“So what is the word here? Is it confirmed?”
“Shit yes. They think maybe three, four months of no training. even then it’s touch and go because of the possibility of a relapse. But at least I get out of here pretty soon.”
There were no good words for this one, he thought. A runner who could not run was out of his element. He would not even think of himself as an athlete; ridiculously there would be a kind of guilt about it; that was the worst part.
– John L. Parker, Once a Runner
“Once a Runner” or “OAR,” as it is sometimes known, is John L. Parker’s short novel about the life of competitive distance runners, in general, and a young miler named Quenton Cassidy and his teammates at Southeastern University, in particular. Whatever the book’s flaws, and it has many, it continues to bring pleasure to distance runners everywhere for its vivid and uncannily accurate portrayals of the many little moments of training and racing.
About a third of the way through OAR, something happens that is never fully explained. Cassidy’s friend and training partner, Jerry Mizner, ends up in the hospital with an unspecified ailment. Although the book never spells out what’s wrong with Mizner, the novel tells us that he will need a lengthy convalescence. That means several months without running, and even then, limits on training to avoid the possibility of a relapse.
Until that point in the novel, most of what we know about Mizner is that he is more quiet and studious than the flamboyant Cassidy, that he excels in cross country and in the longer track races (in the pre-metric era of the early 70’s that means the 3-mile and 6-mile), and that he, alone among Cassidy’s teammates, has endured the “Trial of Miles” — the very high mileage training practiced by their inscrutable mentor, Bruce Denton. It is a shortcoming of the novel that Mizner never fully emerges as a character, and after Cassidy visits him in the hospital, he disappears from the story altogether, and is never heard from again.
This is strange, to say the least. Mizner and Cassidy were best friends and training buddies. Mizner was the one human being (other than Denton) who understood the depression-fatigue brought on by Cassidy’s intense and unrelenting training. You would think that it would take more than a case of mono (or whatever it was) to separate them. Even when Cassidy is expelled from the University and goes off into the wilderness to train, you would think that he and Mizner would stay in touch, but no. While most of the other minor characters re-appear for Cassidy’s dramatic showdown against mile world record-holder, John Walton, Mizner is nowhere to be found.
I started thinking about Mizner the other day. Over the weekend, I went on two separate runs with people who had experienced long, extended periods of being unable to run. One case involved persistent, somewhat mysterious injuries; the other, anemia and hormonal imbalances. Both visits reminded me of the frustration and discouragement that accompanies a prolonged inability to train. Even when a person is able to run, the results are so depressing that the person considers giving up the sport entirely.
Several years ago there was a thread on letsrun about Mizner, with a few people weighing in on his malady. Most people seemed ready to believe that he had mono, and didn’t think much more about it. But mono is not fatal, and after recovering, runners can return to training and racing. Since Mizner vanishes from the face of the earth, are we supposed to assume it was something worse? Or was his illness, though relatively benign, the final straw that convinced him to hang up his spikes for good?
If so, that would be sad. Early in the novel, we are led to believe that, like Cassidy, Mizner has national, if not international talent, and a strong work ethic. But Mizner never seems quite as hungry as his training partner. Where Cassidy is moody, alternating between periods of gloom and periods of euphoria, Mizner is calm and perpetually untroubled. Where Cassidy’s free and restless spirit leads him to invent silly games and practical jokes, Mizner just shows up and quietly does the workouts. Cassidy always needs to occupy his mind with something, but Mizner always seems content with the status quo. Maybe his disappearance reflects Parker’s intuition that Mizner just doesn’t want it enough.
I want to know what happened to Jerry Mizner. I don’t mean what illness or condition landed him in the hospital, but what happened to him afterwards.
In real life, there are a lot of Jerry Mizners out there, exiled into a wilderness much more isolated than Cassidy’s idyllic cabin in the woods. In real life, Wilson Kipketer gets Malaria in 1998 and misses almost an entire season, but eventually returns to competitive running and wins the Olympic silver medal in the 2000 Games. In real life, Seb Coe contracts toxoplasmosis in 1983, spending months in and out of hospitals. When the Olympic Selection rolls around in 1984, many in British Athletics argue that the defending 1500m gold medalist is finished and should be left off the Olympic team. He goes on to win the Olympic 1500m final, becoming the first man before or since to win that race twice.
In real life, runners have bad luck, and are undermined by mono, lyme disease, anemia, hypo-thyroidism, hormonal imbalances, sleep disorders, etc., etc., not to mention persistent injuries that frustrate every new attempt to get back in shape. And yet, many of them don’t give up, even when a return to high intensity training and racing seems impossibly far off. Maybe it’s my age, but I want to hear the stories of the ones who were stopped in their tracks, but who found a way to start again, taking one step at a time, never giving up. I respect the “Trial of Miles,” but I want to hear about the ones who endured the “Trial of doctor’s appointments and hospital visits.”
I want to know what happened to Jerry Mizner. I want to know what happened when he got out of the hospital, and whether he ever again felt the unbridled joy of training and racing well.