Solian Lede is a New Zealand runner who possesses a wealth of talent but who lacks sufficient discipline to excel at her sport. As Paul Christman’s The Purple Runner begins, Solian strives to become a winning professional runner, but she expresses ambivalence about the possibility of fame, the need to give up partying in order to focus on her running, and her frustrated attempts to find a partner who takes the sport as seriously as she does. Meanwhile, Chris Carlson is a television news editor working in New York City, whose true lifelong passion is for running, and Warren Fowles is a thirty-six-year-old San Francisco lawyer who seems to possess fortune in spades. Warren has good looks, a comfortable trust fund, and natural running ability, but what he lacks is the impetus to focus: whether on his running or on his creative dream of finishing a substantial poetry manuscript. As The Purple Runner develops, the narration moves between these three characters, and all three find themselves moving to London in order to fulfill their individual dreams.
As Solian, Chris, and Warren begin to settle into their new English surroundings, their stories begin to intertwine as they encounter each other on training runs, at races, and in pubs. Furthermore, the English heaths offer a cast of eccentric local runners and running enthusiasts whose support and competition enriches the story. Critical among these runners is Billy, the story’s namesake “purple runner,” recognizable to the others by his purple running gear. Billy’s identity and purpose are a mystery to the characters and to readers of the book as well, but his running times are unbeatable. One by one, the protagonists encounter Billy out on their training runs, and all of them wonder at his mysterious identity and his remarkable speed.
As the Greater London Marathon draws near, Solian and Chris focus on their training, while Warren remains steadfastly sure of his own natural abilities, and all of the runners begin to anticipate their odds of completing—and perhaps winning—the race.
Naturally, the appearance of Americans abroad offers a ripe opportunity for cultural commentary, and although the book occasionally indulges in discussing the behavioral tensions and cultural differences between the Americans and the English, the story treats the subject gracefully, and with a thankfully light-handed touch so that this seldom impedes the plot. The Purple Runner is mainstream fiction, and although at times the plot’s movements feel a bit contrived, the writing is well paced and clear. The book clocks in at a hefty 397 pages but the story moves quickly, maintaining a sense of momentum as the characters each grapple with their own hopes and insecurities.
This is a story that will certainly appeal to runners. The characters’ focus on training and their experiences as runners are told in vivid detail. Yet the writing avoids heavy technical jargon and the running scenes serve to move the plot forward rather than distract from it, and so the story is likely to appeal to a general, non-running readership as well. What distinguishes The Purple Runner from other novels is its ability to convey the experience of running with fresh, genuine enthusiasm and a sense of breathless excitement.