On July 14, two books were released to the public, both of them offering new sights into characters who had become much beloved by readers over the preceding decades. While Harper’s Lee’s “Go Tell a Watchmen” debuted that week at #1 on amazon.com’s best-seller list, John L. Parker Jrs “Racing in the Rain” ranked #3660. Still, I would contend that Quenton Cassidy looms as large in the canon of distance running fiction as Atticus Finch does in fiction more generally. Atticus, especially as portrayed by Gregory Peck in the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” (we still await the cinematic representation of “Once a Runner”) became America’s ideal father figure – a man of decency and integrity facing down the racism of his community. Quenton, meanwhile, was the archetypal lonely yet driven distance runner, living by himself in a cabin in the Florida woods and undertaking insane training in his single-minded quest for glory. What fascinates about “Go Tell a Watchmen” and “Racing the Rain” is that both texts force reappraisals of men we thought we knew, though Lee’s novel flashes forward while Parker’s final installment of his trilogy flashes back.
I must own up here to not having yet read “Go Tell a Watchmen,” so my commentary will come strictly from reviews and thus necessarily be somewhat superficial (In truth, I haven’t picked up a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” since middle school, though I have much familiarity with the plot since I address American cultural representations of “the South” in my African American history course). Setting aside, for now, the controversy surrounding the books’ publication (there is some dispute as to whether Harper Lee assented to the release of the long-hidden manuscript) what most fascinates is the revelation that Atticus Finch, twenty years after the events of “To Kill a Mockingbird” has become an avowed segregationist and a bigot. The man so many had come to view as a hero proved to be no less immune to protecting his position atop our nation’s social and racial hierarchy as any other white Southerner. As expressed most eloquently by the writer Isabel Wilkerson in a recent column for the New York Times, “Coming to terms with Atticus Finch as Harper Lee originally imagined him to be means confronting what the country wishes to believe it stands for…The importance of this new Atticus is that he is layered and complex in his prejudices; he might even be described as a gentleman bigot, well meaning in his supremacy. In other words, he is human, and in line with emerging research into how racial bias has evolved in our society. He is a character study in the seeming contradiction that compassion and bigotry can not only reside in the same person but often do, which is what makes racial bias, as it has mutated through the generations, so hard to address.” In other words, learning the truth of Atticus means learning the truth about our nation – the Atticus of “To Kill a Mockingbird” represented how we wanted to see ourselves, while the Atticus of “Go Tell a Watchmen” is how we actually are. For Wilkerson, this reckoning is essential – only by facing the reality of our past can we begin to chart a more humane and equitable future.
While I hesitate to even make the comparison, there are some obvious lessons for runners to draw from Wilkerson’s advice to see ourselves as we really are rather than embracing myth. Consider how her thoughts relate to advice offered by Steve Magness on his ‘science of running blog’: “Every single one of us is biased by the narrative that goes on in our head. And this is why I strongly believe in having a coach. It’s not so much for the training, though that is important, it’s for the outside observation. I always say, a coach’s job…is to hold the reigns. It’s not so much to motivate or poke and prod to get through a workout, instead it’s to prevent smart people from making dumb mistakes.” Magness shared research which indicated the tendency of individuals to be poor predictors of their own behavior. An outsider can sometimes see and understand things about someone that they are unable to recognize about themselves.
This certainly proved to be a key plot point in John L. Parker Jrs “Racing the Rain.” In this ‘prequel’ to Once a Runner we meet a young Quenton Cassidy and learn about his journey to becoming one of America’s best (fictional) milers. The surprising revelation in this novel is that Cassidy was never a Cross Country runner in high school – in fact, his primary sport was basketball! However, Cassidy was fortunate in that he met individuals along his life’s journey who recognized, much better than he did, that he had tremendous latent talent for distance running.
In some ways, I was disappointed that so little of “Racing the Rain” was devoted to describing the culture of high school cross country and track teams. Instead, a substantial portion to the novel is devoted to describing the south Florida swamps Cassidy grew up in, in explaining his evolving relationship with an older mentor named Trapper Nelson , and in detailing his efforts to train to become a better basketball player. However, I turned the pages quickly, and found that I could still strongly identify with Quinton’s search for identity and desire to be recognized as being good at something.
I have recommended “Once a Runner” to hundreds of athletes, though I would guess less than twenty have read it all the way through (reading books, to my dismay, does not rank high among chosen free-time activities for teenage boys). For those who did read the book, it is the chapters detailing Cassidy’s craziest workouts (60*400 in particular) which most captivate. In “Racing the Rain” however, none of the workouts described seemed particularly daunting (at one point, Cassidy and his teammates complain about being assigned 6*800). What might appeal to younger runners in “Racing the Rain” is the circuitous journey Cassidy takes to becoming a runner – something he would not have identified himself as until the very end of high school. How many of us found our way to running because we were cast off from other sports? (Like Cassidy, I was cut from the middle school basketball team; unlike him, I did not make the team in subsequent years). I think of Doug Moore, one of our program’s first great runners, who came out for Cross Country only after being cut from the Golf team. Or of his teammate Alex Orton, who joined Cross Country only as a senior after playing football his first three years. Or of Billy Magnesen, Jake Hall, Jack Keller, Nathan Hill, Jacob Belgrad, Zach Sayre – all who made their way to Cross Country via soccer. Or Billy Fayette and Kevin Huang, both of whom grew up playing tennis. Of Jack Feldman, who decided to join track only after being cut during tryouts for the basketball team his freshman year. Of Griffin Gartner – and now Sam Fathizadeh – who joined track first as sprinters before discovering their talent as middle and long distance runners. Ethan Planson played football in middle school. Sean O’Connell was a great baseball player. Both now will contend for top five spots in Cross Country this season. Cassidy trained tremendously hard as a high school athlete, but his energies were devoted towards improving his basketball game. However, that drive combined with his innate talent (as a young boy, he could hold his breath for an extraordinarily long time as he went diving for sea creatures in the gulf) eventually paid off after Trapper Nelson and his high school track coach Mr. Kamrad steered him in the right direction, helping him earn a full scholarship to Southeastern University (the fictional codename for University of Florida). The book ends with Cassidy arriving at his dormitory at the beginning of his freshman year, in awe of the athletes already there, all of whom had achieved something Cassidy understood to be “impossible.” And now he was one of them.
What Cassidy wanted, what I wanted when I was in high school, what I think so many high school students continue to want, is to feel a sense of security and somebodyness. To be recognized for accomplishing something difficult. Running became the means of that for me, as teaching and coaching still does, and parenting soon will. And so long as running continues to be a means by which high school students are able to find a place in the world, so long will I continue to coach, and so long will a book like “Racing the Rain,” like “Once a Runner” before it, continue to have appeal.