We’ve all read John L. Parker Junior’s contribution to running culture, the quasi-fictional parable, Once a Runner – or inevitably you will. As far as running novels go, Parker set the benchmark with this story, so-much-so that the very long-awaited sequel, Again to Carthage, as good as it is, will forever exist in the shadow of the former Parker touchstone. Think in terms of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatle career, much longer and arguably more successful artistically-speaking than his career as one of the fab four, but the giant shadow looms and will forever cast its influence. Once a Runner is as significant to running culture as Sgt. Pepper is to popular music culture.
I just finished reading Hal Higdon’s novel, Marathon, not to be confused with his top selling how to book of the same name. Hal has published some 35 books on running; Marathon is his first attempt at a novel. I asked him if the story has been rattling around in his mind for long: “Maybe not this particular story, but I had wanted to write a novel on running for maybe a quarter century, and have several false starts to prove it. The story line for Marathon probably dates back 5-6 years. I had another false start there too”.
On his website, Hal Higdon refers to himself as ‘Extreme Senior’, at first I entertained visions of Higdon chillaxin’ while riding his snowboard backcountry, carving to the sounds of Jayzee – toe-edge, heel-edge, toe-edge back and forth to the beat. Hal, likely in self-deprecating fashion, just means to say he has been around the running community for a long time and has experienced much to do with running. He proves so by writing a very entertaining novel, which also happens to provide insight into the goings on of putting together a major running event – the 50, 000-strong Lake City Marathon, which the story is centered around.
During the first few chapters, I grappled with the notion that Hal, perhaps being an extreme senior of how to, could not fully morph into an author of novels – not able to leave the instructor within him behind. This stayed with me for sometime however, as the story unfolded and the closer Higdon brought me to race day, the more anxiety I began to feel in my own expectations of the end. I began to feel similar anxiousness to that of my own marathon tapers.
Hal weaves an intricate labyrinthine tale, which culminates towards a peak that happens during the actual marathon and shortly afterwards, while equipment is being boxed up and the final few runners are straggling their way in. There is a budding romance between race director, Peter McDonald and a new-in-town television reporter, Christine Ferrera. How Higdon manages to get an extremely busy race director and a reporter together in the final hours before the marathon is interesting. It is worth noting that Hal’s intimate knowledge of race organization helps to set the stage in a very realistic manner.
The story reverberates palpable fear of pending disaster which manifests itself with the rumor of the possible loss of the title sponsor – a bank that had just undergone an ownership change to a new foreign company from Ireland and the new executive have not indicated one way or the other what their intentions are with their expensive sponsorship. In serendipitous irony, an Irish elite female is set to take centre stage as the favorite female discovers at the last minute her inability to compete. The race director hopes that the new Irish bank owners will be impressed.
Since Oprah Winfrey apparently ruined the marathon by running the Marine Corps Marathon, many celebrities have followed suit running Boston and New York, amongst others. Higdon’s Marathon entertains a few celebrities, one of whom is not revealed until well into the story, until then, he is referred to as Celebrity X (more famous than Oprah). Maintaining Celebrity X’s anonymity is an all-consuming effort for Peter McDonald.
And what successful story exists without the requisite good-guy – bad-guy tension? Somewhere in Storytelling 101, a good-guy cannot exist without a bad-guy lurking in a story’s shadows, in this case a journalist, Jonathan Von Runyon who’d prefer to cover golf from the golf course (perhaps with a 6-pack of brew in his golf bag), has been assigned to cover the marathon. The good-guy turns out to be race director, Peter McDonald. McDonald’s protection of the identity of Celebrity X carves a major plot line through the heart of the book. Angst develops between the golf reporter and race director as editorial about the possibility of losing the major sponsor and talk of disastrous weather are not healthy news for the event and of course Celebrity X’s identity must remain hidden.
There are a few top-end athletes sprinkled in, set to race the event on Sunday, their own preparation makes their way onto the pages and into the plot lines. Higdon provides the typical front-runners, including a few Kenyans and a Swede. The men and women’s finish order remains a mystery well past the 20-mile mark.
Similar to Once a Runner, Hal works a few characters into the story under partially veiled disguises, “there is a sprinkling of real people in many, if not most of the characters. Don Geoffrey, of course, is me walking through my own book, although with a much different back-story and with a name that combines Don Kardong and Jeff Galloway. With many of the characters, I would actually have to think, who is that one based on?”
Race weekend is set to either completely unravel on Peter and crash around him like a house of cards caught in a tornado or to finish with a heroic finale. What finally happens is anybody’s guess up to the start of the race, so give up any prognosticating now, you won’t figure it out. Marathon is a story that in terms of entertainment value rises above most other running novels and reaches for that special place in our minds we have reserved for our own personal Once a Runners.