Kate Ward
April 03, 2009 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Thirty years ago, John L. Parker Jr. offered free copies of his self-published novel, Once a Runner, to anyone who could beat him in a footrace. (He didn’t have to give away very many.) Before long, Parker had sold the rest of his 100,000 copies to athletes fascinated by the story of Quenton Cassidy, a college-age runner who strives to complete a four-minute mile. Since then, the novel has frequently topped Bookfinder’s list of most sought-after out-of-print books. Now cult fans can rejoice: Scribner is republishing the book on April 7. ”Perseverance pays off,” says Parker, 61. ”That’s one thing I learned from distance running. Distance runners don’t give up. We hang in there.”

EW: In the book’s most brutal scene, Quenton runs 60 quarter-milers. Have you ever done that?
Parker: Yes, I did. Bill Rodgers, the marathoner, told me that was the only part of the book he thought was unrealistic. And I said, ”Billy, I know it is. But I did it.”

EW: When did you realize that the book had officially reached cult status?
Parker: People told me, ”I used to have Once a Runner, but I loaned it to somebody and never got it back.” After a while, we started marketing it as the most stolen book in America.

EW: You sold your last copy years ago. Did you keep any?
Parker: Oh, yeah. I’ve got copies around. I could’ve cashed in a long time ago [selling copies for $300] on eBay.

EW: Can we expect to see another Quenton Cassidy book?
Parker: Yes — a prequel. It will be [Quenton’s] last hurrah. But I’m sure Updike felt the same way about his basketball player, Rabbit. So who knows?

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