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January 8, 2008

Once a Book Owner

A couple of administrative notes before today’s post …

First, I got tagged again (this time by Mark) to write about memorable moments from 2007. Since it took me almost a month to respond to the tag I did two weeks ago, it should go without saying that you’d better not hold your breath waiting for this one – but I’ll get to it eventually.

It got me to thinking, though – shouldn’t there be some sort of policy like they have for jury duty, where you don’t have to answer a tag if you’ve done one in the previous 12 months? Maybe one of the lawyers out there can draft something up for us.

Second – and I’m almost too embarrassed to report this – I screwed up some words in the Rolling Stones lyrics that introduced the previous post. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you how seriously I take the accuracy of song lyrics - I feel like a pastor who forgot the words to the Our Father. I've already fixed the mistake - but this was incredibly sloppy work on my part, and completely inexcusable. One week into 2008, and I’m already having a Britney Spears moment. Somebody call Dr Phil.

OK, time to move on. Here’s the post …


"What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles, Miles of Trials. How could they be expected to understand that?""
- from Once a Runner, by John L. Parker

Even before I read it, I felt like I knew all about Once a Runner.

John Parker’s 1978 novel about fictional miler Quenton Cassidy has struck an emotional chord with runners ever since its first publication. It was groundbreaking in the way it accurately captured the competitive running experience – likely because the author was a collegiate runner himself. His physical descriptions of extreme exertion, as well as all of the complex psychological forces at work in the mind of a runner, are portrayed in vivid detail throughout the story.

Through the years, the book has remained a topic of discussion among countless training groups, and it was in this manner that I heard about many of the scenes and plot twists prior to the day about 15 years ago when I walked into my local running store in Chapel Hill, NC, and paid $9.95 for my own copy to read.

I paged through it in a couple of weeks, and found it fairly enjoyable; Cassidy was a character with whom I could identify on many levels, and I recalled some of the memorable scenes and phrases - such as the introductory quote above - during several of my own training runs that followed. But I can’t really say it was a life-changing experience on any significant level.

Afterward, I placed it on my bookshelf, and went on about my business. In the years that followed, I’d occasionally see or hear something to remind me of the story, but I never thought much of it beyond that. Never, that is, until last month, when one of my training partners started this exchange:

Him: Hey, do you still have your copy of Once a Runner?

Me: Yeah, it’s on my bookshelf at home. Do you want to borrow it?

Him: No – I’m trying to find my old copy so that I can sell it. They’re going for about 300 bucks on eBay right now.

Me: What? Really? How come?

When I returned home that morning, I did some checking, and my friend was exactly right. Apparently, over the past decade, several factors I had never imagined happening conspired to make my 10-dollar book a highly sought-after collectible item.

The first was that, after six editions, publication of the book stopped in 1999, making copies scarce – and perhaps as a result, Once a Runner took on an almost folkloric mystique. Those who had read the book would enrapture newcomers with the story, like apostles spreading the gospel of Quenton Cassidy one runner at a time.

Parker himself unwittingly helped the cult-like phenomena develop, as he made like J.D. Salinger after the novel’s release. During nearly 30 years of silence, he became known as the guy who caught literary lightning in a bottle. His seclusion and resistance to write any follow-up works made his admirers even more fervent in their adoration of his singular novel.

This fall, the often-rumored and long-awaited event finally happened: Parker released a follow-up novel, titled Again to Carthage. Before long, a new generation of fans started hearing about the reclusive genius who wrote the best running novel of all time, and set out to find copies of the first work.

The only problem is, there aren’t many to be found. It’s the perfect storm of frenzied interest and scarce commodities – and it’s why used books are selling online for hundreds of dollars.

Amid such hysteria, the simple fact most commonly overlooked is this: the book’s not that great. It's certainly decent, but not good enough to justify such overzealous devotion. So when I heard that the one-inch thick space holder gathering dust on my bookshelf was worth a lot of money, I didn’t hesitate to start a listing on eBay. A few days later, I received a deposit of 250 dollars into my PayPal account.

Such a move might sound like sacrilege to devotees of the book, but for me, it was a no-brainer. The list of books that I go back and read more than once is extremely short, and certainly doesn’t include Once a Runner. And I’ve never bought into the notion that books are for displaying on shelves – I feel like they are meant to be read, and shared, and read again. I frequently loan out running books to training partners, and don’t really care if I ever see them again. So the idea that someone would pay me a lot of money to permanently borrow a book sounded pretty enticing.

Besides … did I mention that I got 250 bucks? That’s a pretty good chunk of dough – especially for something that I paid 10 dollars for and then largely forgot about. I took my newfound income shopping online at OneTri, and came away with something that I’ll use a lot more often than the 15-year old book used to purchase it (and that’s all I’m saying for now - but when it arrives, I’ll let you know).

Finally, if anyone out there is looking for this book with the impression that it’s some sort of sacred text, let me assure you that you’re not missing anything monumental by not reading it. Wait a few months or years until some publishing company recognizes the demand (in fact, as more book owners are realizing the opportunity, the market has already stabilized a bit - as of today, most used copies are selling for closer to $200) and starts mass producing copies again, then go pay normal retail price for it like I did. I’m sure you have better ways to spend that kind of money.

In the meantime, if you want to experience the feelings and emotions of running , here’s The Secret: go outside and start the unprofound process of wearing down, molecule by molecule, the tough rubber on the bottom of your training shoes. In doing so, I expect that most of you will be able to understand.


Downhillnut 1/8/08, 3:43 AM  

Cool. Glad to know we're not missing much in running literature, and nice re-use of an old book!

You're right about The Secret. Hard to explain it any other way.

What did you buy? Hmm?

I bought something new (to me) too. I'll be posting about later this week, too.

stronger 1/8/08, 7:32 AM  

Nice ending to your story.

21stCenturyMom 1/8/08, 9:24 AM  

Glad you got your money out before you killed the market :-)

Can't wait to hear about Donald's new toy.

Deene 1/8/08, 10:11 AM  

did you spend $250 on one item or buy bunches of stuff?

olga 1/8/08, 10:22 AM  

I am all about not collecting dust with anything unused for more than 6 months - and making money on it is even better! Good for you. There are very few books on my shelf I re-read, and only 2 of those are running: Tim Noak's and Running through the wall. The others are all Russian classics, ageless.

momo 1/8/08, 12:19 PM  

one of these days i'll read it, but not until the price is back toward the $10 mark. or one of my friends has it and lets me borrow! :-)

oh! i got a sony reader for christmas - is it out in ebook????

Cliff 1/8/08, 1:15 PM  

Less reading and more running. I am up with that.

250 bucks? That is equivalent to registering for 70.3.

Let us know what you got from OneTri.

Curly Su 1/8/08, 1:17 PM  

i think i have two copies !!!


Spokane Al 1/8/08, 2:05 PM  

I bought my copy direct from the publisher back in 1979 for $8.95 and have enjoyed reading it several times over the years.

I pulled it off the shelf and read it back in October 2007 when I was getting back into running after my injury. The author's vivid discriptions of running and racing are what I have enjoyed most. It was just what I needed as I fought through the drudgery of starting out as a jogger once again.

My copy remains on my book shelf because I have just been unable to pull the trigger and put it up for sale.

I also bought Return to Carthage and enjoyed it as well. Although I must admit I was a bit disappointed in the need to plough through half the book before the good stuff (again the actual running) starting happening.

Backofpack 1/8/08, 4:46 PM  

I bought Riley a copy two years ago off Amazon - for about $10. I haven't read it, but he has. I told him about your post and he's ready to sell!

Rainmaker 1/8/08, 8:49 PM  

Dang...that's some serious ROI!

And, it would pay for a lot of smaller running races or a few big ones.

Nice financial move!

Annette 1/9/08, 9:29 AM  

I was intrigued by the idea of that book until I read an excerpt of Parker's new book. I've got to say, I'm over it now. I can't imagine someone paying $200-300! What a payday for you. :)

Taryn 1/9/08, 5:01 PM  

Ohhh... what a perfect post to come back to after my long Donald-hiatus! Love the last bit.

And while I am extremely sentimental about some of my books... good for you and the $250! Can't wait to hear what you got in exchange!

David 1/9/08, 7:18 PM  

I did the savvy thing of borrowing a first edition copy from a running pal who used to run the Bacon Strip in Gainesville. I took the book on a trip to Baltimore, reading it on the plane. Somehow I lost the damn book in the airport and have an gnawing compulsion to find another copy so I can get it over with and out of my system.

Darrell 1/10/08, 9:53 PM  

I guess who ever paid you $250 didn't read your review of the book first, otherwise you'd still have the book on your shelf. They say timing is everything.

I'm going to hold onto my copy for a few more years, maybe it'll hit $500 in 2020 or so.

the Dread Pirate Rackham 1/13/08, 8:39 PM  

dang - now I can't get a copy to read for myself for under $180 on Amazon! and of course, now that you describe it, I am consumed with curiousity.

Makita 1/15/08, 8:30 AM  

Once a Runner is on my PaperBackSwap wish list but I strongly doubt I'll ever see it arrive in my mailbox. I certainly wouldn't spend that kind of money on a book - unless, perhaps, I was rich! :)

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