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.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
This 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?