It has been almost exactly six years since I picked up John L. Parker Jr.‘s ode to competitive running, Once a Runner, though when I lifted this sequel off my book shelf at the beginning of the year that realization hadn’t come to me. Once a Runner is a love story to running, and since as of late I have had a tough time connecting with my love of running I thought I’d pick up the sequel and see if I could find it in the pages of a good book. In some ways I find myself not disappointed.
Again to Carthage: A Novel picks up sometime after Quenton Cassidy has left competitive running. He’s a successful partner in a Florida law firm now, spends long, liesurely weekends on fishing expediditions with some of his other friends from the law firm, and he still romances his college sweetheart, Andrea. Cassidy still runs, too, though not competitively anymore. Now he runs for the joy of it, in the mornings, occasionally besting legal foes in races to prove mostly to himself that he still has the speed that earned him a silver medal in the 1976 Olympics.
The first half of this book plods along slow enough. Cassidy seems to be going through the motions of life, living what he believes is a normal existence rather than finding his own full measure. I found myself stymied by the stodginess of some of the prose, and the way scenes that had nothing to do with running dragged on and on. While finding out what happened to Mizner (Cassidy’s running buddy from Once a Runner) in the early pages satisfied something I felt was missing from the first book, it seems to play little role in the story here.
What happens to Mizner becomes relevent to Cassidy when coupled with other losses the runner suffers, losses that shake him out of his idyllic life. He realizes that he’s not been living up to his full potential—not only as a runner, but as a person—and that to get that back, to find himself again, he must forgo all that he is and become, again, the runner.
It is here that the novel begins to really become something, when Cassidy moves—as he does in the first novel—to a remote cabin in the woods and dedicates his days to running. Every day, twice a day, he runs, racking up the miles on his feet the way a salesman ticks them off in a car. He’s working on joining another Olympic team, this time as a marathoner, and though few runners have gone from Olympic greatness in the mile and the marathon, as his coach Denton—another returning character—tells him, it has been done.
As the training dragged on, I felt about it the way I feel about my own training: that it goes on and on forever and ever. Sometimes you just hunger for the race to come, for the goal to arrive, to get it all over. But then you realize, as Cassidy does, that the race is not what it’s about at all.
What I mean is that someone sees a race, and they think that’s what you do. They sort of know you had to train, but they weren’t watching then, so they don’t understand how incredibly much of it there is. But to us, it’s almost the whole thing. Racing is just this little tiny ritual we go through after everything else has been done. It’s a hood ornament.
The race—the Olympic Marathon Trials—is the tiny ritual at the end of this book, in the same way that the 1500 meters was the tiny ritual at the end of the first book. But first Parker throws some intrigue into the mix by way of an “informal” advisory council from the Amateur Athletics Conference. The meeting has all the airs of a kangaroo court, and is reminiscent of some of the criticism lobbed against the USADA: that athletes can be accused without warning; that they can be convicted without physical evidence on the heresay testimony of only one witness; that bias against specific athletes can affect the impartiality of the committees. I don’t follow USADA or WADA, but the way Cassidy handles the hearing had me cheering.
And that’s when the topping on the cake can begin: the race. Parker is a master at detailing the nuances of running, and this race is no different. He goes through each mile, from the first few in which the runner struggles to get in a steady rhythm, to the long stretch of middle when everything seems to go fine, but the runner waits for the dreaded wall to appear.
But there was no denying that he was once again all right, at least from a running perspective. He knew it couldn’t last for long, as they were nearing the twenty-mile mark and the dregs of the glycogen stores in his system began to run out. Yet he found himself again running with almost no perceivable effort.”
That’s the same feeling I’ve had in almost every marathon or further distance I’ve run just before I’ve hit the wall, that feeling of euphoria before the glycogen runs out and it’s a matter of pure will power to get one foot in front of the other.
Again to Carthage suffers from many of the same issues that befell Once a Runner, but for runners, or fans of the first book, this sequel is not to be missed. Rediscovering Cassidy’s love not only for running but for life itself was a joy for me as a reader, as a writer, and as runner.