Last August I was driving home from Michigan on a Sunday night, with my mom in the car with me, and we listened to a program on WBEZ radio. Twice now, including a good hour or so this afternoon, I have wasted a significant chunk of time on an unsuccessful internet goose chase trying to track the program down—or to identify the author we heard reading that night.
My memory tells me that it was part of a program about the mental aspects of exercise. I might be wrong, but I think it was the same program that did a story about kids with ADHD who have treadmills in their classroom. When they get antsy in class, they do a little bit of exercise; then they go back to work. There might have been a story about exercise and autism, as well. All of these talks might have been part of an international conference on exercise and the brain? Of course, that might have been a different Sunday night. My searches, obviously, have been in vain.
The author in question read a story about a track race between two friends—rivals who had trained and raced together at other times. Circumstances had separated them, but here they were, racing again.
It was clearly a story written in the shadow of John L. Parker’s Once a Runner, which I have blogged about before. Indeed, in some remarks, perhaps in a question and answer session either before but probably after the reading, the author talked about Parker’s book. It had been a cult classic among runners in the 1970s, he remembered. When it went out of print, it became a treasure. Runners who possessed a copy wrote their names in the back of the book, and then passed it on to other runners, who read it and did the same. It was a rite of passage among runners who felt themselves part of the larger community of runners. Presumably there was a kind of status involved, as well. I would assume that you didn’t pass the book on to just any runner. You would pass it on to someone who deserved it, right?
Hearing that story made me kick myself a little bit that we hadn’t instituted a similar kind of tradition when, thanks to the generosity of a parent, our team was in possession of twenty or so copies. The book was back in print, of course, which made it less of a treasure, in a certain way. But it would have been a neat idea to start a tradition of passing the books from older to younger runners.
Perhaps it is something we could still begin.
But Once a Runner also came up recently when our English department organized a book swap among the teachers to replace the Secret Santa efforts of previous years, which didn’t get full cooperation. This year we submitted names of books we had read recently—with the emphasis I think on recently in order to steer us clear of classics and old English teacher standards. The books were also kind of supposed to represent us in a way, as well. Since I had read the book last summer again, I put Once a Runner on my list—along with some other books I read last summer, Dan Savage’s The Commitment, about gay marriage, and the Len Deighton books about British spymaster Bernard Samson.
Our colleague Elizabeth Wagenschutz, who organized the swap, chose Once a Runner from my list. Wagenschutz took it upon herself, first, to procure a list from everyone, and then, even, to purchase and wrap the books.
In our party meeting before Christmas, we passed the books out, more or less randomly. Then one person unwrapped a book. When someone opened the book you had supplied to the swap meet, you said a few words about it just so people might know something about it. Then we selected the next person to unwrap. But if you wanted one of the books someone else had already opened, you could swap your unwrapped book for that book. In that case, the person you stole it from opened the wrapped book. We did that until all the books were unwrapped. Get it?
Once a Runner ended up happily in the hands of Tony Harris, our department chair—who is also a track coach for our girls team. Harris ran track and played football at Vanderbilt. He is a pretty serious track guy.
The first time I saw him after the break last week, he pulled me aside to tell me that he had read the book straight through—and early in the vacation. “Could someone really run 60 times 400 like that?” he asked me. Well, I said, I would never do it. But then, of course, I am not someone attempting to win a medal at the Olympics. The point of the book, it seems, is that to do so takes a commitment beyond what any of us can really imagine. (As an aside, it is also what it takes to run a sub-four minute mile, which the people who filmed “Chasing a Dream” did not really understand.)
It is indeed a book that means so much to track people that you want to give it away. And that ties the story up nicely, I hope.
There is still, of course, the loose end of the name of the author that we heard last August.