An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
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Friday, February 17, 2012

Once A Runner...

I just finished reading a great book today: Once a Runner, by John L. Parker, Jr.

Written in 1978, this book is by far the best, most accurate glimpse into the psyche of the runner who strives for the pinnacle of the sport, not to go long, but to go as fast as humanly possible. The protagonist, Quenton Cassidy, is a miler for the ficticious Southeastern University in Florida on a quest to break the 4 minute mile.

One chapter in particular struck me. Cassidy is reflecting on the questions that are invariably asked by the ignorant masses at large (and I don't mean ignorant to be derrogatory -- it is meant only to mean some one who doesn't know).

Chapter 17 excerpt:

Quenton Cassidy's method of dealing with fundamental doubts was simple: he didn't think about them at all. These questions had been considered a long time ago, decisions made, answers recorded, and the book closed. If it had to be reopened every time the going got rough, he would spend more time rationalizing than training; his log would start to disclose embarassing information, perhaps blank squares. Even a self-made obsessive-compulsive could not tolerate that. He was uninterested in the perspective of the fringe runners, the philosopher runners, the training rats; those who sat around reading abstruse and meaningless articles in Runner's World, coining yet more phrases to describe the indescribable, waxing mystical over the various states of euphoria that the anointed were allegedly privy to.

On the track, the Cassidys of the world eat such specimens alive.

Cassidy sought no euphoric interludes. They came, when they did, quite naturally and he was content to enjoy them privately. He ran not for crypto-religious reasons, but to win races, to cover ground fast. Not only to be better than his fellows, but better than himself. To be faster by a tenth of a second, by an inch, by two feet or two yards, than he had been the week or year before. He sought to conquer the physical limitations placed upon him by a three-dimensional world (and if Time is the fourth dimension, that too was his province). If he could conquer the weakness, the cowardice in himself, he would not worry about the rest; it would come. Training was a rite of purification; from it came speed, strength. Racing was a rite of death; from it came knowledge. Such rites demand, if they are to be meaningful at all, a certain amount of time spent precisely on the Red Line, where you can lean over the manicured putting green at the edge of the precipice and see exactly nothing.

Anything else that comes out of that process was by-product. Certain compliments and observations made him uneasy; he explained that he was just a runner; an athlete, really, with an absurdly difficult task. He was not a health nut, was not out to mold himself a stylishly slim body. He did not live on nuts and berries; if the furnace was hot enough, anything would burn, even Big Macs. He listened carefully to his body and heeded strange requests. Like a pregnant woman, he sometimes sought artichoke hearts, pickled beets, smokled oysters. His daily toil was arduous; satsifying on the whole, but not the bounding, joyous nature romp described in the magazines. Other runners, real runners, understood it quite well.

I've noted a distinct characteristic of competitive athletes at the pointy end of their chosen endeavors -- a willingness to unquestioningly do what needs to be done. There isn't any consideration given to bargaining with the price of a task, it is merely something that must be endured, another stepping stone across a raging river. To do the task is to make another bit of progress toward a goal of excellence; to do otherwise is to be swept away in a torrent of mediocrity. There is no second guessing, no long contemplations of ways to make the task easier, to find a short cut. And this willingness tends to spill over to other areas of life as well.

If you haven't read this book, I urge you to do so. If you're a competitive runner or triathlete, I doubly urge you to do so. And maybe leave it lying around for your loved ones to read. Maybe the book will help you to explain to them the whys of what we do. Let them glimpse into our inner workings.

Apparently this book has also been made into a movie. I'll reserve judgement on that when I see it, but I have a hard time believing it will give anywhere near the insight into the inner workings of the competitive runner.

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