John L. Parker Jr.'s Once a Runner: the best novel you'll ever read about distance running.

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Dec. 31 2008 6:55 AM

Speed Reading

Once a Runner,the best novel ever about distance running.

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Once a Runner gets all this. It presents the distance running life as overwhelmingly mundane. It is appropriate that Quenton first shatters the all-important four-minute mile not in a race but during a random training session—"Just another goddamn workout." This being a sports novel, there is a Big Race at the end where Everything is on the line. But the book's true climax comes during one of Quenton's workouts in preparation for the race, an interval session requiring 60 quarter-miles (for those of you who've done quarters workouts, no, that's not a typo). Denton forces Quenton to run the final 20 alone: "I know you can do this thing because I once did it myself," Denton tells him. "When it was over I knew some very important things." And thus it is after the workout, and not the race, that Quenton achieves true self-knowledge, the end of any novel of growth. "I know," Quenton gasps afterward. "But it is a very hard thing to have to know."

The forthcoming edition is by far the handsomest copy of Once a Runner I've seen, but a part of me wishes the novel had stayed out-of-print. Not everyone is up for the running life, and not everyone should be able to get their hands on this book. It should take effort, whether that means borrowing (or stealing) it from someone or saving up $77.98. Once a Runner's portrait of running may smack of elitism, but it is a democratic elitism: Not everyone can be a runner, but a runner can come from anywhere.

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Correction, Jan. 2, 2009: This article originally referred to a Once a Runner movie and linked to its purported trailer. There is no film version of Once a Runner; the trailer is a joke. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Marc Tracy is a writer living in New York.