The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner

by Alan Sillitoe
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778

In a reform school for delinquent youths, Smith, the streetwise son of working-class parents from Nottingham, is chosen to train and compete for a coveted long-distance running award. He is selected, he states, because of his build (he is long and skinny) and because his constant running from the police has made him an appropriate candidate.

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Arising before dawn for a five-mile practice run through the countryside, Smith experiences a freedom of thought that allows him to confirm his philosophy of life and his perceptions of society.

Through self-revelation, Smith learns about himself: He evaluates his life on the street and in Borstal, weighs his options, and decides on the meaning of an “honest life.” Running affords him this opportunity: “It makes me think so good that I learn even better than when I’m on my bed at night.” His conclusions are strong: He is, and will always be, an “Out-law,” pursued by society’s “In-laws,” who are forever looking to inform the authorities about his unlawful actions.

Smith draws definitive lines in this societal war. He is dedicated to the life of an “Out-law”; for Smith, life according to the laws and values of society is not a worthwhile existence. Along with this confirmation is Smith’s decision that, despite his abilities, he will lose the race. As winner of the Borstal Blue Ribbon Prize Cup for Long-Distance Cross Country Running (All England), he would merely be the vehicle through which the Borstal governor would achieve glory and recognition.

Smith considers the attention to his well-being an act of hypocrisy by the governor, whose only intent is to mark the progress of the one he has chosen to win the much-desired award. In fact, Smith feels that he is spoken to as though he were the governor’s prize racehorse, which only strengthens his resolve: “I’ll lose that race, because I’m not a race horse at all. . . . I’m a human being and I’ve got . . . bloody life inside me.”

It is this sense of aliveness that Smith appreciates and vows to uphold, rather than become what he considers “dead from the toe nails up,” like any “In-law.” Moreover, his idea of a valuable, honest life simply does not conform to that of society. Honesty is not, Smith relates, “a cosy six pounds a week job.” Rather, it is being true to oneself and one’s principles. It is dishonest, Smith has learned, to live life comfortably, without concern. It is dishonest to win a race that symbolizes the type of honesty Smith rejects.

As he ends his morning course, Smith recounts the events that led him to Borstal. Out on a winter night with a friend, he espies a bakery with its window opened barely enough to allow them entry. They steal a money box, the contents of which they decide to hide outside Smith’s house in a drainage pipe and spend leisurely. Within a few days, a police officer arrives to...

(The entire section contains 778 words.)

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