Two summers ago a parent of one of our runners, Dade Darby, generously gave the team 20 copies of John L. Parker, Jr.’s great book, Once a Runner. “Runner’s World,” he told me, “says it is the greatest novel about running ever written.”
After I read it, too, I agreed that it is a great book for runners about running–and especially about competing at the highest level. As an English teacher, I think books are important—and books can have an impact on our lives. Tangibly, I can measure only one specific impact on our team. For the last two years one boy has had the nickname Nubbins, named after a character in the book.
When we gave the boys their copies of the book, Saint Ignatius runner Jack Keelan was a freshman. The books went to the upper-class boys, so Keelan probably didn’t even get a copy. A very good runner from the first day of practice, Keelan was the top cross country and track freshman in the Chicago Catholic League, winning the CCL freshman cross country championship, running on our varsity team in the state tournament series, and then running 9:41 for 3200 meters in the spring.
I don’t remember when the nickname started. In the book, Jack Nubbins is an upstart freshman on the team at the fictional Southeastern University, a talented but unsophisticated young man who has to be put in his place by the upperclassman. His initial sin is to race too hard in practice, particularly during the morning runs that start each day for the team. An elaborate ruse orchestrated by the book’s main character Quenton Cassidy, senior captain of the Southestern track and cross country teams, knocks Nubbins down a few pegs to put him in his place. As a sophomore, our Nubbins went on to become the 12th-place finisher at the state cross country championship, running the 9th fastest time in history by a sophomore–14:36. But Nubbins, he is. We’ll see if the nickname sticks this year now that the boys who applied it have graduated—and now that Nubbins Keelan is one of the state’s top runners.
Then junior Jack Doyle (blue headband) gave then freshman Jack Keelan (right) the nickname Nubbins. Teammates Aaron Luna and Kamal Khan run with them at the 2009 IHSA cross country regional at Schiller Woods.
Perhaps, however, our team’s improvement and the more serious commitment of our boys over the last couple years owes something to the book, as well.
The book’s description of the friendships, rivalries, fun, and hard work of a high level college running program rings true to what I remember from my single year of running cross country and track as a walk-on at Northwestern University in the 1970s. Many of the runners at Florida’s Southeastern University live in a special dormitory, Doobey Hall, an actual house serving as a dormitory, really. We didn’t have that kind of house at Northwestern, although a big group of our runners lived in a fraternity together. The book doesn’t say much about courses and class work, although the Nubbins episode develops finally around a classroom event. These runners are in college mainly to run on the team, it seems. But they have girlfriends, and they have parties. There are also complications that arise out of what might loosely be termed the politics of personal freedom and liberty arising out of the 1960s. The track and cross country athletes find themselves facing a crack down from the athletic department on matters like the length of their hair—and whether girls can visit them in the dorm. Quenton Cassidy finds himself inadvertently the ring leader of the athletes’ protest.
But all the college hijinks, even the seemingly central events involving Nubbins and Cassidy, turn out to be a distraction in the book from the main message—and really almost literally from what turns out to be the main event of the book, a big race that tests Cassidy’s talent and commitment. Cassidy begins the book as a not-quite four-minute miler, but, it turns out, he has genuine untapped world-class talent as a runner. That talent captures the eye of an Olympic gold-medalist at 5000 meters, Bruce Denton, who happens to be a graduate student at Southeastern. Denton takes Cassidy under his wing. It is Denton, not Cassidy’s coach at the university, who truly shapes him as an athlete. Indeed, events conspire to have Denton finally lure Cassidy away from the distraction of the university scene to pursue his running and develop his talent with what is clearly a kind of monkish devotion and commitment. Cassidy gives up his university scholarship, his team, his friendships, his girlfriend, and really any kind of fun at all in his effort to become an Olympic-level runner. The novel clearly describes what it takes to compete at the highest level—including a prodigious training regimen.
Some of our Saint Ignatius runners perhaps got the message. They are intelligent boys. More than a 1,000 applicants compete for 350 spots in our freshman class each year. Our cross country team had the highest grade point average of any team in the school last year. Maybe it was Nubbins who got the message most clearly of all. Significantly, though, I cannot say for sure that he has even read the book. What benefit he surely did receive, however, would have come from the example of the older boys who took the book’s celebration of dedication and commitment to running to heart–and who gave Nubbins his nickname.
But, of course, they could only really follow through on some of the message. As a high school track coach, I find that it is sometimes difficult to find the right level of pressure and expectation to apply to the boys on our teams. How much of a commitment should we ask of our high school student runners? For their parents and their teachers, the schoolwork of these students is the important priority. Our Ignatius runners are not running to win NCAA Division I track scholarships. They are much more likely to be competing, however, for academic merit scholarships at top-level schools around the country. When we talk about what we ask of our athletes with the parents, we talk about the quid pro quo of giving up time for our team; it can help our boys be more competitive in their college applications if they meet a certain standard of athletic achievement. College admissions success is an important benchmark at a school called Saint Ignatius College Prep. But the athletic success still has to take a back seat to academic success as a priority.
Ignatius runners and athletes have to deal with special circumstances that runners at other schools don’t face. Our Ignatius students come to our near-West Chicago campus location from all over the metropolitan area, with some riding the commuter trains from as far away as Lemont, for example. At 5:30 each day the school sends a shuttle bus to the train stations downtown. It is an important priority for our team—and the lives of our runner students—that we get the boys on that shuttle every day so that they can make the earliest possible train home. Miss that train, and a late arrival home—for dinner and homework and sleep—gets even later.
What’s more, high school boys are still kids. Fun might not be part of Once a Runner’s regimen for winning an Olympic medal. But it is an important part of a high school athletics program. One of our best runners in recent years went off to college with high hopes for competing there on the track and cross country teams—only to discover that it wasn’t as fun as what he remembered at Saint Ignatius. Fun is important at practice and even in competition—although, of course, more than one coach has noted to a team that winning can be fun, too. But the runners in high school have social lives outside of practice, and that can be a conflict. Our boys have friends outside the team, although it is very common that their social lives often include their running friends—and girl friends, too. As a track coach in the spring, I expect our seniors to be our top performers because they have the most experience and the most training and the most physical development. But track coaches also know that navigating the spring semester of senior year can be a challenge for athletes who sometimes seem to care more about their last weeks with friends, and prom, and senior pranks, and graduation parties, all of which coincide inconveniently with the end of track season.
Finally, there is the conflict of other interests. On most Mondays, as many as ten of the 40+ members of our cross country team come to practice late—after the Model United Nations team meeting. That is a relatively easy accommodation we are willing to make. More difficult are the conflicts with the weekend Model UN competitions, including, sometimes, travel to Boston or Philadelphia or who knows where. We ask our boys to try to schedule and chose those Model UN events carefully, outside of the season. But we also have had boys miss track and cross country competitions for the WYSE science competitions, and the state Latin competition, and the Math team state championships. Boys who play musical instruments or who sing have conflicts with the required practices and performances for music class which sometimes take place after school during our practice time. And sometimes the boys who have these other obligations are key performers on our teams.
As a faculty at Saint Ignatius, we have ongoing discussions about the difficulties caused when students commit themselves to trying to do too much. And of course the question arises whether the school sometimes asks them to do too much—including required overnight religious retreats that take students out of the classroom (and away from practice). Teachers perceive pressure to relax classroom standards and requirements so that students can fit it all in—everything else, that is. Many of us talk about the need to help students make some choices. We also talk about making sure that academics remain the priority at the school, above other things—including sports. What it all adds up to is pressure on our students and multiple demands on their time.
Running is not a glamorous high school sport, or one that gets boys the girls or big man status at school. Any kind of runner, it seems, makes at least an initial commitment to the sport. But success at the highest levels of cross country and track and field in Illinois, where competition is fierce, takes a special level of commitment from athletes. Our best runners do not have the programmatic conflicts listed above, although they tend to be very good students. They have made some choices—and their choice is to run. A main ingredient for a really successful cross country team would be to have a team of athletes who have made that choice.
That commitment shows up most of all, perhaps, when we ask boys to commit themselves during the summer to training for the fall cross country season. And if they have some time for reading, too, then Once a Runner would be a good book to read.
The message of Once a Runner, even at the high school level, does apply—albeit not strictly applied.