Track Changes

PUBLISHED IN 1974, Patricia Nell Warren’s best-selling novel The Front Runner, about the same-sex intergenerational romance between Harlan Brown, a college track coach, and Billy Sive, his star athlete, capitalized on dual booms from that decade: the running craze and the growing crossover appeal of LGBTQ+ literature. 

The book’s genesis was rooted in the author’s personal experience. In the summer of 1968, Warren, then thirty-two and an editor at Reader’s Digest, and her husband made a pact with another couple that they would train to enter the 1969 Boston Marathon. Warren was one of twelve women—who would not officially be allowed to run the course until 1972—to compete and finished fourth. She kept up her distance running and came to a stark realization. As she wrote in a 2014 essay, “I had finally reached another moment, at the top of another long hill, suddenly seeing the vista of denial where I’d been living: the searing clarity that I had to get out of my hetero marriage and be honest with myself. The fact was, I’d been running into other people like myself at the races, and we acknowledged each other quietly, subtly.” After The Front Runner, Warren’s second novel, which she wrote in secret at home and during her lunch hour at work, was sold to William Morrow in 1973, she left her husband to lead a fully lesberated life. (She died in 2019, at age eighty-two.)

Although anomalous, Warren was not the first (or only) lesbian to write about gay men; that distinction may go to Mary Renault, whose World War II–set romance The Charioteer was published in 1953. But, in writing from the first-person perspective of Harlan, a stoic ex-Marine who has been closeted for most of his life, Warren sought to expand the repertoire of gay-male protagonists. One of her aims, as she explained in 1996, was to depict “essentially ordinary” (read: very masc) gay men, not only those connected to the beau monde or the demimonde. 

Members of the Front Runners finish the Pride Run, New York, June 25, 2011. Katrina Amaro/FRNY.
Members of the Front Runners finish the Pride Run, New York, June 25, 2011. Katrina Amaro/FRNY.

The age-discordant relationship between Harlan and Billy—they are thirty-nine and twenty-two respectively when they first meet, in 1974—lays bare the sharp divide between gay men who came of age before and after Stonewall. Born in 1935 and painfully aware of his same-sex desires since high school, Harlan marries young and has two sons; his family responsibilities lead him to abandon his hopes for competing in distance running in the 1960 Olympics. While a coach at various Pennsylvania universities, he starts making clandestine trips to New York City for anonymous sex with men. After a fabricated claim of sexual misconduct by a male student runner ends his job and his marriage, Harlan embarks on a career as a high-end hustler in Manhattan—one of a few florid backstories Warren creates for her characters—before the broad-minded president of Prescott, a (fictional) small, progressive college in New York State, offers him the position of athletic director. 

Billy and two other runners (who also happen to be a couple) come to Prescott after being kicked out of the top-tier University of Oregon track program for being gay. Harlan is immediately smitten with bespectacled, Buddhist, vegetarian Billy, who had his first boyfriend at fifteen and was raised by a gay activist-lawyer father and his trans woman lover in San Francisco’s gay ghetto. “As a veteran of secretiveness and agonizing, I was fascinated by the kid’s openness and directness,” Harlan recalls. He meticulously helps Billy advance to compete in the 1976 Olympics in two distance events; the running prodigy in turn guides his coach to living fully out of the closet. They become lovers shortly before Billy graduates; a year later, they have a small commitment ceremony. (Warren’s confident command of the couple’s sex scenes was reportedly rooted in research trips she made to a gay-porn theater in Manhattan.)

Warren crisply savages the homophobia, hypocrisy, and tyranny of governing sports organizations like the Amateur Athletic Union (which she herself had battled while trying to get the group to officially allow women to race in the Boston Marathon) and the International Olympic Committee. She also proffers an observation that largely holds true today, nearly fifty years after The Front Runner’s publication: “A man’s body is good to look at only when he is conditioned, because of the muscling,” Harlan notes. “So it follows, as the night the day, that sports harbor as much homosexuality as anywhere else in American society—possibly more. But everybody goes on pretending that sports are the bunting-draped sanctuary of the straight American he-man. . . . Homosexuality is the great skeleton in the closet of American athletics.” 

The Front Runner concludes with both a tragedy and a utopian reimaging of the nuclear family (Warren wrote two sequels to the top-seller: Harlan’s Race, from 1994, and Billy’s Boy, from 1997). Several people over the decades have tried and failed to adapt The Front Runner into a film—not least Paul Newman, who, per Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, originally optioned the novel, hoping to play Harlan and perhaps even direct. (Horrified by man-on-man action, Hollywood was OK with the explicit lez lust between two track-and-field powerhouses in 1982’s Personal Best.) The most enduring legacy of The Front Runner may be the amateur LGBTQ+ running club, with branches all over the world, that took its name from the novel and was founded the same year as its release. I sometimes see Front Runners—identifiable from their club merch—of all shapes, genders, races, and speeds doing their circuits in Prospect Park as I jog through that great Brooklyn expanse. Unaffiliated, a middle-aged dyke running team of one, I am always thrilled to see them. 

Melissa Anderson, the film editor of 4Columns, is the author of Inland Empire (Fireflies Press, 2021).