The book was given to me when I was 17. It was a gift from a girl. Back then (before the internet when things were harder to replicate and books were physical objects) the book was out of print. This copy had obviously been handed around from person to person before it got to me. It felt like the book found me as much as I found it. The writing is cheesy and adolescent, but I was cheesy and adolescent, and it spoke to me.
It's set in the late 70s and the book paints runners as neither hippies nor squares, but folks who simply opt out of the stale culture wars. By then everyone knew that the hippy movement was going nowhere and that the square mainstream culture was pretty much going nowhere either. Both the culture and the counterculture were sorta dead. The culture war was over; nobody won.
So what's a young person with energy supposed to do with himself, without politics, without drugs; even rock and roll was dead. How could he be American? How could he balance work ethic with fun, desire for progress with satisfaction in the moment, opt out of consumerism and commercialism and all the betrayed dreams of capitalism? Why not just run?
So, that's what Quenton Cassidy did, along with a bunch of other runners from a time when sponsors and marketers and all of that stuff wasn't all up in your face. They formed small communities and clans, and they got together and ran. In the review, Tracy calls these clans "cults," and the behavior was somewhat cult-like. What made Once a Runner so special was that is was a book for the few: those that "got it." As Tracy puts it:
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.
Those last two lines are worth chewing on. The culture of running has--or at least had--its own view of democracy, one that praised a certain equality and fairness, but put itself in opposition to democracy as mass culture. Running was something that resisted commodification, embraced an order of rank and heirarchy, and praised a form of work that couldn't be monetized. It was a community of friends who wanted to do something different from everyone else: namely run a ton and have fun and do it with like minded weirdos.
I've been thinking about this lately because the Country Music [Half] Marathon just came through town [35,000+ ran the half, fewer than 3000 ran the full marathon.] If you want to be cynical, you could say that the organizers of CMM are intent on destroying these cult values in order to produce a business model that has something more than cult appeal. The CEO of Competitor Group, Peter Englehardt, is hoping to make the Rock 'N Roll race series a $100 million dollar business, and the only way he can get there is through maximizing the scale of the event: appealing to as many people as possible.
In short, Competitor Group is interested in producing a commodified product that appeals to the very mass of people that runners used to set themselves apart from. In order to do this, they have cut the distance in half (though everyone still calls it a marathon.) They pitch it not as an alternative way of life, but as a one-time (or perhaps annual) "bucket list" event. They focus on the health benefits and the charity benefits and the business benefits. They make it less about a small community of like minded people who are kinda weird and don't share the same values as everyone else and more a celebration of the most superficial form of togetherness that we share: country music and the "city of Nashville"--a strategic path reduced to a few (white, upperclass) neighborhoods and the businesses they frequent.
To top it all off, they've stopped offering prize money to the top finishers, pretty much depleting the front of the race. My guess is that this decision was as much symbolic as it was financial. The payouts to elites are a rounding error in the CMM budget. I suspect that the organizers have come to realize that payouts to the top runners are actually bad for marketing, as they reinforce the old "cult" hierarchy that Competitor group is trying to undo in order to generate mass appeal. See, the old sport used to admire the talented, the swift, the best. But the new sport finds the idea of rewarding talent to be elitist. Which, of course, it is.
This shift has allowed them to make a lot of money (and also take advantage of tax money.) As they say, it's brought a lot of new people into the sport. But it's also made the sport somewhat unrecognizable to the weirdos who started it all.
I don't really want to say that this is necessarily negative, as there are still events that cater to the traditional crowd (track meets, the ultra trail scene perhaps, the local Flying Monkey Marathon in a different way, etc.) But I guess the effect is sort of like seeing your local coffee shop turn into a Starbucks (which shouldn't be surprising since Englehardt is modeling Competitor after Starbucks.) Sure, Starbucks is more attractive to the general consumer who doesn't really care about coffee more than the energy it provides. It's convenient, and it's awesome that you can find them everywhere. But a Starbucks will never give the sense of intimacy or community of the sorts of places that it replaced, simply because that's not it's purpose. In the end, its purpose is to appeal to as many people as possible in order to make as much money as possible.
Such is the case with an event like CMM. The traditional marathon race respected and valued people who devoted their life (or at least a large part of it) to a somewhat absurd and definitely not profitable hobby of running endlessly down the road with your friends in an attempt to get as fast as possible. It valued a form of democracy that sometimes gets buried in our mass/big box/corporate culture. The idea that sometimes people want to get together and just do something different. Or better. Not for money or profit or fame, but just because they want to. An event like CMM doesn't care much about these people. It cares about your bucket list (half) marathoner, who will run it or walk it once or twice, and spend a lot of money on memorabilia. It cares about the people who find Once a Runner cultish, childish, elitist and frankly incomprehensible.
There are times when Once a Runner looks like that to me, too. Competitor Group has a right to make their money. If I had run the half, I would have had a great time (too hot for the full marathon!) It would have been really fun. Just like Starbucks coffee is actually pretty good. I even feel bad for writing this post, like a grumpy old man who just isn't with the times. Like a fast kid who looks down his nose at the slower kids. Maybe some of that less attractive form of elitism motivates this piece.
But that's not all there is to it. Sometimes I think we are too quick to just accept change, forget how things used to be, resign them to the dustbin of history, and move on. Are we ready for a culture that is pitched at every moment to the mass? For business models are more about appealing to numbers than to quality? Is this the culture we want for ourselves? A culture in which everyone participates, everyone understands, but no one does anything special?
Once a Runner is built around a still magical idea: the goal of running under 4:00 in the mile. It's a goal that only a few can dream of, and that even fewer can accomplish. It takes everything: natural talent, commitment, heart, courage, relentlessness, character. It can only be achieved through an extreme form of excellence, and therefore is simply logically unavailable to the mass of people.
Idealizing excellence runs counter in some ways to our democratic intuitions that culture ought to be for everyone. But maybe those intuitions are itself just a marketing scheme. Maybe that culture is okay for everyone, but excellent for no one, with the exception perhaps of the shareholders of large corporations and their stupendous and stupefying bottom lines.
Listen to the voice of the cultists: isn't this also the voice of democracy?
"It is simply that we can all be good boys and wear our letter sweaters around and get our little degrees and find some nice girl to settle, you know, down with...Or we can blaze! Become legends in our own time, strike fear in the heart of mediocre talent everywhere! We can scald dogs, put records out of reach! Make the stands gasp as we blow into an unearthly kick from three hundred yards out! We can become God's own messengers delivering the dreaded scrolls! We can race black Satan himself till he wheezes fiery cinders down the back straightaway....They'll speak our names in hushed tones, 'those guys are animals' they'll say! We can lay it on the line, bust a gut, show them a clean pair of heels. We can sprint the turn on a spring breeze and feel the winter leave our feet! We can, by God, let our demons loose and just wail on!"