Saturday, April 4, 2009

Quote of the Day: Once A Runner

This is an excerpt from the chapter in Once A Runner by John L. Parker Jr., where the main character, Cassidy is starting a third "set" of 20 X 400m @ 62-63 sec. Basically 15 miles worth of running at 4:08-4:12 pace - a little unbelievable - but, sometimes you have to push reality a little to get at a deeper truth.

"He began the melancholy ritual as night was falling. After the first five he was running by the soft glow of a huge clear moon. Cassidy thought, Bruce thinks of everything.

Then he sought out the mental neutrality that is the refuge the contained wan comfort of the runner. He grooved his mind upon the thin platinum rail of his task, a line that stretched out in front of him and disappeared into the gloom, further than he could contemplate all at once, even if he had the desire to, which he did not. When his trance broke and a word or phrase popped into his mind, his dizzy mind played with it like a seal with a beach ball, in a disturbing, gibberishly mad way, the way your mind acts in the druggy twilight before sleep. In a very controlled, abstract way, he knew how much he was suffering; the slightest break in this concentration allowed self-pity to well up in him instantly.

He was, in a manner of speaking, accustomed to this distress in the same manner that a boxer is "accustomed" to being struck; but the familiarity of experience in no way lessens the blow or mitigates its physiological effects. It merely provides the competitor a backdrop against which his current travail may be played, gives him a certain serenity in the face of otherwise overwhelming stimuli, allows dispassionate insight where otherwise there would be only a rush of panic. In a hail of killing blows, the fighter's quiet center of logic, schooled in brutality, will be calmly theorizing: We are hurt pretty badly. If we do not cover up and take up the slack we will soon be unconscious.

Not that this quiet center of logic fears unconsciousness (indeed, how welcome it might seem at times), but it knows that one can't win while unconscious. Likewise, no highly trained runner slacks off because he fears pain, but because the quiet center of logic says he will win nothing if he runs himself to a standstill.

All of this availed Cassidy not at all. His deeply ingrained conditioning and his mahogany-hard legs merely allowed him to push himself that much more. He had the mental ability to literally run himself right into the ground like Sambo's tiger. He knew that Denton expected him to do exactly that, and, just as each repetition made the next seem more impossible, he knew that without question he would do it. There was no refuge in injury, his body could not be injured in this way. There was no refuge in mercy, there was nothing to forgive, no one to issue dispensation. And at last he saw: There was no refuge in cowardice, because he was not afraid. There was no alternative, it just had to be done."


fbg said...

I know I've been a bit of a contrarian--or a devil's advocate, whichever way you want to look at it-- for a while now, but since I read Once a Runner several years ago, I have never understood why runners think it's so good. This passage is a perfect example.

Perhaps runners don't have enough fiction about their sport? I would think that any serious runner who has run himself or herself "into the ground" doesn't want to read such an overdriven, Danielle Steele- description including "mahogany-hard" muscles.

I enjoyed the scene of the book when the high jumper is hitting 6'6" or whatever with a makeshift pit at a party, and the scene at the beginning, when one of the new guys starts pushing the morning run, and someone has to put him in his place. To me, those are the interesting nuances of sport, not rippling muscles or incredible endurance.

RM said...

I've never been to a party where someone set up a HJ and started jumping!

I've never read the book, but the way I've heard it described I tend to agree with some of BG's assessment. But I do think it's good for us to have books about our sport.

And if you need a real story that just sounds fictitious, just read about Gabe Jennings. Running With the Buffaloes is another good example. Some of the workouts they do sound so absurd they must be fictitious, right? No, they are real, cause those guys are crazy.

Ben said...

i agree that the "mahogany" muscle phrase is a little weird - but, that's basically the only reference to a body part in the whole passage. It's more about the mental and almost spiritual experience of challenging your body on a level that is completely outside of our daily lives. It is natural and unnatural at the same time - natural because our bodies have this capacity - and unnatural because you can't do this kind of thing very often or you would eventually harm yourself. I'm not saying that parker is pulitzer material - but, i think he captured that experience better than anything else that I've read.

kto said...

I love this book. I ran XC and track in high school and college (D1) and now I marathon and ultra, with some road races thrown in, and coach. Running is who I am, I am not just someone who runs. Its a huge commitment and a stormy relationship but the thing that I can't live without. I love this book because I have run myself into the ground, until I threw up or until I passed out (not often though, because that doesn't make for very good training), and see in some of the descriptions in this book an image of what I and many of my running friends put ourselves through. And I have certainly been to parties involving impromtu 5ks, high jumps, gatorade bongs and naked runs. I think Parker came as close to elucidating the misunderstood distance runner as possible with mere words. Its really tough to explain to someone who doesn't run or train really hard at another endurance sport why I do what I do, but Parker explains a lot of what I think I would say. That being said, I'm rather glad there is not a whole lot of "running literature/fiction" out there, the lack there of preserves the mystery of our sport, because distance runners are, admittedly, more than a little weird in a way that can't really be described.