The novel Again to Carthage by John L. Parker, Jr. is a sequel to his Once a Runner tale of elite-level athletic training and racing. The protagonist of the first story has graduated from law school, gotten a job, and is enjoying himself — but then suffers a pre-midlife crisis when a good friend is killed in the Vietnam War. So after ~200 pages of setup it's back to the track, this time to prepare for and suffer through an Olympic-qualifying marathon.
Not nearly as good as its predecessor, alas, Carthage stoops to cardboard-caricature villains to make troubles for the hero to overcome. The lyrical language of Parker's earlier book surfaces only infrequently. One of the exceptions is a thoughtful commentary in Chapter 27 about self-improvement, as mentioned in the course of a letter from the central character to his girlfriend:
But there was one thing I did miss, and when I realized what it was and thought about it, it became something of an obsession. It's something I've never talked to you about, nor anyone else for that matter. It's strictly a runner thing, I think, so I never mentioned it to Winkler, or to any of the other guys I hang out with down there, none of whom had been distance runners.
What it was was this: when you're a competitive runner in training you are constantly in a process of ascending.
It's a simple idea, but the more I thought about it, the more profound it became to me.
It's not something most human beings would give a moment of consideration to, that it is actually possible to be living for years in a state of constant betterment. To consider that you are better today than you were yesterday or a year ago, and that you will be better still tomorrow or next week or at tournament time your senior year. That if you're doing it right you are an organism constantly evolving toward some agreed-upon approximation of excellence. Wouldn't that be at least one definition of a spiritual state?
When I was a runner it was something we lived every second of our lives. It was such a part of us that if we had ever given it any thought, it would have been a mental lapse, a sign of weakness. Of course I am getting better every day, I would have said, what the hell am I training for otherwise? As if there were only one alternative, as if the arrow of improvement necessarily parallels the arrow of time, and in only one direction.
A fascinating thought, perhaps applicable beyond the physical realm, eh? But it doesn't acknowledge the inevitable bending of the curve, from improvement into eventual decline. In the next chapter, however, Parker offers a more haunting image during an off-road training run by the protagonist:
Picking his way carefully along the trail, he remembered something he had read about the great alpine climbers. As children they grew up surrounded by a vast landscape of snowy unattainable peaks. As they grew older, stronger, and more skillful, when they looked up, they saw more and more places they had been to and to which they could return at will. That zone of accessibility would grow and grow over the years until the very best of the guides could stand in their village squares and turn full circle, searching the horizon in vain for some tiny forbidden aerie they had not conquered, some remote crag beyond their powers.
It would have to be a wonderful and prideful thing, to feel so thoroughly at home in such a daunting and beautiful landscape. But as they grew older, the climbers who survived would find that some peaks were difficult again, some climbs strangely taxing, some routes quite impossible. They would realize to their surprise that the process was reversible; that it was, in fact, reversing.
You could see the, the aged former heroes sitting sadly in the village square, turning full circle to gaze at a frozen world once again inaccessible to them.
Other parts of Again to Carthage offer a bit of marathon training advice: focus on building endurance, stamina, and speed by targeted workouts, not arbitrary long runs. And perhaps most movingly, there's the observation that what really counts is not the climax, the Big Event — it's all the work to get there. From Chapter 36:
"What I mean is that someone sees a race, and they think that's what you do. They sort of know you had to train, but they weren't watching then, so they don't understand how incredibly much of it there is. But to us, it's almost the whole thing. Racing is just this little tiny ritual we go through after everything else has been done. It's a hood ornament."
And then the hero and his trainer-coach-friend agree that, whatever happens, "Everything else is icing now. It'll be okay. I'll be okay." — echoing some of elite ultra runner Eric Clifton's remarks. The treasure is there, every moment.