Post Submitted by Kevin Gray

The Purple Runner is a cult classic and must read among us running aficionados.  Mike Atwood has written the foreword to a new edition of the book.  Read this sneak peek and get inspired.  You’ll be sure to want to put a copy of this one on your shelf marked “Running Books.”  Level Renner is for the olde school literary athlete and I have to admit that we deliver big time on this one.  Thanks Mike!

Text Written by Mike Atwood

I was twenty-one when I first read The Purple Runner. At the time, I was a senior All-New England distance runner at Boston College, who just happened to be an English major, stringer for The Boston Globe, and aspiring fiction writer. My collision with this novel couldn’t have been timelier; The Purple Runner contained everything I dreamed of as a runner and human being.

During my junior and senior years, I resided in an apartment, then later, a dormitory in Chestnut Hill that were both a stone’s throw from the peak of Heartbreak Hill near the 21-mile mark of the Boston Marathon. The possibilities that came from living near this historical hill were endless. One afternoon during my freshman year, I crossed paths with Boston Marathon record holder, Australian Rob de Castella, and ran 5.2 miles into the finish line with him. It wasn’t unusual to see African runners sprinting past us on Heartbreak at breakneck speeds. I’d run mile upon mile up and down the famed hills and then back to the Chestnut Hill campus for workouts on the same track where Bill Rodgers and Alberto Salazar had made their names in the 1970s. I felt like I was living a distance runner’s dream in this magical place. It was my Hampstead Heath—a setting filled with an international crowd of distance runners, not that different from the English village where characters Solian D. Lede, Chris Carlson, Warren Fowles, and a disfigured elite distance runner in a purple vest trained and resided.

In my spare time, I would read the canon of running books, known only by a small circle of running aficionados. There was no Internet, no message boards, no Facebook, FloTrack or LetsRun.com; it was all word of mouth or what we read about in Runner’s World, New England Runner, or Track and Field News. The leading titles included Once a Runner, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, or The Olympian, but it was The Purple Runner that struck a certain chord with me.

The cover of The Purple Runner by Paul Christman. Image taken from amazon.com.

After going back and reading the novel again almost twenty years later, I am amazed by two aspects. First, Christman gets the running and racing descriptions correct. There is nothing worse than an author attempting to contrive the reader into believing that they know what a race feels like, when they clearly don’t. However, Christman—although he never broke the 2-hour marathon—gets every run, every race scene right. He put the time into achieving a 2:56 marathon – ironically at Boston years before we met -and observed runner after runner to know enough about both the physical and psychological mindset not only of the everyday jogger but also the elite Olympian. There were no Garmin watches in the 1980s but it seems even the simplest long run is timed and measured perfectly; the reader knows where they are, what the character is thinking, and how the pain feels.

The second aspect Christman gets correct is the nature of the expatriate. I have always been a fan of The Sun Also Rises, and Christman—like Hemingway—understands what it is like to live abroad. There’s no replacing this experience, the difficulty of British language and cultural barriers, finding places to eat, drink, and sleep. He gets the surrounding villages and streets of London right; I’ve walked the very cobblestone streets he describes. Christman makes you feel as if you have taken on that role as an American expatriate in 1980s England.

The Purple Runner was given to me by a Catholic priest—Father Paul Caron, my close friend and pastor, as well as the unofficial assistant coach of my cross-country team. F.C. had taken up running in his thirties while studying at St. John’s Seminary—quite close to mile 22—and soaked up the culture that came with it. The Purple Runner was both a literary and spiritual journey for me, dealing with expatriate marathoners like Solian, the female protagonist, who inherits a home in North London upon her father’s death in a car accident. The news comes upon her struggle to complete a 2:54 marathon in exotic New Zealand; the timing is right and she chooses to pursue her distance running dreams in London.

Christman’s empathy and admiration for the female harrier is clear as well. It wasn’t until the 1984 Summer Olympics—a year after the novel was published—that women were even allowed to even compete in distances like the 10,000 meters and marathon. I learned later that Paul Christman had actually lived New Zealand like Solian and then later in Hampstead; through our conversations, it seemed that his life followed a path similar to that of Chris Carlson, the frustrated Los Angeles television editor whose father had passed away at age 51. After dealing with the stress of working in the entertainment business in L.A., he decides to take the opportunity to leave his work behind and, and just run. The whole premise seems so romantic in the same way perhaps King Arthur, The Green Knight, and Camelot had in my younger days. Later, I would latch onto the sentiments found in the Lost Generation writers that I studied at Boston College. We’d all like to drop everything, just go, and just run sometimes; it’s a metaphor for the passions that live with in us. The cast of characters are expatriated pilgrims, leaving their lives behind in pursuit of something higher. They choose to live their lives intentionally—in the woods, like Thoreau. To “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

And then there is the hook with that mysterious, disfigured world-class runner who trains at world-class speeds around Hampstead Heath. Who is he based on? Steve Prefontaine? Gerry Lindgren? I’d become intrigued with the life and tragic death of Prefontaine after reading Tom Jordan’s book, Pre, on the subject. Then, there had been Kenny Moore’s article on the missing Gerry Lindgren in Sports Illustrated. These men were two elite American runners who had realized records and Olympic dreams but both pulled the ultimate disappearing acts—one dying in a tragic car crash at his peak, the other becoming a missing person until Moore discovered him in Hawaii. There was something mystifying and magical in Paul Christman’s disfigured protagonist, living in a WWII bomb shelter beneath Watson Doyle’s cottage in pastoral Hampstead Heath…training…for something…some unachievable goal. Something inhuman. The purple runner is an epic hero in many ways, full of chivalry as he helps the other characters but full of self-doubt and carrying his own demons, perhaps a sort of Odysseus. The numbers are mentioned: sub-13, sub-27, sub-2, two of them realities today, one just three minutes away. Or perhaps it was simply the process of training that I appreciated, the simple joy of staying in shape and savoring the culture and life of London.

I graduated B.C. that spring and sat at home wondering what my future would hold. I’d written for the Boston Globe, covering track meets for their School Sports section but there didn’t seem to be much compensation in a career like that. I looked into teaching but found no opportunities that summer. I worked double-shifts at DB Sports, a local running store, trained and drank beer, wondering where I was going in life. Finally, in August, I decided to move west to Boulder, Colorado, a mile-high runner’s mecca, with two of my high school buddies, Todd Adams and Tom Coogan, who had been an All-American 10K at Dartmouth. I was sent ahead and stayed with his brother, Mark Coogan—two-time Olympic marathoner and resident of Boulder, who found a rental agent to show me places. We arrived at Mohawk Green, a complex in the shadow of the Flatirons near the Rocky Mountains—nothing spectacular, it seemed.

“My friend, Paul, lives here. This is a nice place. Great location,” Mark said.

“Paul who?” I inquired.

“Paul Christman,” he responded. “He wrote a novel called The Purple Runner.”

And just like that, I’d traveled 2,000 miles, over two time zones, away from my home and family, to find what I was looking for. Needless to say, we took the apartment mostly because of our famous neighbor and the convenient location to downtown Boulder and the University of Colorado. Christman was an enigmatic character: his then-pursuit was churning out a world-renowned newsletter on the sport called Running Stats. Faxes of marathon and distance race results from all over the world were transmitted into his one-bedroom apartment at Mohawk Green and we sometimes helped him stuff envelopes to mail off to zip codes in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and Canada. He was truly a man of the world, and Running Stats was known by everyone in the business. In the early nineties, it was the quintessential means of quickly obtaining race results. His mailing list read like an Olympic Marathon start list.

However, it was the extension of friendship I remember most from Paul. He was interested in my writing and took time to read and edit some of the stories and articles I had completed. We often shared a cup of coffee or pints of English ale at locations like the Hungry Toad, or even a cheap pasta meal at Pasta Jay’s on the Third Street Promenade. It wasn’t until I mentioned his name to my sports-crazy father that I came to know that this runner and author was also the son of the famed Chicago Bears quarterback and broadcaster, Paul Christman. He had never really mentioned it, being as humble then as he is today, living a quiet life writing and teaching in Santa Fe, New Mexico (the next Hampstead Heath, perhaps?).

In hopes of getting back to our college form, we joined Paul and his friend, Conrad, in starting the Purple Runner 5K each Saturday out at the Boulder Reservoir. Each week, ten or more runners showed up and we covered the high-altitude course. Boulder was Christman’s playground: Olympians and world-record holders like Arturo Barrios, Steve Jones, Mark Coogan, and Mark Plaatjes were not only residents and frequent runners, but also his friends. Showing up at the World Marathon Champion’s house (Plaatjes won the title in 1993) for a Halloween party left me awestricken but for Paul, it was just a costume party with good friends. It was as if the novel had come true: Boulder, in its own way, was his Hampstead Heath, filled with elite athletes preparing for international competition. He was Nick Carraway in a Great Gatsbyish, high altitude town. Or perhaps he was more like Gatsby himself, searching for that American Dream, that green light.

I finally decided to leave Boulder and return to Boston in early 1995; it was a hard decision but I had a job offer back east. By that time, we’d moved out of Mohawk Green to a raised ranch just down the road; I don’t think I said goodbye before my sister and I drove my Subaru south to Denver. A few years later, I saw Christman at a Santa Monica diner when he was in town for the L.A. Marathon and I was in graduate school at USC. Of course, he hadn’t changed: he was the same friendly, intellectual guy with that distinctive Midwest accent. We reconnected again a few years ago when I let him know I’d published my short story collection and he kindly wrote a review.

Last summer, I finally made the pilgrimage to Hampstead Heath while on vacation in London. I soaked up the July sun as well as the view of the grassy pitch filled with people picnicking, and the 400-meter track with children running around it. I hiked up Parliament Hill and looked out at London as it rose above the horizon. It was as if I was opening the novel for the first time again; this fictional setting actually existed. I even wandered the same paths looking for that disfigured protagonist sprinting down a path in his training for the London Marathon. My week was made complete taking runs like Solian and Chris did near Regent’s Park and then over to Hyde Park by the Serpentine Pond. I even ran the British 10K, which follows the River Thames past Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, similar to the course of the last few miles of the London Marathon where the purple runner achieves a still unfathomable goal.

In many ways, I believe Christman embodies the spirit of The Purple Runner in his life and his writing: he writes the way that he lives—intentionally. He composed more than a book on distance running; he created a work that, as Faulkner would say, focuses on matters of the human heart.

I hope you enjoy the novel as much as I still do.

Michael J. Atwood

Author, HiStory of Santa Monica

Boston, Massachusetts - May 2012