

    The best passage in the book. Gets me every time!

    "He was going to have to pick up the thread of a normal life again and although he did not exactly know why, he had to start by coming back here, back to the greenhouse warmth of the Panhandle, back to this very quarter-mile oval that still held his long-dried sweat. Back to September, the month of promises.

    He put his bag down by the pole-vault pit, looked uptrack to make sure no one was coming, and then walked up to the starting line. God, he thought, one more time on the line.

    In lane one he stood very still, looking down at his street shoes (joggers now going around him with curious glances) and tried to conjure up the feeling. After a moment a trace of it came to him and he knew that was all there would be. You can remember it, he told himself, but you cannot experience it again like this. You have to be satisfied with the shadows. Then he thought about how it was in the second and third laps and decided that the shadows were sometimes quite enough."

  11. @NeverNotRunning

    The fictional town is Gainesville and the college is UF. The book is replete with minimally veiled references to real places and real people from the time when Parker lived and ran with running greats from the Gainesville area. Love it and highly recommend both tales of Quenton,

  12. bobreynolds99

    Having been inspired to get more serious about competitive running while watching Shorter and Bacheler and the rest of the Florida Track Club in the 1970's, I've been a fan of OAR and Parker's writing for some time.
    I sometimes catch myself questioning the commitment to training of my current club teammates by how well the stories resonate with them. it's an involuntary bias…

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