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Perhaps you have read John L. Parker Junior’s contribution to running culture, the quasi-fictional parable, Once a Runner – if you are a runner, inevitably you will read it. 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 readingHal 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 storyline 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 Higdon, perhaps being an extreme senior of how to, could not fully morph into an author of novels; perhaps 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.

Higdon 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 Higdon’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. The new executive had not yet indicated one way or the other what the financial institutions 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.

Since Oprah Winfrey apparently ruined the marathon by running the Marine Corps event, many celebrities have followed suit challenging the Boston and New York marathons amongst others. 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 begins to surface meanwhile 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 frontrunners, including a few Kenyans and a Swede. And of course, Higdon keeps the lid on the finishing order of the marathon to well past the 20-mile mark.

Similar to Once a Runner, Higdon 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?” says Higdon.

Race weekend is set to either completely unravel on McDonald 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.